Walking down a compacted path of red loamy soil at Big Banyan Winery’s 1.2-hectare vineyard, Kinaraa Muthamma points to the plump grapes glistening in the sunshine. Flanked on either side by concrete trellises supporting neatly pruned grapevines, the fruits are not quite ready for harvest. “After flowering, white varietals take between 90 to 120 days to give out ripe fruits,” the wine tour leader explains.
India’s wine industry is still relatively nascent, so it’s hard to believe that the roots of viticulture in the country date back millennia. Ancient Vedic literary texts mention the consumption of wine. Moreover, the discovery of the remains of ancient Roman amphorae – terracotta jugs with distinctly narrow necks used to carry wine, honey and olive oil – in Pondicherry and Gujarat indicate that it was actually traders from the Mediterranean who first brought wine to the subcontinent.
The consumption of wine continued to flourish in colonial India, first in Goa by the Portuguese in the 16th century. During the time of the British Empire, vineyards were established across the country. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when phylloxera – a deadly pest that wreaks havoc on grapevines – and prohibition contributed to its near demise.
However, in the past two decades, things have changed. According to a 2018 Wine Intelligence India Landscapes report, people in their twenties and thirties make up 56% of the country’s wine-drinking demographic. They’re not afraid to try new wines and are always looking to expand their wine knowledge.
As disposable incomes rise and attitudes to wine change, the future of wine in India is undoubtedly something to watch closely. The Karnataka Wine Board – currently the only official wine board in India – estimates that the consumption rate for wine in the country will grow by 25% annually, something wineries in Bangalore have already started to capitalise on as they ramp up their wine tourism offerings.
From quaint cottage stays and vineyard tours to on-site alfresco dining, these four Bangalore wineries offer visitors much more than just a new vintage.
The new vineyard on the block
In the rural outskirts 27km west of Bangalore stands a 400-year-old tree. Referred to as dodda alada mara by the locals, or “big banyan tree” in English, this ancient tree, which covers over a hectare of land, serves as the inspiration for the name behind whisky baron Paul John’s first foray into the world of viticulture.
Big Banyan has been on the radar of India’s oenophiles since it first started producing wine at its Goa winery about a decade ago, with the help of Trentino-based winemaker and enology expert, Lucio Matricardi. The expansion into Bangalore began with the construction of a second winery in 2016. That same year, their dessert wine, Bellissima – the first in India to be made from Muscat grapes – won a gold award in the 2016 Indian Wine Consumer’s Choice Awards.
The small, 1.2-hectare on-site vineyard is open to visitors and grows Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier varietals, all imported from Italy before being grafted in-house. “Italian roots are not feasible with the Indian soil. They don’t adapt well,” explains 23-year-old Muthamma, who leads all of the vineyard’s wine tastings.
“So we graft an Italian shoot to an Indian root. An Indian root can easily absorb the nutrients from Indian soil and give these essential nutrients to the Italian shoot, which in turn, gives us the grapes.” Though young in years, Muthamma, who holds a Masters in Biotechnology, is an erudite, engaging and knowledgeable guide.
Big Banyan’s 1.5-hour wine tasting sessions (complete with cheese pairings) take place in a rustic, wood-panelled room decorated with images of the various stages of the winemaking process.
During harvest season (March through May in southern Karnataka), Big Banyan offers visitors a chance to hand-pick grapes. There are also plans to open several cottages and a restaurant for visitors looking for a wine-themed getaway close to the city.
India’s oldest winemakers
During his work trips to Europe in the early 1960s, Mumbai-based businessman Kanwal Grover developed a palate for fine wines but soon realised the same opportunities were not available for his European counterparts when they visited India.
His quest for good-quality Indian wines eventually led him to renowned French winemaker, Georges Vesselle, who taught him everything about the winemaking process. In 1988, they planted the first varieties of French vines in the Nandi Hills appellation, north of Bangalore, and in 1992, the winery produced its first vintage.
