A district on India’s western coast has become an oenophile destination in just two decades—but you’ve probably never heard of it. Joanna Lobo samples the bouquet.
In Hindu mythology, the war between the gods and demons over a pot of amrit—the nectar of immortality—resulted in a few drops of it falling to Earth. These four sites are now deemed holy, and host a Kumbh Mela—a pilgrimage of faith and spirituality—every 12 years.
One of these sites is Nashik, a district on the banks of the Godavari River in Maharashtra on India’s western coast. But today, Nashik is famous for another drink: Wine.
In the last two decades, about 30 wineries have sprung up in the region. Many of them are top players—Sula Vineyards, York Winery, Reveilo Wines, Grover Zampa and Vallonné, to name a few. They’re producing French and Italian varietals, among others, and offer all the winery mod-cons—tasting rooms, tours, restaurants, accommodation and more.
According to Indian wine writer Bhisham Mansukhani, Nashik is the only accessible wine tourism destination in India. “It’s ideal for those who want to go to the source of production of Indian wines and gain a holistic understanding of them,” he says. “It’s the most representative of the country’s wine regions and, from a tourist point of view, the roads have improved and a fair amount of tourism infrastructure has developed.”
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Nashik, today, is the epicenter of India’s wine production. The country has 95 wineries, of which 77 are in Maharashtra, and 39 in the Nashik district alone. Originally known for growing sugarcane and table grapes, it was in 1987 that an entrepreneur named Madhavrao More established a winery in Pimpalgaon, near Nashik. The Pimpane Co-operative Ltd., as it was known, produced chardonnay and pinot noir but, due to harvesting problems, shut down in 2003.
In 1994, mid-way through Pimpane’s reign, Stanford graduate Rajeev Samant visited his family’s 30-acre land in Nashik and found a barren space with no electricity, houses or roads. In an attempt to make use of the land, Samant initially experimented with mangoes and roses, but soon realized that the climate was better suited to growing wine grapes. He returned to California to study winemaking and met master winemaker, Kerry Damskey. A partnership was formed and in 1999, Sula Vineyards—named after Samant’s mother, Sulabha—was born.
Sula’s first vintage was in 2000, a French-style sauvignon blanc and a Californian chenin blanc. “I had to change my winemaking style here,” says Damskey, who visits during harvesting time and in the monsoon. “This was a warmer climate and the monsoons meant we had to prune the vines twice, and spray them for mildew. The wines here needed to be less alcoholic, brighter and more fruit forward—especially if they were to be paired with Indian food.”
Sula’s success inspired a new generation of winemakers, who similarly took advantage of the moderate climate, contract farmers and fertile soil of the region.
Sula’s biggest achievement, though, was making wine accessible to the public, instead of just a luxury commodity. “When we first started, people didn’t even consider wine an alcohol,” says Sameer Kazi, Sula’s manager of hospitality. “No one understood it. In the first few years, a lot of men would come to drink with their buddies. Now, we get serious wine drinkers, as well as youngsters and families.”
Sula now owns 1,800 acres in Nashik and nearby Dindori in both owned and contract vineyards. They added a cellar door in 2005 to introduce people to their wines, and accommodation and restaurants to encourage people to stay.
Since 2008, the winery has hosted SulaFest, a music festival in February that coincides with harvest season, giving people the chance to enjoy a weekend of music, grape-stomping sessions and—of course—wine.
Today, Sula is the most recognized Indian wine brand, exported to 18 countries and occupying 65 per cent of the domestic wine market. The vineyard is also one of the stops on the luxury train, the Deccan Odyssey.
Sula’s success inspired a new generation of winemakers, who similarly took advantage of the moderate climate, contract farmers and fertile soil of the region. The growth was aided by the Grape Processing Industry Policy (2001) that standardized taxes and, believe it or not, wine being classified as a non-alcoholic beverage in India until 2005.
It’s only taken two decades for the region to reach its current size and wine production rates—who can say what the next two might bring?
Nashik in the monsoon season is beautiful, a sea of green with lakes and hills as far as the eye can see. The vineyards are on the outskirts of the city; an oasis of calm and in stark contrast to the chaotic nearby cities of Mumbai and Pune. It’s what makes the region such a popular getaway spot.
The vineyards are spread across the entire Nashik region, sub-regions of which include Igatpuri, the Gangapur Dam backwaters, Dindori, Vinchur and Charose. Despite being located in different pockets, the vineyards form a thoroughly enjoyable wine trail, of which Sula is rightfully the first stop.
In the hill station of Igatpuri, you’ll find a winery that has the distinction of being at once one of the oldest in the country and the newest in the region. Grover Vineyards, set up in the southern state of Karnataka in 1988 by businessman Kanwal Grover, partnered with Vallée de Vin in 2012 to form Grover Zampa Vineyards.
“We were the first to grow the Spanish variant, tempranillo, and viognier—for white wine—because these worked better than a riesling or chardonnay,” says Sushant Soni, Grover Zampa Vineyard’s hospitality manager, adding that the climate is most suitable for chenin and shiraz.
Founded by one Shailendra Pai, nearby Vallonné Vineyards—marketed as ‘India’s premiere boutique winery’—had its first harvest in 2009. Their rosé is made of the cabernet sauvignon grape and their dessert wine, vin de passerillage, is crafted along the same the lines of the straw wine (vin de paille) from Jura, France. Vallonné is the first to offer Indian wine enthusiasts—and overseas Indian wine enthusiasts—the chance to own a premium Indian wine that’s been matured in French barrels.
Tucked away from everyone else, in a small village called Geeta Kunj, is a vineyard responsible for some of India’s best wines. The Patil family started Reveilo in 2000 and brought in Italian winemaker, Andrea Valentinuzzi, to grow varietals such as sangiovese, nero d’avola and grillo. The winery today hosts popular vineyard tours and tastings.
And it’s not just India’s wineries making efforts to attract tourists—even the government has stepped in, opening a ‘wine park’, Vinchur, and supporting a festival to promote wine tourism in Nashik. This year’s 40-day India Grape Harvest was aimed at developing the Nashik Valley as a wine cluster.
India’s wine tourism may still be in its infancy, especially when compared to its European, South American, Australian and New Zealand cousins, but there’s much to savor in Nashik. It’s only taken two decades for the region to reach its current size and wine production rates—who can say what the next two might bring?