Can central India's tropical heat produce a decent red? Our columnist meets the enterprising Italian winemaker Piero Masi, bringing Indian wines to the UK...
They grow okra and coriander here. There are fields of sugar cane and soya beans, palms and tropical fruit trees heavy with banana, guava and papaya, none of which makes this the most obvious place in which to grow wine grapes, which usually flourish in a cooler climate. Certainly, when Italian winemaker Piero Masi arrived amidst the dusty hills of Solapur in Maharashtra in central India, his initial feeling was that the idea of making wine here was pure folly.
Now there are 240 acres of vineyards in this remote territory; and a barrel-aged red that Masi makes here from sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon that sells for £10 a glass at the Michelin-starred Gymkhana in London. Not bad for a venture that, at first glance, seemed impossible.
Fratelli (brothers, in Italian) is a joint venture between Masi and three sets of brothers – the Secci brothers from Italy and the Sekhri and the Mohite-Patil brothers from India. The secret to its success lies in determination – six miles of pipes had to be put in to bring a water supply – and some clever thinking. The summers here are too fierce for grapes, so the vines are put into a false dormancy and the growing season is inverted to run through autumn and winter. The project has not been without setbacks.
‘The first vintage was amazing. The second and third were not. I said, “There’s a problem here,”’ says UK importer Steve Daniel of Hallgarten & Novum Wines. ‘Actually, an issue for the whole of Indian winemaking is the smoky flavour that comes from yeasts and local bacteria in the soils. So they realised they had to knock out those bacteria at vineyard level and be very precise in the winery.’ Daniel is known within the industry for finding wines that are not part of the mainstream, and he believes that Indian wine deserves more recognition. What grapes does he think have a bright future? ‘In this area, sangiovese looks good. Chenin works well. Shiraz is okay, cabernet struggles.’
The Indian wine industry is still in its infancy, with most of the country’s vines growing grapes for eating either fresh or as raisins. The biggest and best-known Indian wine brand is Sula, which is located about 180km north-east of Mumbai. A sauvignon blanc made by Sula called Jewel of Nasik has been sold at Marks & Spencer since 2013 and it’s actually very good – lemony and fresh with a tiny suggestion of green chilli. Daniel once drank it with monkfish marinated in yogurt and coriander and cooked in the tandoor oven, ‘And it went brilliantly’.
But most Indian wines are sold by specialist shops or restaurants. Of Fratelli’s new range of wines, MS (named for Piero Masi and Steven Spurrier, who is consulting on importing the blend) is the most successful for me; a blend of sangiovese, cabernet franc and syrah, which has a slight smoky background that would go well with roasted spices.
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Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her most recent book is the The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta).