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Discovery of a vineyard

Thursday, November 30, about 2.30 pm. We are sitting in a restaurant-cum-wine bar, just off the highway, in Narayangaon, Pune district, Maharashtra.

A middle-aged gentleman in white kurta-pyjama, waistcoat-sized Nehru jacket and Gandhi cap walks in, communicates something to one of the bartenders, who disappears into an anteroom, emerges a minute later with a bottle of sparkling white wine and hands this to his customer, who pays with a thousand-rupee bill, takes his change and disappears into the dappled sunlight of a very pleasant afternoon, made all the more pleasant by the fact that we ourselves are halfway through a wine-tasting session.

“He is a sugarcane farmer from a plantation close by,” our host, Vikram Singh, manager of the restaurant, says. “The folks here will actually ask for a wine by naming the grape from which it is made. They favour our sparkling white wines the most, and these have become a common feature at village weddings as well.”

We — my friend Rupinder Singh and I — have been invited all the way from Calcutta by Champagne Indage Limited to visit the headquarters of the Chateau Indage Estate Vineyards in Narayangaon. The wine bar and restaurant is right next to the main gate. It is a property of Indage Hotels Pvt Ltd and is categorised as a “rural wine bar”, where people can drop in and have a strictly Indian meal — a combination of Punjabi and West Coast styles — along with wine. “If they can enjoy their food with my wine, they will even buy bottles and take them home, and it will promote the culture and also establish that wine can be enjoyed before, and alongwith, any kind of meal,” adds Vikram.

He continues to conduct the tasting session, which began with still white wines and now we are tasting the reds, with one rosé in between. The tasting will end with the sparkling wines, and Vikram tells us about the finer points, stressing the importance of trusting our own senses and preferences, and we go through a gamut of subtle sense reactions, holding up the glass against a white background to appreciate the colour (“If it has a greenish-gold rim, it should be a dry, young wine”), swirling the glass to aerate and liberate the aromas and finally tasting a range of delicate flavours — mellow, piquant, bitter-sweet, mildly acidic, full-bodied and fruity, and then dwelling on the aftertaste as well.

For a layman like me, this is the most intense wine appreciation I have had and I emerge with the firm knowledge of which ones I would ask for. Among the still white wines — the Chantilli, Sauvignon Blanc and the Ivy, Chardonnay Semillion — among the reds the Chantilli, Cabernet Sauvignon and among the sparkling varieties, the Marquis de Pompadour, with which the story of the Narayangaon vineyards began.

Over lunch, Vikram tells us the tale. A teetotaller who was into the construction business, Shamrao Chougule, visited France some 25 years ago. His hosts persuaded him that champagne was healthy, natural alcohol and he gave it a try. It worked like a magic potion because it changed his life. He was determined to produce champagne in India. Of course, no one was going to back him and he was up against all odds.

However, with the help of French wine growers who identified the Sahyadri Valley in the Deccan Plateau, 800 metres above sea level, as suited to growing grapes, he started with a humble 15 acres of land and three grape varieties whose root stalks were imported. They were Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Ugni Blanc.

In 1987 the first bottles of Marquis de Pompadour were ready. In those days the company was a 100 per cent export enterprise and, once again with the good offices of their French connections, the product sold well and was appreciated.

Today, despite challenges and setbacks along the way, the Chateau Indage Estate Vineyards extend over 2,000 acres in different parts of the country. There are now 27 grape varieties being grown and in the last seven years no root stalks have been imported. There are 32 principal brands and they are the largest producer of wines in India, operating three wineries making over five lakh cases of still and sparkling wines and exporting to 69 countries.

Other players have joined the wine industry, also with great success, such as Sula and Grover Vineyards, the latter in Karnataka. The world wine map has been redefined and India is an internationally celebrated and recognised wine-growing region.

Lunch was Pahari Kababs, Mutton Sheekh Kabab and Rawas fish dipped in batter and deep fried — all these with sparkling white wine and the curries — Pomfret, and Mutton Kadai — with the red Chantilli, Cabernet Sauvignon. It all went down very well and a siesta was the perfect aftermath. Especially as, before the tasting, Vikram had taken us on a two-hour walking tour of the vineyards. But more of that later; this is to be continued.

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