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The maturing of Indian wine

He is known as the ‘Wandering Winemaker’ and the ‘Indiana Jones of Winemaking’. As for that last term of endearment, “My lovely wife gave me that title,” laughs Kerry Damskey, the jolly California-based winemaker who has been the primary consultant for Sula Vineyards since its inception.

Recently, we caught up with him on his latest visit to India to confer with Sula’s winemaking team.

Wine story

The Indiana Jones moniker comes from his penchant for making wines in wild places, from Israel to Costa Rica, and even a proposed urban winery in Singapore. In 1995, when Damskey first came to Nashik, India too must have seemed like an exotic, adventurous place to make wines, something that had not been attempted in the region before. “I worked with a couple of Indians then, brought in a viticulturist and we brought the first wine grapes here to build a winery,” says Damskey.

While that partnership did not progress further, Damskey had a chance meeting with Rajeev Samant, Founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, in 1997. “Rajeev had just quit his job in Silicon Valley and wanted to return to India and start a winery,” says Damskey. “We had lunch at Sonoma [California], and we hit it off wonderfully.”

The American winemaker hired Samant to work at his California winery for the 1997 vintage, after which he returned and started Sula Vineyards in Nashik, Maharashtra. “For the first vintage of 1999 we bought those grapes that I had planted in Nashik in my initial partnership,” he says. “And we produced 150 cases each of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. I remember tasting the wine and thinking ‘it’s really good’; I was happily surprised.”

Trend watch

The Indian wine industry has evolved considerably since 1999, though it’s still in its infancy when compared to more established wine-growing regions worldwide. “Ten years ago, everyone wanted to start a winery in India,” he says. “I don’t think people understood how difficult it was. For the longest time when we did competitive tastings, Sula was the only wine that was drinkable. There are fewer wineries now, but I’m happy to see that the ones that have survived are making good wine.”

Worldwide, wine drinking is fairly well-established, almost a cultural thing. However, in India it’s a different story. “India has a lot of potential, but the question is what percentage of Indians are exposed to wine; I suspect it’s less than five per cent.”

Also, India drinks wine differently as compared to the rest of the world. For us, wine is had before a meal; in a social situation, getting together and tasting wine. “But they don’t drink wine with food. I think when Indians start realising that wine is not just a social drink but also pairs wonderfully with Indian cuisine, they will enjoy it more.”

But Damskey also believes that the evolution of wines in India, from being something special to a more daily part of life will be a generational one.

Damskey is also helping Sula Vineyards keep abreast with sustainable practices that are being advocated in grape-growing. He’s helping the Indian winery recognise that water is a finite source and should be treasured. “It’s hard to see that now considering this year’s monsoon and the way it’s pouring,” laughs Damskey. But on a more sobering note, he adds, “Water was going to run out last year. That could happen next year. It’s becoming increasingly unpredictable.”

Less is more

With climate change and rising temperature it’s brought about, wine growers are actively seeking methods of using less water to grow the same healthy amount of fruit. “We are creating rootstocks [the root system on which the wine grapes are grafted] that are less needy of water, and it is working.”

There’s an evolution on the soil front as well, internationally and at Sula. “The thought of less is more has become more prevalent. We are no longer indiscriminately spraying pesticides, nitrogen and other chemicals,” says Damskey.

Organic grape-growing is tough in India because of the humidity, so pesticides and chemicals cannot be done away with. Yet, sustainable grape-growing is the way forward: minimising water usage; using oils instead of chemicals. As Damskey puts it, “considering the impact on Mother Earth while growing grapes.”

The author is a Mumbai-based freelance travel and food writer

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 4:08:50 AM |

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