Winemaking bears striking similarities to the debate about the sport of boxing versus Judo. In boxing, one goes full throttle, punches hard, and bruises the opponent to win. It’s a display of strength, grit, and tenacity, but generally short-lived. In Judo, there’s barely any aggression, rather it’s an art of movement, agility, adaptation, and wisdom. One doesn’t apply their own power, they manoeuvre alongside their opponent’s movements, uses their strength against them to claim victory. Human and nature’s relation is the same. Punch hard, pump in chemicals, exploit the balance, and it’ll yield results but not for long. Work with nature, pick what’s been dealt, turn it into opportunities, and you’ll create the best outcome for both. Take care of nature, and nature will take care of you, it’s really that simple. Human interventions have done both good and bad, so much so now there’s a cry to balance the act. Who do you turn to then, who do you expect from to act and lead? Definitely the big guns, right? Sula Vineyards, India’s largest winemaker, is doing just that, already paving the path and leading by example.
TRANSFORMING FROM THE GET GO
Sula’s journey began in 1999, a millennial winery by all means, with flair, energy, a constant lookout for creating a new new, transforming rather than disrupting, and adding many firsts to the Indian wine scenes. To begin with it was the first winery in what’s now the wine capital of the country, Nashik. The wine scene there was still nascent. It’s their belief, confident experimentation, and adaptation that’s brought them to the top. And now, they’re working to secure the natural indices that they understand what craft their beautiful wines. And as they say, if nature is comfy, it’ll show in your wines. With the rise of their premium section, RASA and The Source, and new experiments in the vineyards with Grenache, Moscato, sparkling Shiraz, and many more, Sula is marching in to their golden era, all while keeping a tight grip on their sustainable, environment friendly, ethical experimentations, and community building.
PREMIUMISING THEIR OFFERINGS
“Covid hit us hard, but the bounce back has been super. There’s been a 20% growth in our wine sales and the image of Indian wines has grown”, says the captain of the ship, Rajeev Samant. And many agree. The clampdown on socialising and visiting wine stores, coupled with online sales and home delivery of alcohol has changed consumption pattern in major cities. Wines have gained the most, especially in the premium Indian wine segment, the INR 1000+ mark. “It’s great to see Indian denizens becoming more discerning towards local wines and looking forwards to the new stuff that’s being crafted”, he adds. Sula’s focus on premiumising their offerings has added to the change.
MARCHING TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY
But what’s been the biggest draw towards Sula is its efforts in sustainability and environmental responsibility. It has been playing Judo for a while and the results are starting to show. Rajeev is an environmentalist and has made sustainable practices non-negotiable in every sense. You’ll see that in every step. Unlike most wineries importing glass bottles, Sula sources them locally, and are lighter-weight, reducing the carbon footprint in the process. Corks have been replaced by screw caps, and 99% of their packaging material is recyclable. There’s rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation in vineyards, energy recycling, and exclusive use of e-vehicals on the site. Sula is already producing over 50% of all their energy through solar panels and aims to soon move completely off the industrially coal-produced grid. Even the fruits and vegetables at the winery and the resort are grown locally, making the campus 100% organic. It became the first Indian winery to join the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) that aims at zero carbon emission by 2050. Rajeev however has been pushing to achieve the goal by 2040!! “We don’t have the time to wait till 2050”, he says. A similar effort, even if in parts, is definitely expected from other wineries now. Though it may be an expensive pursuit, it’s now a necessity. All regards to Sula for yet again setting the benchmark, and a high one at that.
Polyculture – Taking Environment with you, collectively
A big part of winemaking is to dress up the areas around the vineyards. For healthy vineyards, polyculture is imperative. It’s been a constant drive for Sula to reforest the neighbouring areas. Each year, they work with the forest department to undertake deforested lands and initiate rehabilitating them. Their annual drive has seen in excess of 10,000 trees come up, and Rajeev says, this is still work in progress. This of course catches the eyes of their employees, consumers, the government, and the farmers they work with. They’re not just making wines, but a community alongside.
Sula’s definition of striding ahead – community building
Now all this isn’t an overnight change. As they say, if you wish to travel fast, travel alone, but if you wish to travel far, travel in a group. Building and taking the community along is unignorable in the wine world. When Rajeev first landed in Sawargaon, it was a rural, tribal village, with not a single person holding a full-time job. Two decades on, not only is everyone employed, approximately 90% of villages from their 5 kms radius are working at Sula. Not just that, they have a unique policy too – if someone retires from Sula, one of their family members becomes eligible to get a job at the winery! What has this led to? Not just security, but loyalty of a different kind, there are generations of the same family attached to the same pursuit. And Sula catches them young. They’ve invested in enriching their quality of life through various measures. “These villages are blooming now. They have schools to go to, good teachers to mentor them, improved sanitation and hygiene, we’ve installed water ATMs, created gardens for them to chill, play areas for the kids, etc. They’ve got an ecosystem of their own now”, Rajeev adds.
And the results are showing already
This has returned manifolds for Sula. Needless to say, they’ve led in crafting new wines, styles, through new varieties, and practices. In the land of table grapes, it’s daunting to alter the decades old family farmers to move to winemaking grapes. There’s higher income, however leaving the comfort of the known, venturing into the vague, unheard of, and taking the risk which for them puts their family’s future on the line is definitely a challenge. However, with constant support, education, experimentation, research and trials, Sula has supported the farmers and lifted their spirits and incomes enough that now they have more contractual farming contributing to them than at any other winery. Now just that, this year Sula is adding another 620 acres of vineyard land under their tutelage, double of what any winery has ever done in a year!! That could only be possible if the community stands by your work. With a 20% increase this year, and an equally large growth predicted next year, there’s definitely a need for more produce. Rajeev says the vineyards will see more Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Moscato and more. That covers nearly all of the RASA and The Source range, isn’t it!! There’re more experiments with new varieties and that of reviving the fallen hero – Merlot.
innovation innovation innovation
But if there are areas where Sula has had most success it’ll be in their white wine barrel regime and sparkling wines. The Dindori Chardonnay has been a rockstar since its inception in 2018. It’s light, bright, fruity, citrus, and structured through the support from the oak. “We’re really happy with it. Dindori improves in the bottle, and gets better with age. Over the past few years, we’ve invested in a ton of research on how to make it better, and where to get them from. Our barrel room has grown too”, Rajeev mentions. And the wine has been life altering for more reasons. It has enabled Sula to put more varietals in the barrel, like the Sauvignon Blanc for The Source, and Chenin Blanc for the classic Reserve. The idea of fruity, light, and amicable wines has also drawn them to adapt to tank fermented bubbles against their earlier traditional method renditions. The Sparkling Shiraz, and now the country’s first semi-sparkling Moscato are a result of just that. Consumer-friendly, no-nonsense, effortless bubbles have added more celebration to the space, more reasons to pop one. And Rajeev says, in bubblies and in whites, there’s much more to come. Now that calls for popping one as well.
THE FUTURE IS…
There’s much more happening in the Sula camp with altering labels, tourism push, attractive offerings, growth and experimentation, and exciting new liquids. It’s a testament to the confidence we must boast of in the present and the promise of the future of Indian wines. I turned to the proposition that if I were to pick a wine under INR2000 from a retail shop, it has to be Indian many years ago. And now with the growing accolades Indian wines are picking its time that the world will agree to that too. Sula has and will continue to lead with example, in liquids and what goes behind crafting them.
As I said earlier, who do we expect the most from, the big guns, Sula gets an A+ on the report card on that.
First published in the Sommelier India Wine Magazine, August 2022