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HindustanTimes Fri,22 Aug 2014

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It's failed to bear fruit
First Published: 22:57 IST(6/5/2012)
Last Updated: 23:00 IST(6/5/2012)

Hambir Gopal Phadtare, founder and owner of Mountain View winery in Nashik region looks out over his land and sees a diminished vineyard.

Four of his 10 hectares have been sold to repay bank loans, the French experts have disappeared and there are no lines of lorries full of grapes bought from independent growers anymore. "It's been a very difficult period," says the 76-year-old, who began making wine in the late 1990s. "We are still not out of it, but maybe in another couple of years things will be better."

Less than a decade ago, few thought India's grape growers would ever be forced to uproot their vines. In this booming country, wine was supposed to be a sure, and even pleasurable, way to make an easy fortune. Yet, though a few winemakers have prospered, Phadtare's story is far from rare. By some estimates more than 50% of the wine-grape farmers in Maharashtra have ripped out the carefully planted lines of vines in recent years. In some districts, up to 80% of vineyards have disappeared. Many growers have swapped wine grapes for table varieties, or even for local staples such as onions and tomatoes. The much-trumpeted great Indian wine boom still seems far off.

The reasons are many, said Ravi Gurnani, a 27-year-old who planted wine grapes on family land in Nashik in 2006 when expectations were at their zenith. "A lot of bad wine was made early on and some consumers were put off by those first experiences," he said. Other reasons include high taxes, a general slowing in economic growth in India and poor infrastructure for storing and transporting their produce. And though tastes are changing fast, India remains deeply resistant to wine drinking. Its 1.2 billion inhabitants drank an average of two teaspoons each - 0.01 litres - of wine in 2009. Compare that with a boozier 22.7 litres for Britain and 45.2 litres in France.

There is little imported wine, not least because punitive taxes mean that a bottle of what would be considered supermarket plonk in Europe costs £30 or more in a restaurant. Though such prices can be paid by the ultra-rich, they are far beyond the reach of most of India's middle class.

Though the market has improved since the 2009 crash, those trying to make quality wine, usually costing about £10 for a bottle in India, still suffer.

Authorities plan a range of ambitious measures to boost the industry. "We need geographical regulation. It would not be 100% mandatory but would aim to identify each area as a terroir [wine's site-specific character]," said Jagdish Holkar, president of the All-India Wine Producers Association. He hopes the system will be in place within six months to help India create an identity for its wine.

One problem is the gap between international and domestic tastes. "Here, from top to tip, from Kashmir to Coimbatore, there is a lot of hot and spicy food, so our people like a wine with a hint of sweetness," Holkar said. Critics of Indian wine say 'hint' usually means cloying sugar, repellent to most international consumers.There are also moves to increase the flow of fine wine into India. Producers say this would help stimulate "wine culture".

"Don't hold your breath," said Mark Schuringa, of London-based Ditton Wine Traders, though he added that many international producers and traders saw India as having the potential to be "a second China". When taxes were lifted in Hong Kong, fine-wine sales inside China boomed. "Merchants are trying to get a foothold now just to be there when it happens," Schuringa said.

For Phadtare, any boom may come too late but he is not complaining: "We have suffered a setback, it is true. But my passion is wine so I will definitely keep going."

The Guardian


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