Putting Indian Wine on the Map
Ever heard of a sparkling wine called Omar Khayyam? You might have, just, if you are a big Indian cuisine aficionado and if you used to frequent Indian restaurants in the mid- to late-nineties or early noughties. Omar Khayyam, named after the legendary Persian philosopher and produced by Indage Vintners, India’s oldest and largest wine producer until it got into financial trouble a couple of years ago, was one of India’s first sparkling wines and probably the first Indian wine to be sold in the UK.
Now if you have never heard of Omar Khayyam you are in good company because 99.9% of the British public fall into the same bracket. If you have never even heard of Indian wine either it comes as no surprise as some 99% of the British population have not come across it…yet. And I say yet, because changes are afoot!
Did you know that India has a wine-producing tradition that dates back millennia? But more importantly, did you know that the region lost their wine industry to an epidemic that devastated vineyards across Europe and Asia a hundred and fifty years ago but that unlike Europe, which imported vines from America to quickly re-establish the industry, India only rediscovered wine barely 2 decades ago? India was under British occupation at the time of the epidemic and unsurprisingly moved to consuming whisky, beer, and the so-called ‘country liquor’ – a euphemism for spirits distilled, in the unorganised sector, from local produce like oranges or cashew nuts. People of my generation grew up in India not really knowing much about wine – so much so that it had been reduced to a synonym for alcohol. ‘Wine’ shops dotted the country but you wouldn’t find a single bottle of wine in them!
The last decade in India has been revolutionary, though. Early movers in the Indian wine industry like Chateau Indage, Grover and Sula have succeeded in changing the drinking habits of India’s urban youth. While whisky and beer drinking is still deeply embedded in society, wine is what more and more young people are drinking and this is fuelling an impressive 200% growth in consumption and a 35% growth in Indian wine production every year. In the space of a few years scores of vineyards and wineries have sprung up in regions around Nasik (the wine producing hub in India), Bangalore, and the state of Himachal Pradesh.
With the success and growth of wine in India it was inevitable that Indian wine reach foreign shores too. Brands like Soul Tree, Sula, and Ritu are slowly but surely carving a niche for themselves in the UK. Soul Tree alone is now available in hundreds of Indian restaurants up and down the country, and Ritu is doing remarkably well at Waitrose. The ambition and success are also self evident in the business recognition these companies are achieving: Soul Tree has not only been named by Director magazine as one of the top 20 start-ups to watch and is on the Startups100 list of creative, original, innovative & disruptive new business, but by the business website Smart as one of the best 11 new businesses and by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce as the Most Promising New Business in the Birmingham region.
Even with this success, however, Indian wine is only known to a fraction of the British population at the moment and it will take these companies every ounce of their skill, passion, determination, and persistence before Indian wines break into the mainstream – but unlike Omar Khayyam from over a decade ago it can be safely said that Indian wines are now here to stay.