“Young people in India are not afraid to try and buy new wines”
“Today, Grover Zampa Vineyards has over 81 hectares of their own vines, along with long-term contracts with farmers to supply grapes to their processing plants in Bangalore and Nashik,” explains Sumit Jaiswal, assistant vice president of marketing and exports. Being the country’s oldest winery comes with a lot of firsts. They were the first to use an optical sorting machine that easily separates out the best grapes for fermentation, and they are one of the few wineries that make use of concrete tanks for fermentation, and clay amphorae and enormous wooden vats called foudres, for ageing.
It’s these initiatives that have set Grover Zampa apart, allowing them to win more than 171 awards since 2013. At the company’s sprawling winery, the rugged Nandi Hills serve as a perfect backdrop for the symmetrical rows of verdant green vines. Their guided tours delve deep into the winemaking process, offering insight into the region’s terroir as well as recommendations on wine pairings, especially with Indian cuisine.
India’s first wine for a cause
Turning off the Bangalore-Mysore highway, a scenic drive down a 4km stretch of winding countryside road takes you to Kādu. Once inside, a paved brick walkway lined with repurposed oak barrels leads towards an airy, glass-enclosed tasting room where visitors sample wines from Sula Vineyards. The winery is also home to Epulo Vineyard Restaurant, where the menu is curated to match Sula wines.
Beyond the wining and dining, Sula has its sights set on a higher purpose. In 2017, the company – currently India’s largest producer and exporter of wine – purchased a lush 4-hectare estate just 69km southwest of Bangalore. Renaming it Kādu, which means “wild” in Kannada, the winery now focuses on four varietals all made exclusively in Karnataka with a single mission: tiger conservation.
Years of poaching and habitat destruction have left India’s tigers vulnerable. According to the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority, India’s tiger population dropped to just 2,226 tigers left in the wild in 2014. Though the population count has since grown to 2,967, there are still only an estimated 524 tigers in the state of Karnataka, a number Sula is keen to see rise.
“Sula contributes INR5 (S$0.09) of proceeds from each Kādu bottle sold towards tiger conservation efforts in Karnataka,” shares 33-year-old assistant manager, Vinod Asok. By partnering with Sanctuary Nature Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to wildlife protection in India, they’re able to support conservation efforts in Karnataka’s Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Sula also supports the efforts undertaken by Vanodaya Wildlife Trust – from awareness campaigns to patrols that help mitigate poaching activities in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary.
India’s first female-owned boutique winery
Since the 2013 launch of their first wine, Deva, SDU Winery in Nandi Hills has been making waves in the winemaking scene, thanks to the vision of founder Shambhavi Hingorani and Italian winemaker Andrea Valentinuzzi.
While many other Indian wineries employ contract farmers to source their grapes from across the country’s wine-growing regions, Hingorani has made it a point to do just the opposite. “Growing grapes at our own vineyards has allowed us to focus on quality and keep things consistent,” shares the taciturn 46-year-old. Because of the region’s temperate climate and the red, limestone-rich soil, which more efficiently retains water, SDU Winery is able to grow a number of different varietals on site.
“India’s wine market is still growing. We have a lot of new wine drinkers coming into the market, so we try and keep it very palatable for them,” Hingorani explains. “But at the same time, we make sure our wines are enjoyed by connoisseurs as well.” Their 2012 Reserva Syrah, a medium-bodied red, was voted India’s best wine in the 2014 Selection of India’s Finest Wines competition by the Mumbai Wine Club.
Guests at the winery get to take part in year-round experience-based activities such as grape stomping. In fact, this is one of the main activities that has helped them attract new customers who are curious to learn more about the winemaking process. In the future, the winery also plans on hosting open-air vineyard brunches.
2 city bars for a sip of rum
Located on the hotel’s 21st floor, this chic lounge overlooks the city skyline. They focus on artisanal cocktails, such as the Namaskara, made with tender coconut aged rum, while the Mohan 88 is named after the brewer who put Old Monk Rum on the liquor map.
While diners may come for the moreish Cantonese cuisine, what brings them back is the restaurant’s creative craft cocktails. Crowd favourites include the Chinese Love Potion, made with white rum, and homemade rose and vanilla syrup.
To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights to Bangalore, visit singaporeair.com.
SEE ALSO: Wines from the Bordeaux region
This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of Silkwinds magazine