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Noted wine professional Peter Csizmadia-Honigh has written a thorough guide on the wines of India. His book, 'The Wines of India', takes an in-depth look into the emerging wine industry of India. In a candid interview with Avijit Barman and Rojita Tiwari, the London-based writer tells us exactly why he chose to write about Indian wines.
What really fascinated you about Indian wines and the wine industry that prompted you to write this book?
Probably what fascinated me the most and prompted me to write the book was the fact that there was so little known about Indian wines and India as a wine-producing country. I have been a regular in India since 2007 and it was in 2012 that I first visited nearly a dozen wineries. This was the time when I realised there was no book on Indian wines, so the challenge of writing the first authoritative and concise guide presented itself. Of course, I had to take the bull by the horns and get on with filling this gap!
After spending almost two years researching and visiting across the country, where do you think India stands at the moment and what future do you see for the Indian wine industry?
It is exciting times for India in terms of domestic wine production. The industry is coming of age: the quality of Indian wines is improving rapidly, regions and grape varieties are better understood, technical and professional expertise is getting firmly established with some consultants returning regularly and young Indians educated overseas in leading schools of viticulture and winemaking returning to India as well as more experimentation taking place with new varieties, techniques and exploring regions further on. However, this excitement is curtailed by the Government of India’s lack of focus on providing appropriate and unified regulatory environment across India. Once the regulatory aspect is adequately resolved, the Indian wine industry will be unleashed.
What are the challenges that you faced while working on the book?
There were not many challenges, methinks. Probably, the most entertaining to single out was the itinerary. I thought it would take a few weeks to call up people and put together a route to visit all the wineries. However, I had to face the reality that often the person answering the phone did not speak English, plus there were tuk-tuks honking, children screaming or bustling markets in the background whilst I was desperately trying to explain that I was a London-based wine writer wishing to arrange for a visit. I guess, you get th picture. Hence no surprise that Sujata Patil, a Pune based wine professional, was invaluable help in putting my itinerary together. Of course, I could mention that we fist had to identify the wineries who were in existence and producing, which is normally easy in an established wine country, but here I had to start writing the directory myself.
What methodology did you adopt to evaluate various Indian wineries and wine?
I was determined to keep an open and unbiased mind during my research, so I methodically went through each winery, focussing on the vineyard, winemaking, commercial aspects and tasting the wines. Then I followed up my visits with getting the facts and details correct before writing up the producer profiles. Once I had all the information in place, I always wanted to find the aspects that define the winery and set it apart from others. With regards to evaluation, once I had amassed and analysed all the information, I coined the five-star rating system for the classification of wineries and explained my use of the 20-point scale. Both are in the book, so I would not ponder on them longer than stating my aim: to give reliable guidance to the readers and wine consumers, one that is easy to understand for Indian and international audiences alike.
How much importance would you attach to the word ‘consistency’ when it comes to wine producing? On this count, which India wine labels would appeal you more?
Consistency is paramount in terms of reliable and predictable quality with the caveat that at certain level of the product pyramid the exciting aspect of wine is the variance caused by factors, such as the vintage or winemaker. So, for example, it is nice to see how top quality white or red wines express the vintage characteristics and the way the winemaker handled the challenges. For example, have a look at Fratelli’s Sette or Sula’s Rasa; both show diversity from vintage to vintage, whilst trying to maintain the consistency in the style, whilst allowing the given year to imprint its hallmark. Now, if you were to drink the entry level Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz form any winery, this will be much more reduced and consistency is much more significant from a commercial perspective for reasons of brand consistency. Of course, you are getting to the level of the product pyramid where wine has been ‘commoditised’. As a counterargument, you may bring up the issue of non-vintage sparkling wines, which must be consistent from year to year; that is their job. If there were vintage sparkling wines in India, they would show the hallmark of each vintage, however, there is still a long road ahead to get to that stage in India.
According to you, which of the Indian wines have the real potential to compete with the International counterparts?
Compete in what sense is the key to this answer. With regards to quality, there are many wines, the international trophies and accolades are well known, but to give some examples: Fratelli’s Sette, Grover Zampa’s La Reserve or Art Collection Sauvignon Blanc, Sula’s Rasa Shiraz, SDU’s Shiraz and KRSMA’s Cabernet Sauvignon, without being complete. With regards to value for money, Indian wines are under pressure and mostly only the top end wines can compete, because we can buy entry or mid-market level wines much more cheaply from Australia, Chile, South Africa and you name it. Hence top quality wines represent good value in the higher end of the mid-market or lower end of premium wines.
Compared to the other emerging ‘New World’ wines, like that of China, how would you rate Indian wines?
I have tasted few Chinese wines, so it would be unfair for me to comment. I have more experience with Japanese wines and some with Thai wines. Overall, India is doing well, but keep the head down and focus on doing even better is my mantra.
In your next edition of your book, will you consider adding or amending a few more Indian labels?
Of course. When I am updating the book in 4 years’ time, I will re-visit all the wineries and see new ones. Add those who have surfaced, delete those who have disappeared and make sure it is up-to-date. For example, I was and am re-tasting new vintages and labels continuously.
What according to you can help increase the domestic wine consumption in India?
A sensible and unified wine and alcohol policy. Taxes, duties and licences need to be rationalised, the fragmentation of the country into multiple markets eliminated, standards and consumer protection greatly rationalised, and the bureaucracy administering the industry educated to understand wine. In brief: Mr Modi needs to unobstacle the regulatory environment so that players in the market can spend resources on developing the market rather than jumping hurdles. Believe me, they know how to do marketing, but they need to be able to focus on that.
How was the response to the tasting that you had organised for the Indian wines in London recently?
The tasting was small and the response good, but the book is to be launched in March properly, so hopefully much more noise is going to be made about Indian wines then.
One experience of India that will stay with you forever?
The most precious experience for me in India is not wine related: it is the morning walks with my husband on white sandy beaches in South Goa. The mornings are fresh and you are full of energy, so it is great to get some exercise whilst you can have either quiet time or deep conversations, which you can break up with dipping into the serene sea. It is “us” time and hence very special.
How has been the response to the book launch internationally? Do you think your book in anyway going to help expand the Indian wine export potential?
The reception has been good so far and I look forward to more PR and reviews, it is work in progress. I believe if India wants to be put on the world map of wine, you literally have got to chart the industry and draw the maps. This is what my book does, it is a concise and comprehensive guide to Indian wines with regional introductions, producer profiles, classification, especially drawn maps and beautiful photography.
It is going to be wine and will see me back in India and Asia, but let me talk about it in due course…