Finding a decent glass of wine in India is enough to drive a person to drink. While wine is increasingly popular – consumption is expected to increase between 25 per cent and 30 per cent a year between 2009 and 2012 – polite drinkers would probably describe many of the over-sweet offerings from the nation’s vineyards as “passable”. Others would be able to come up with some much pithier descriptions.
India’s young wine industry, concentrated in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, is still finding its feet in many ways as vineyards experiment with grape varieties and production techniques.
But drinkers looking for salvation from abroad end up paying over the odds for their tipple thanks to provincial and federal levies that can inflate the cost of imported wine to something approaching 10 times its retail price in the rest of the world.
Karnataka’s legislators have slapped a 300 rupee per litre tax on any wine, even Indian, not produced in the state. For its part, Maharashtra imposes a 200 per cent excise on non-local wines, making a glass of Australian semillon in Mumbai an expensive proposition.
For Karnataka, the tax hike is paying off, with the state now boasting 11 wineries, up from its previous two. While this approach fills the coffers of Indian state governments it also stifles innovation in an industry that desperately needs competition to improve.
“Indian wine still remains the most accessible wine for a large number of Indian, novice wine-drinkers. Those who can’t afford imported wines drink Indian wine,” says wine consultant Harshal Shah.
“If this demographic had foreign wines at similar prices to Indian wines, two things would happen. One, the Indian palate would broaden and learn to appreciate different wine styles. Two, local producers would be forced to compete – raise their game – with foreign wines.”
Even those striving to produce the best product can be undermined by India’s infrastructure. Long distances, a lack of refrigerated trucks and crumbling roads mean a carefully constructed wine can arrive battered and bruised. The suffering doesn’t end there, as poor storage conditions at many retailers exacerbate the problem.
However, all is not lost. Local wine magazine Sommelier India held its first wine competition in November, with judges awarding gold medals to nine Indian wines. Earlier this year, the first Indian International Wine Fair revealed an industry that wants wine – both domestic and foreign – to flourish in the country.
Shah remains optimistic. “The quality of local wine is getting better as producers are focusing on hygiene in the winery and consistency in the vineyard and cellar.
“The next step is definition of style: we want to be able to pick up a glass of wine and identify it as ‘Indian’. I’m confident this can happen within 10 years, provided there is regulation of the industry and a lowering of trade barriers,” he says.