In the heart of Paris, the future of Indian wine is being discussed. Bernard Peillon, chairman and CEO of Hennessy Cognac, says the future of wine is in international collaborations. Two names come up: York Winery and Fratelli Wines. The first makes sparkling wine for Moët & Chandon in India; the second is the first Indo-Italian wine collaboration in the country.

By 2020, Indians will be drinking 21.6 million litres of wine every year, according to London-based market research firm The IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research). That assumes a growth of around 25% to 30% every year. Consequently, there is a demand for better-quality wines at affordable prices.

With import duties of 150%, foreign wine is often prohibitively expensive. Even with a proposed cut in duties after rounds of trade negotiations between India and the European Union, import duties are likely to remain around 75%. This is where local wine has an advantage, but with India’s oenophiles getting more knowledgeable, quality is key.

The big factors that worked in favour of Indian winemaking were improved logistics and the arrival of international winemakers according to Sandeep Arora, who runs alcohol consultancy Spiritual Luxury Living. He explains that in 2008, when the global economy turned bad, European wine experts began looking for opportunities away from home. For the first time, they were available at fees that even new wineries could afford.

Fratelli imported 58 stainless steel tanks from Italy. This is where the first round of fermentation takes place.
Fratelli imported 58 stainless steel tanks from Italy. This is where the first round of fermentation takes place.

Those days, distributors here didn’t know how to transport wine at the right temperature and atmospheric conditions, adds Arora. “Most hotels didn’t know the temperatures to store wine at and the focus was on showing off many varieties of imported wine, not on presenting them the right way,” he says, adding that this is no longer the case. The international experts came in around the same time that infrastructure in the country got a boost. The entire wine industry has benefited from the decades of experience that the overseas experts brought, he says.

One of the Fratelli partners is Tuscan wine maker Piero Masi, whose 2004 and 2006 vintages of Fattoria dell’Agenda (a wine made solely from Cabernet grapes) sold out even before bottling. York, meanwhile, relies on the services of Stefan Gerber, a South African expert on Sauvignon Blanc. Reveillo, another young winery, has partnered Italian winemaker Andrea Valentinuzzi, who was associated with Casa Girelli, an Italian winery dating back to the 18th century. Luca de Indi, the wine label of Haryana-based Nirvana Biosys, has joined hands with Patrick Oxenham, a oenologist from Dijon University with some 40 years of experience.

Their experiences allow vineyards room to experiment with more grape varieties. Thus, while Sula began a decade ago with the more common Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Shiraz, today Fratelli offers those, in addition to Sangiovese, a signature Tuscan grape, and Chardonnay, a grape whose successful production is considered a ‘rite of passage’ for wineries.

Fratelli, meaning ‘brotherhood’ in Italian, is a partnership between Masi and three sets of brothers: Kapil and Gaurav Sekhri, Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh Mohite-Patil, and Alessio and Andrea Secci from Italy. The Indo-Italian collaboration began with an investment of around $1 million (Rs 5.56 crore). The brothers began work on the vineyards in Maharashtra’s Akluj region in 2006 and started selling in 2010.

Kapil Sekhri says the winery only uses grapes that are grown on its lands: “Sourcing from outside farmers is common and it would have been easier for us. But we decided that unless we have full control over quality, crop after crop, Piero cannot deliver what he wants.”

Masi is reported to have insisted that the road between the winery and the vineyard be extensively smoothened in order to ensure that the grapes reach the winery within two hours of plucking. This attention to detail seems to have paid off: Fratelli sold 20,000 cases last year, reporting a turnover of around Rs 30 crore. The company aims to hit 50,000 cases by 2016.

This, of course, is minuscule compared to the 500,000 cases that market leader Sula sold last year. Rajeev Samant, the man who created Sula a decade ago, says he welcomes competition even as his brand grows by 20% to 25% annually. “At the moment, we have around 65% [of the domestic wine] market share but with such an overwhelming emphasis on one brand, a new market cannot grow,” he says. “The fact that Moët has decided to invest in Nashik [York Vineyards is up the road from Sula in Nashik] justifies our faith. We need at least four to five strong brands for real growth.”

In recent years, the Indian wine trade has been hurt by the collapse of Chateau Indage, previously a significant player with vineyards near Pune; as well as the bust in the Nashik region around 2008 when local wineries who had rushed unthinking into the business had their underwhelming wines rejected in the market. But now, says Samant, new players are judicious and do not have a “gold rush attitude”. This is critical because unlike, say, whiskey where connoisseurs can be devoted to their brand for a lifetime, wine is all about experimenting. “We are seeing a real industry being created,” says Samant. “The consumer is finally getting choices.”

The Gurnani brothers who founded York say their initial inspiration was Sula. Ravi Gurnani, 28, and his brother Kailash, 27, have always had family land in Nashik. “We were a few minutes away from where the Sula vineyards came up and, over the years, each time we passed them, we thought of starting a winery,” says Ravi Gurnani. He learnt to appreciate fine wines as he travelled the world looking for deals for the family hardware business. “We were fascinated that Sula had built India’s biggest wine brand in our neighbourhood.”

When they decided to start their own winery, Kailash Gurnani, the primary wine maker of the duo, first got himself a Bachelor in Science degree in viticulture and oenology from Adelaide University, Australia. York started selling its wines in 2008.

Unlike Fratelli, which is sold in all major cities, York wines are available only in Maharashtra and Goa. However, York also made 130,000 litres of sparkling wine this year for Moët (available in most cities), which accounts for half of York’s profits on a turnover of around Rs 2 crore.

Moët is also working on setting up its own winery in Nashik, which is expected to be ready in the next two to three years. It has already bought land. By then, York plans to have countrywide distribution in place to fill the gap in revenue as well as take advantage of the spare manufacturing capacity it will have.

“The customer is getting more refined, and unless Indian wines up the ante, the industry will be destroyed as foreign wines become cheaper,” says Kailash Gurnani. “We can’t play the price card forever. Now it is about quality,” he adds.

Both Fratelli and York are already creating waves. The two wineries have won seven awards between them over the last three years. York wines won awards at The Sommelier India Wine Competition in 2009—gold for the Reserve Shiraz, and bronze for the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter was also commended at the International Wine Challenge in London in 2010.

Last year, Fratelli won four international awards, including a commendation medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London and a medal at the International Wine Challenge, both for the unoaked Chardonnay. If these two newbies and their brethren can keep uncorking winners, the domestic market may be able to match international competition glass for glass.

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