A relative newcomer to the concept of wine culture, India is still a long way off from the day when ordering a glass of wine with dinner is ‘de rigueur’. But thanks to a few far-sighted wine enthusiasts, Indian wines are slowly finding their niche in the market. Today, for about Rs 500 to Rs 700, you can order an Indian wine to go with your meal – something that would have been impossible till four or five years ago.

Four Seasons was started in 2006 after the French winery Bouvet-Ladubay was acquired. Located in Baramati, about two hours from the city of Pune, their winery aims to develop Indian wines that are affordable without compromising on quality.

I headed over to Baramati for a wine-pairing session as well to have a look at the process of viticulture at the Four Seasons winery. As we drive through the brown dusty terrain, I can’t help but consider how rural Maharashtra seems to be becoming for India what Napa Valley is for the USA. Countless wineries and vineyards of all sized have mushroomed out here, and are experimenting with growing different varietals, and this trend is good news for the nascent Indian wine industry.

An early flight and a two-hour drive later, I was really looking forward to this lunch. Driving past the gate, the impressive façade of the winery looms up ahead of me. I’m reminded of a classic European villa as I walk up the stairs, only to be greeted with a glass of chilled bubbly, and the sparkling rosé from Bouvet-Ladubay is the perfect refresher.

Mix and match

The menu, served as an appetiser, shows three courses that are inspired heavily by the local Maharashtrian cuisine, teamed with wines from the brand’s new Ritu range of wines. First, we are served a refreshing Sol Kadhi, a traditional Konkan drink made of coconut milk and kokum extract. For starters, we are served Bombil Rawa Fry – Mumbai’s most-famous fish fried to a perfect crisp. Teamed with this is the Ritu Sauvignon Blanc whose freshness and tinge of citrus cuts through the oil in the fish to reveal an herbaceous, floral aroma. An interesting start to the meal.

Next up is the Tilatli Kolambi, which is basically a prawn curry with sesame seeds in a typical Konkani gravy. Served with steamed rice, the prawns are well-cooked and the gravy is spiced just right, without being overpowering. Served with this is a Viognier from 2012 with a fruity rounded structure that stays longer on the palate. I am told that the pairing is to ensure that the wine balances the sweetness of the prawn with the heaviness of the coconut gravy, which it does. The acidity and structure of the Viognier complements the light creamy coconut gravy, and the wine and food are delicious enough to warrant a second round for everyone at the table.

Part two of the main course is Mutton Saoji, a classic lamb gravy dish from Nagpur with a spicy gravy. The meat is cooked till tender and falls right off the bone when I pick it up. Teamed with this is the Ritu Shiraz Barrique Reserve 2010, a speciality of the house. The Shiraz is generally a wine associated with spices and it goes well with the mutton, however, the full-bodied red with the lingering taste does tend to overpower the palate. The delicate balance in the perfect red is to ensure that the alcohol does not dominate over the fruit, and in this regard the Shiraz passes the test. I am told that Shiraz goes particularly well with chocolate, and I make a mental note to try it sometime.

The meal ends with dessert – a Tandalachi kheer, which is the classic Indian Rice kheer combined with a black grape compote. The combination is unusual but works well, the sweetness of the kheer balancing the slight tang of the black grape. Served with dessert is a Late Harvest Chenin Blanc from the Ritu label, which is an exclusive treat since it isn’t available for sale in stores. Oak, honey, butterscotch, tropical fruits – the bouquet from this one has many different notes but unlike most late harvests that tend to be too sweet, this one manages to hit the right note – quite crisp and not cloyingly sweet.

In the making

After the meal, we are taken for a tour of the winery, to see where all the wine we just enjoyed came from. The vineyard is spread around the building over 300 acres where different varieties are grown.

The process of winemaking is a fascinating one to watch, whether you are an experienced wine connoisseur or have been newly inducted to the joys of wine. From the initial berry sorting – where the berries are maintained at a cool five degrees to preserve them – to the de-stemming and crushing, the entire process is temperature controlled and treated with utmost care to ensure that the wine is of consistent quality. Even the wine press – where the berries are crushed and the juice extracted – is subjected to the highest levels of hygiene and care.

The fermentations tanks – huge steel tanks that tower over you – are a sight to behold. The millions of litres of grape juice are converted to wine right here with the addition of sugars and yeast. We are given a taste of fresh red wine that is yet to mature, and the rawness is palpable. Our next stop is the barrel room where the wines are left to mature in French oak casks. The room is rather like stepping into an era gone by, since the casks that are presently used were used even back then. Luckily for us, the art of winemaking has not changed much, and has only improved and made this European tradition a viable option across the world. Again we are given a taste of wine straight out of the barrels and I must admit the bouquets are already rather heady and intoxicating.

It won’t be long before Indian wines get to where the wines from New Zealand or South Africa are today, and it definitely will be sooner rather than later when you won’t think twice before ordering a glass of red with your kebabs for dinner. So if you want a taste of what the Indian offerings are going to be like, head down to the Four Seasons winery!

elizabeth. mathew@thehindu. co. in

(This article was published on March 6, 2013)
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