India's economy grows, the middle class is hunting
for the latest waysto flaunt its affluence. Andrew
Buncombe reports from Delhi on the growing popularity
of the grape in a nation more famous for its tea
By the flickering light of the restaurant's
candles, suspicious particles seemed to be floating
in the wine the waiter had just poured. It was hardly
an auspicious start to the evening.
But in an instant came the explanation.
There was nothing wrong with the wine; these were
pure flakes of 24-carat gold added to the Californian
chardonnay by the manufacturer simply for additional
"wow factor". And it worked. The group of
well-dressed men and women laughed and smiled and
lifted their glasses towards the light, better to
see the wine sparkle.
In India, wine is being drunk as
never before. This year, as for the past half-dozen
years, sales are expected to increase by at least
35 per cent and perhaps even more. Partly fuelled
by India's newly buoyant consumerism and partly by
the increasing numbers of people travelling abroad
for business or holidays, wine has rapidly become
the latest symbol of affluence and supposed sophistication
for the country's newly wealthy middle-classes. Like
carrying the right handbag or driving an elegant car,
nothing says "I've arrived" better than
to be seen swirling a glass of wine.
Of course, there are plenty of people
who actually enjoy the stuff. Across the country,
wine clubs are being set up, tastings are being organised
by some of the world's leading producers and India's
own wine industry is starting to make a handful of
vintages that can compete with international competition.
In the past decade, the number of Indian vineyards
has grown from no more than half a dozen to about
50, concentrated mainly in the Nashik region of Maharastra,
120 miles from Mumbai.
"The wine market is booming,"
said Kapil Grover, owner of Grover Vineyards, one
India's oldest and most respected producers, whose
French-imported vines grow at elevation at Nandi Hills
near Bangalore in southern India. "I'm 52 and
think we're going to see 30 to 35 per cent growth
for the rest of my lifetime."
In India, the history of wine can
be traced to the culture's oldest religious writings.
The Yarjuveda – one of the four Indian Vedas
or "knowledges" written in Sanskrit and
believed to date from several centuries BC –
tells how the Hindu gods Indra and Varuna drank a
mixture of wine and herbs known as Somrasa. One line
of the Yarjuveda reads: "Oh plants, it was Indra
and Varuna who first drank the Somrasa. Having gratified
him, now I partake of the oblational food with Somrasa."
Yet despite the support of the gods, those promoting
the spread of a genuine wine culture in India today
face many hurdles. In a country where an estimated
77 per cent of India's population of 1.15 billion
people survive on perhaps as little as 25p a day and
where the gap between the rich and poor is increasing,
the market for wine operates at the top of the economic
High taxes mean the cheapest bottle
of ordinary or indifferent Indian wine costs 400 rupees
(£5). An imported bottle is considerably more.
A poor labourer wishing for an instant anaesthetic
to the rigours of his daily life can buy a small bottle
of industrially made rum or whisky for a handful of
coins. And he doesn't have to worry about flakes of
That well-heeled group enjoying the
so-called "gold wine" on a recent evening
at a peaceful restaurant in the south of Delhi were
typical of the people behind the surge in the growth
of wine sales and for whom importers are furiously
stepping up efforts to market their products. Middle-aged
professionals at the higher levels of their jobs,
many had first tasted wine when travelling abroad.
Returning to India they had joined the Delhi Wine
Circle to learn more about this discovery.
"We like to travel," said
Shravani Dang, head of corporate communications for
a leading Indian industrial conglomerate and a member
of the circle for the past three years. "We were
in Rome and we learnt a bit about wine. It's good
to learn things such as pairing food and wines,"
"We had drunk wine before ... a few years ago
we had a case of South American wine and we had a
cheese and wine party. Nobody knew anything about
it. People would ask, 'When are you bringing out the
Another member, a woman who described
herself as "mid-level management professional"
in her 30s but declined to give her name, said she
had been in the club for two years. She enjoyed trying
the different wines and meeting people who furnished
interesting conversation. "I joined because it
seemed like the club had interesting events,"
Anil and Reena Khana, said they had
joined the club after their children sent them to
France to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
They had found themselves touring the vineyards of
Bordeaux and were instantly hooked. When they returned
to India they signed up. "We wanted to learn
more about wine and different wines. We just started
to learn," said Mr Khana, a friendly business
manager for a large Indian group. "It's really
like a hobby."
The evening's dinner and tasting
had started with the gold wines from the 100 Acres
label in the Napa Valley, a chardonnay and viognier
blend and a rosé, and rapidly progressed to
several wines from the Australian producer Buller.
There were two different chardonnays, a shiraz, a
merlot and finally a 2005 cabernet merlot blend.
Members munched their way through
mozzarella salad, a vegetable risotto, a series of
main courses which included the rare delight –
in Hindu-majority India – of seared beef tenderloin,
and finished off with an apple tart. The evening concluded
with a mulled red wine that did not appear to be the
toast of the night.
Even among the country's wealthy
set, wine still encounters opposition from those who
prefer India's drink of choice - Scotch whisky. Tusha
Gupta, an interior designer, said it was taking time
to break down prejudice against wine. "You go
to a party and people still don't like to have wine,"
she said. "People believe it's women who will
have a glass. They'll have a cocktail or a whisky."
Indeed, despite the headline figure
of 35 per cent year on year growth, India's wine consumption
remains tiny. The country's sales of about 1.2 million
cases of wine equates to just a teaspoon per person.
At the other end of the scale, the thirsty French
drink 55 litres per person every year. But a more
telling comparison may be with China, so often listed
with India as a superpower of the future. There the
annual per capita consumption of wine is a glass.
In terms of sales, China may also be ahead of its
rival and neighbour.
Robert Joseph, the British wine writer
and founder of the International Wine Challenge, said
to be the world's biggest competition, said India
was not progressing as quickly as some people might
like to think. He said: "I've been running wine
competitions in the emerging markets – Singapore,
China, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Vietnam, etc –
since 1997. Over that time, I've been watching India
with great interest, and a certain degree of impatience.
Compared to China, the development of a wine-drinking
culture has been slow and India remains way behind
Mr Joseph said improvements in India's
wine production had also been made in the past five
years, largely as a result of efforts by the Grover
and Sula vineyards. But Indian wine producers retained
a reverence to French labels when the new techniques
they ought to be utilising were being developed by
New World producers, in particular the Australians.
"Grover and Sula ... have produced
world-class wines," he added. "But the best
of these wineries' efforts are the exceptions to the
rule. No other Indian winery is yet making wine that
would stand comparison with successful efforts from
Europe or the New World, though many Indian examples
are far better than plenty of unsuccessful efforts
But those in the trade in India are
adamant that the tide is turning. Three years ago,
publisher Reva Singh started a wine newsletter that
was sent out to a small group of subscribers. Now
Sommelier India, the country's only magazine devoted
to wine, is a grown-up, bi-monthly glossy on sale
at selected stores. Subscriptions for the magazine,
which contains news and features on both Indian and
imported wine, she says, are up by 25 per cent on
last year. "Things are changing. People are becoming
increasingly sophisticated with wine and want to learn
more about it. When we started, people perceived drinking
wine as being trendy. Many men preferred to drink
Scotch. Now it has got to where people are asking
Another optimist is Subhash Arora,
the irrepressibly enthusiastic president of the Delhi
Wine Circle and publisher of an online newsletter.
He is responsible for the 20 or so wine dinners and
tastings held by the club every year. Mr Arora is
more than aware of the challenge he faces. He knows
the sale of whisky and beer outstrip that of wine
more than a hundred-fold; he knows too that wine is
a product only a tiny fraction of Indians could ever
hope to afford.
And yet he is convinced that the
momentum is on his side. At the recent tasting in
Delhi, as people began to wander away, Mr Arora lingered
to explain more about his enthusiasm. Standing with
a half-glass of ruby-coloured Australian wine, he
said: "This is more than just my hobby, it's