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Walk the vine(s)

Chic and posh are two words often associated with wine. But how is it made? Rahul Sachitanand spent some time at Grover Vineyards to find out.

Print Edition: December 16, 2007

A cloudless, clear blue sky and light breeze appear to be the right ingredients to spend an afternoon in a vineyard as we head north out of the chaos that is Bangalore. Our destination: the 50-acre Grover Vineyards, part of the firm’s 300-odd acres of land in the region growing half-a-dozen different varieties of wine grapes.

As in most parts of Karnataka, the road is driveable only in patches (and descends into little more than a jungle track periodically) as we wind our way to the vineyards with the scenic Nandi Hills in the background. Over the last two decades, Kanwal Grover and his son Kapil have built what is arguably India’s best-known wine brand, starting at a time when Indian brands were unknown and steadily built their presence not just at home but overseas, too.

The seasons

The middle of November is not the best time to visit a vineyard, since acre upon acre of vines are dull brown in colour and workers are busy pruning the vines to ensure an ideal crop. The vines are undergoing the first of two prunings that control quantity and increase quality.

Dressed in a bright orange T-shirt and jeans, Grover explains that there is a fixed cycle to be followed for the production of wine. After the pruning in October-November, known as “front-pruning”, it takes 15 days for sprouting to begin and around six months for buds to emerge. From there, the vines take 30-45 days to start flowering and fruit setting and the first pea-sized grapes appear in another 60 days. The harvesting begins after 90 days.

 Wine truths

The best grapes Cabernet Sauvignon (red), Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir (red), Sauvignon Blanc (white)

What's grown in India Chenin Blanc (white), Cabernet Sauvignon (red), Sauvignon Blanc (white), Vioginer (red)

Time to harvest April; first harvest four years after planting

Less is more

Increasing productivity has been the cornerstone of most modern agricultural practices, but in wine-making the opposite holds true. According to Grover, top grade wines are made from grapes that don't yield more than 1.5-2 tonnes per acre. In India, the average is 3.5-4 tonnes per acre.

Grape expectations

There are, literally, hundreds of varieties of wine grapes, depending on location, climate and soil conditions. So the same grape variety (say Merlot) from France need not result in the same wine in both France and Australia and often taste distinctly different. Unlike many countries, India doesn't have a native wine grape variant and grows foreign varieties to produce wine.

A month or so after the first fruit appears, a colour change takes place (from green to red); this happens in winter, when there is noticeable difference in night and day temperatures. Growers will actually undertake a second round of pruning after the harvest to control productivity.

Plucking the grapes

While plucking grapes doesn’t have a specific technique like that associated with tea leaves, there are some ground rules. According to Grover, the best time to pick grapes is early morning (not after 9.30 am), with growers keeping close tabs on the (sugar) alcohol level, levels of tannin and ensuring that grapes aren’t bruised during picking.

Grapes are mostly harvested in summer (around April) when groups of labourers descend on the vineyards outside Bangalore to pluck the purple grapes in bunches and put them in plastic containers, which are swiftly taken to the winery.

From grapes to wines

A crusher separates the stem from the grape, which is then crushed. The juice flows into a giant chiller and from there to giant fermentation tanks, where it is left to sit for some time to continue the process of wine-making. While the skin of the grape is left on for the red wines (to give it required colour) it is removed in the case of white wine.

The grape juice sits in these giant stainless steel containers for up to a month; temperature and humidity levels are closely controlled to provide a specific taste. The first run-off after the fermentation, called vin de goutte (pronounced von duh goot) is extracted and the remaining mixture pressed to get vin de presse (the remaining mixture).

The two are then mixed to get the final blend. Then, the wine flows into wooden casks, where it is aged for anywhere between a couple of weeks and several months. Grover says that getting this far could take several decades. For one, India doesn’t have its own native wine grape, leaving growers to adopt trial and error methods to find the right varieties suitable for the country.

Getting it right

The Grovers spent the first decade trying different varieties and locations to set up operations. Grover says he initially focussed on the Pergola form of cultivation (where a plant is actually sown into the soil); it was much later that the company moved to the more accepted Cordon system, where new plants are grafted on to the root stalk.

Tending to a vineyard can be a painful and often unprofitable business. It took the Grovers a decade to get their grapes sorted out and even longer to start making money. As we drive from the upscale Angsana Spa where Grover stays on his visits, to his vineyards, he explains some of the intricacies in running this business.

The trade secrets

For starters, it takes four years after you have planted the crop to get your first grapes and several more before you can expect to have a “good” fruit ready. In between, it is a hit-or-miss game. “This wasn’t the only location we tried,” Grover laughs, “we ended up as far north as Srinagar.”

 Time trial

It takes four years after you plant your vines to get the first crop and the process itself could take a decade or longer to perfect. There are grape varieties to fret over, worries over ensuring yields and quality and logistics issues to ensure that the harvest reaches a winery as quickly as possible. Even after all this, there is every chance that your labour could be wasted, since the grape may be unusable or the wine at the end of the process unpalatable.

Watch that wine

Grover believes that there are some thumb rules to be followed before and after opening a bottle. Indian food, for example, usually goes much better with a strong-bodied red wine, while white is better suited for mild European dishes. How cold? About 18-20 degrees Celsius is the ideal temperature at which to drink wine. You can buy a wine thermometer to gauge a bottle’s temperature.

While Grover’s land is fairly fertile, there is little evidence to prove that healthy conditions actually produce a better grape. On the contrary, grapes in several regions of France are actually grown in poor chalky and even stony soil. “Grapes that survive these hardships may actually be more suitable,” says Grover.

Some basic rules

As we walk back from the vineyard, Grover gets serious about basic rules for wine-making. “Wine shouldn’t be made from regular table grapes; there are separate varieties for wine,” he says, adding a tad nostalgically: “We took a decade to get it right and scoured the country looking for a place to set up shop.”

While the Grovers relied initially on their own taste buds , their efforts received a fillip 12 years ago when renowned wine expert Michelle Rolland came on board as an advisor. “This helped us move up a notch in quality,” says Grover as we climb to the top of his pump house to get a 360-degree panoramic view of the vineyard.

As we move to the tasting room, where, in between tasting some wines and getting photographed, Grover tells us that wine is a highly individual taste, despite the highbrow opinions of some experts. “There are a few basic characteristics that you want a wine to have, but beyond that it is up to each individual to choose how acidic he wants wine or if he prefers a white or red,” says Grover. While French wine has had a legacy brand appeal, he believes that much of this is overcooked especially in the budget or mid-market segment, where there are not just cheaper, but more refined varieties, available in Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Chile and California.

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