Wine talks; ask anyone… It shouts, rants, whispers.
It speaks of great plans, tragic loves, and terrible betrayals.
It screams with laughter. It chuckles softly to itself.” –
—Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris
Such glorious prose in praise of wine, and yet the fermented spirit had never ‘talked’ to me. The only wine-related chuckling I have been privy to has been unleashed by friends who’d had too much. The literary embellishments, then, always seemed indulgent at best, at least up until this August, before I took two trips. First was a work visit to Nashik’s lush green vineyards. The second was a leisurely holiday across France’s Bordeaux and Loire Valley. Continents apart, the two destinations, both major wine hubs, taught me to savour and decode my whites, reds and rosés in ways that I never have, or have never deemed worthy of. But the multiple wine tastings and vineyard visits I signed up for during these breaks have helped me discover and appreciate—as I still continue to do—the sweet notes hidden within this acrid, vinegary spirit.
Nashik is a four-to-five-hour drive from Mumbai (165 kilometres) and Pune (160 kilometres), and the route passes through the Sahyadris’ lush teak and sal forests, and bustling towns that are transitioning into gritty urban centres. In the outskirts of Nashik, a patchwork of trellises and tangles stretches far into the horizon—this rain-shadow region is where India’s wine industry took root.
Nashik’s tryst with winemaking began 16 years ago when Rajeev Samant, a Stanford-educated engineer, decided to plant a few wine varietals in the rich, black soil of Nashik where table grapes thrived. In 1999, he set up Sula Vineyards and started off India’s wine industry. To encourage wine production, the Maharashtra government issued a policy in 2001, whereby wines produced from state-grown grapes were exempted from excise duties. Other grape farmers in the area soon followed suit, learned winemaking from each other and roped in master winemakers from France, California and Australia to guide them along. Today, the ‘Nashik Valley Wines’ is a registered Geographical Indication (GI) that can be featured on the labels of over 29 vineyards.
To retrace the region’s history, I began at Sula, followed by Soma, Grover Zampa and Vallonne. At each vineyard, I started with a tour of the factory, learned about their varietals and the journey from grape to glass, followed by wine tasting. At Sula, that included a selection of two white wines, one rosé, two red wines, and ended with a Chenin Blanc dessert wine. Since the harvest season was still a month away, I couldn’t watch the actual process of winemaking. A trip to Nashik between January and March would be better suited for that.
Here, I learned about the processes of harvesting, crushing, fermentation, clarification, ageing, and bottling. Wines are usually aged for over two years, and the storage receptacle—metal containers, concrete tanks or oak barrels—subtly affects the flavours of the finished product. During the ‘swirl, smell, sip and spit’ method of wine tasting, it was interesting to hear how the curvature and narrow mouth of a wine glass retain the aromas and compel you to experience the wine, first with your nose and then the palate.
At Soma Vine Village, I uncorked the flavours associated with different wines—the fruity, flowery hints in white wines; the woody, oaky notes of red wines; the bubbly, frothy fizz of sparkling wines—and the terminology employed to describe each. The exotic names of grape varietals grown in the region rolled off my tongue like music—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malbec, Tempranillo, Shiraz—adding to the heady sensation of perhaps too many sips.
In the Grover Zampa factory, two-year-old wines were undergoing the fascinating mechanised bottling and labelling process reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: a team manually sticks labels onto bottles and lines them up on a carousel; the bottles are filled with wine and capped in a sanitised glass chamber, then another team seals the bottles and packs them into boxes for storage and dispatch.
I ended my wine trail in Nashik with lunch at the well-known Southeast Asian restaurant Malaka Spice in Vallonne Vineyards. The meal was an object lesson in how an expansive menu can be beautifully paired with local wines, tracing the grape’s journey from trellis to table.
I was on my way to the hotel and sadly, the wines were still not ‘talking’ to me. But I had learned to take my time, appreciate the ‘swirl-sniff-sip’ routine and savour the mouthful for longer. I smelt guavas and pepper, dank woody smells and strawberries, but whether this implied that I was unravelling the subtleties of wine, or had a hyperactive imagination, I cannot say. But my experience in Nashik definitely made me want to discover more about viticulture.
