In India, where whiskey is the alcoholic beverage of choice, and teetotalers exist by the legions, a wine culture has been almost nonexistent. However, Nashik, a picturesque area with deep-green, rolling hills, is finally changing that perception.
More than a half-dozen wineries with attractive tasting rooms and, in some cases, restaurants and accommodations, have opened here in the last several years and are turning this fertile valley about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Mumbai into a popular oenophile destination for trendsetting Indians.
For centuries, farmers cultivated high-quality table grapes and a handful of other crops on the hundreds of acres around Nashik (also Nasik). Now, local entrepreneurs, as well as some from Mumbai, caught on to the fact that the sunny, moderate climate and the paucity of rain — save for the monsoon months of May and June — make an ideal wine-producing environment. Today, more than 25 grape varieties grow here, including chardonnay, malbec, viognier and sauvignon blanc.
The wine boom started with Sula Vineyards more than a decade ago. Rajeev Samant, 43, a Mumbai native who worked in Oracle’s finance group in the Silicon Valley, returned home in 1993 with plans to grow mangoes on his family’s land in Nashik, but realized that growing wine grapes might be more lucrative.
“The table grapes were so good, and I had been exposed to wine, living near Napa Valley, and sensed an opportunity,” he said.
He hired a winemaker from California, and the Sula label was introduced in 2000 with a chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc.
As more wineries opened, Sula expanded to attract leisure travelers, adding a 2,000-square-foot tasting room, a 10,000-seat amphitheater for concerts and an Indian and Italian restaurant. The Beyond Vineyard Resort, with 32 rooms and an infinity pool, followed in 2010. Earlier this year, Samant opened the wine-themed Vino Spa with treatments like a grape-seed scrub.
Visitors numbered 150,000 last year, compared with fewer than 5,000 when the winery opened. And some of the world’s top restaurants sell Sula’s wine, including Daniel in New York City.
Less than a mile from Sula is York Winery, which Kailash Gurnani, 25, started with his older brother Ravi, 29. York has a light-flooded tasting room, as well as a popular, contemporary restaurant focusing on North Indian dishes. The staff suggests wine pairings. “We want the people to come here not just to enjoy our wine but also to feel like they’re having a relaxing getaway,” Kailash Gurnani said.
One of Nashik’s newest labels is the year-old Grover Zampa Vineyards, created out of two wineries — Grover, in the wine region outside Bangalore, and Zampa, which was in Nashik — after a friendship grew between the founders, Kapil Grover and Ravi Jain. They are expanding beyond their spacious tasting room with a luxury hotel that is under construction.
Lodging is also in the works at Vallonné Vineyards, where the founder, Shailendra Pai, opened a three-bedroom villa last month with plans to build 20 cottages on the property by early 2015.
While French-style grapes are the norm in Nashik, Reveilo stands out for its Italian varietals, such as sangiovese and nero d’avola. The winery was started by Yatin Patil, a Nashik native, and his wife, Kiran, both 40, who quit finance jobs to cultivate his family land into a wine business.
The couple enlisted a winemaker from Italy’s Friuli region, and the sprawling winery today has a veranda where Yatin Patil and his staff guide guests through samplings, matching the wines with tasty fare, like sweet biscuits and chicken kebabs.
Pallavi Shah, an India travel specialist in New York, said that since wine drinking in India is mostly limited to the upper class, Nashik’s wineries must meet the exacting standards of a discerning clientele.
“Their plan is working,” she said. “Nashik is now known as India’s wine valley.”