When you think of the great wine regions of the world, India does not spring immediately to mind. Although crisp, racy whites are often a great match for Indian food, the region can be difficult environmentally for viticulture, and the distance from the fine wine growing regions of the world and the humid climate also make importing wine expensive. For those reasons, the wine-drinking culture in India had been slow to develop — an oft-quoted statistic is that the annual consumption of wine in India works out to just half a teaspoon per person.
But that is changing rapidly. The country posted a 327 percent growth in wine consumption between 2004 and 2008 and is expected to register 97 percent growth between 2009 and 2013.
This is in part due to local winemakers like Rajeev Samant. Originally from Mumbai, The Stanford-educated Samant caught the wine bug while working as an engineer in California. Feeling unfulfilled, he quit his job in the states to go home to India. “I had no idea where I wanted to go careerwise,” he remembers. “I just wanted to do something at home.”
Soon after he arrived back in India, he attended a family wedding in the Nashik Valley. While there, Samant and his father visited a small plot of farmland the family owned nearby. His father had been trying to sell the 20-acre plot, where they had grown mangoes, teak, roses, and some table grapes. That’s when inspiration struck. Samant was inspired to try growing wine grapes, and eventually convinced Kerry Damskey, the U.C. Davis–trained winemaker for Zellerbach winery in Sonoma, to join him in this unlikely venture. Samant named it Sula Vineyards, after his mother.
Growing grapes and making wine here isn’t easy. Because of the annual 3-month monsoon season, the vines need special care to keep from blooming just before the torrents begin. But a benefit of monsoon season is that the soil is resistant to phylloxera, and, Samant says, “There are fantastic variations in temperature, so you get acid that you wouldn’t expect from the region.”
Sula makes mostly whites. The Chenin Blancs “pair really well with spicy foods, because of the residual sugars and acidity,” he explains. “With Indian food it’s more the sauce, the curry, the dip, that determines what wine you should drink and less about the meat or fish than in Western cuisine.” Sula also has success with deep red Shiraz wines which, “because of the region, tends to have an almost bacon-y smokiness which makes them a good paring for red meats.” Sans sauce, of course.