A few months later, I planned a trip to France, eager to tap into its historic wine industry. During my time there, I covered two vinicoles or wine-producing regions: the Loire Valley in the Rhône-Alpes region and Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux’s best-known wine appellation.
A short drive from the town of Roanne in Loire, past woodlands and farmsteads, I found myself at the Domaine des Pothiers. In French, a domaine traditionally implies an estate and with reference to wineries, this is a vineyard that makes and bottles wines from its own grapes. Jenny, a local and a friend, showed me around the small, traditional-style estate and vineyards, explaining that the Domaine des Pothiers, like others with the Côte Roannaise appellation’s terroir has chalky, dry soil with moderate annual temperatures, and is best known for red wines. The term terroir denotes the geographical environment in which wines are produced—the soil, topography and climate—that lend wines their distinct taste. During the tasting, Jenny showed me a large map displaying all the wine-producing regions of France, and the Côte Roannaise’s humble place among them.
The following week, my boyfriend and I set off on a road trip from Roanne to La Rochelle on the west coast of France to visit his brother. After visiting the ancient rock-cut citadel of Rocamadour and the limestone chasms of Padirac, we continued driving towards Bordeaux region, and found ourselves in the quaint, medieval village of Saint Émilion.
Saint-Émilion bears witness to a winemaking legacy that dates back to the Roman Empire, circa sixth century A.D. Around this village, neat rows of grapevines filled the vistas in estates that are a mix of traditional and contemporary influences—dark, dank caves and cellars with modern factories built upon them, and ancient vine creepers growing around shiny windmills set up to control the microclimate.
With over 600 estates to choose from, we decided upon Château la Renommé since it offered a wine initiation and degustation along with a wine tour. Unlike a domaine, a chateau is a country house or castle and is commonly used for wineries in the Bordeaux region. However, the distinction between a domaine and a chateau has blurred over the years, and isn’t legally binding. So don’t be disappointed if you see modern winery structures bearing these traditional titles.
At Château la Renommé, Jean-Michél, the proprietor, took us on a tour of the estate explaining how the region’s terroir of gravelly soils and cold winters stresses the grapevines, forcing them to fight to reach maturity, creating the signature tart taste of Bordeaux wines. The wines are further classified into premier cru or grand cru, indicating the quality, based on the time of harvest and terroir. If the wine in a bottle was grown and produced in a single year, it is known as a vintage as opposed to non-vintage wines where distillations of two or more years are blended.
Though France’s wine industry has inspired India’s, I discovered many differences between the two. France’s wineries follow strict rules and only wine made from grapes grown, processed, bottled and labelled on-site can use the regional appellation. In contrast, Nashik wines source their grapes from many vineyards across the state and often from neighbouring Karnataka. France’s wine estates involve small-scale management usually run by a single family with help hired during the harvest season, whereas India’s vineyards and factories are large-scale, employing many people all-year round. With an established industry and market, French wines are a study in control and quality, and Indian wines are still rather experimental and constantly evolving.
Yet there was one thing in common, (Joanne Harris was right!). Winemaking is a lot like alchemy—it needs the perfect blend of elements. The fire of tropical sunshine, rains from a gentle monsoon, wind to cool the grape down but not enough to delay ripening, and warm, moist earth to temper the flavours, all of which come together to create a truly ethereal wine.
There are many ways in which we experience this alchemy—and add to it. As Jean-Michél explained in our tasting session, it is our sensory vocabulary that helps us unravel the magic of wines. Traditional sommeliers believed that each wine had a very specific sensory definition. Recently, however, psychological studies indicate that every individual has a very distinct sensory vocabulary, which is born out of their own life experiences, and triggers different associations in the mind and on the palate. Since these cannot be classified or categorised by only a few people, there is an ever-expanding sensory vocabulary for wines, making it a rather personal and, for some, a spiritual experience.
I still have a long journey ahead before I distil the secrets of wine and create a vocabulary encapsulating my own experiences. The wine is still reluctant to talk to me, so for now, I’ve contended myself with talking about wines instead.
Devayani Khare works as communications manager with Travel Scope, and also dabbles in some freelance content assignments. Her interests intersect between travel, geography, ecology, bird watching and mythology and she'd gladly trade her heart with the devil for a ticket to everywhere!