Mumbai, Bombay and Nashik: Part 3

Sunrises don’t come any more captivating than this. The power and force of the light as it rose over the Nashik Valley on Saturday morning was so inspiring that even I had to get up early to see it. For someone who hates mornings with great passion, that is saying something!

Our time in India was sadly drawing to an end, but we still had the weekend and a day in Mumbai to look forward to. Rajeev, the CEO and founder of Sula Vineyards was arriving on Saturday to wrap up the filming at Sula. He was the last piece of the puzzle in our documentary about wine-making, the man who defied the naysayers and put Indian wine on the map. Our team was sure that he would want to get cracking immediately and make use of the amazing light.

Rajeev arrived and promptly went to bed. Just for a power nap mind you; apparently it works wonders for his stamina.

Refreshed after his siesta, Rajeev started telling the story of Sula and why he felt the urge to become a farmer. We learned that table grape growing had long been a part of the Nashik economy and so Rajeev felt that high quality wine growing only needed the right vineyard sites and expertise.

“When I came back to India from California in the early 90s after working in Silicon Valley I visited Nashik one weekend for a family wedding. We saw this piece of land that my father was planning to sell, just simple grassland with little value. I begged him to let me use the land to grow crops–we planted mango trees which eventually were supplanted with vines.”

Fifteen years later, it would be hard to overstate what Rajeev has done for the Indian wine industry. India must be the top contender for a country that people least associate with wine, or at least it used to be.

It should be said that Sula produced the first Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Zinfandel wines in India and are now the largest winery in the country. The Hotel Resort and Spa is also the first of its kind and has already attracted guests from Europe, Malaysia and the US. In the space of 12 years, Sula has become the foremost symbol of Indian wine, not just a wine-brand but an icon for the entire Indian Wine Industry. Perhaps in another twenty years there will be another 40, or 50 wineries in Nashik? As India awakens to the pleasures of wine it is a distinct possibility.

If pouring praise on Rajeev for his work with Sula is an easy task, pinpointing a regional style that the Sula terroir offers is rather more difficult. In brief, some of the wines like the sparkling and the dessert wine felt slightly mis-guided, as if the terroir was shouting loud and clear that these are not the styles to pursue in Nashik. I hope Sula can prove me wrong with future tastings.

The sweet Chenin lack some acidity and definition while the sparkling Chenin offered no real flavor or presence on the palate. The Viognier, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc on the other hand, all being recent vintages, were excellent with the Syrah showing the most promise. This variety always astonishes me with its capacity to produce ripe but structured wines even in the most warm of climates. The Viognier was also a pleasure to drink, a natural viscosity balanced by ripe peach and apricot fruit. Sula wines are ideal with Indian food – as we would hope – the Syrah and Chenin coped well with the wide variety of flavours and spices.

In the right hands Nashik can produce ripe, exotic but structured wines of real merit as Sula have proven. It would be a mistake, however, to try to get everything right. I mean, who would want to see Pinot Noir grown in Queensland, Australia, or Syrah planted in Iceland.

Just don’t speak to Rajeev when he is reading the paper. I tried it once on Sunday morning and lived to tell the tale, but just barely.

After filming at the Hotel and Spa, we spent the evening at Rajeev’s house at Sula. It is at this point that I should apologize for a giant omission. Sula would not have happened without the advice, hard work and support of his American partner, Kerry Damskey. Kerry and his wife Daisy produce wine in California and Kerry has been helping Rajeev since day one. Hoping for a good story from Kerry I did not leave India disappointed, as he is planning to build a winery in Costa Rica next year. A larger than life character, he delights in growing vines in the most challenging of places. His Syrah is divine as well; Palmeri wines are definitely worth checking out.

We made our goodbyes and set off with Rajeev to Mumbai on Monday morning. Having only glimpsed the city on arrival I was keen to spend a day flowing in the city’s rhythms. Fourteen hours is not long in a city but I tell you this, if one word sums up Mumbai–it is traffic. A 3 hour journey took 6. I had never seen so many cars in my life. Another word to use would be Chaos–Mumbai is not for tourists who hate crowds.

This metropolis is certainly the best introduction for visitors to modern India, the capital for making money, Bollywood and Botox is the most liberal and westernised of all Indian cities. Downtown Mumbai is a mass of construction cranes constantly battling to keep up with the growth in population and wealth. The central park houses a large race course which is worth a look, as the waterfront promenade comes recommended for strolling in the evening. It was one of the few places that I felt relatively calm in the city.

We spent the day filming at major sights around the city and an afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel. They win the prize for most appealing hotel bar, being situated on the 34th floor. If you only visit one bar in Mumbai, make sure it is this one. The views of the city skyline are incredible, the staff friendly and the cocktail list impressive. Jasjit Singh, the hotel food and beverage manager, was a great host, explaining how fine consumption in India is on the increase, as the post I.T. boom hangover created a new, super rich Indian elite desperate for their share of Lafite and Latour. The future may be India, if they can lower those stupidly high taxes and tariffs.

Our last evening was spent in a charming Italian restaurant, Olive. Expect a gorgeous white washed outdoor dining area and fresh fish barbeque to perfection. It was probably the most decadent meal we had in India; the fresh bread, pasta, everything . . . was wonderful. Highly recommended if you need a break from dahl, rice, and chapatis!

With great sadness, I said goodbye to our guide Joanne–one of Sula’s greatest assets–and quickly grabbed 2 hours sleep before departing for our 5:00am flight. The filming may have been over but I knew this was only the beginning of my experiences in India. Having seen Mumbai, I now wanted to see it all–Delhi, Goa, tigers, temples and of course the Taj Mahal.

I suppose I’m not really qualified to comment at length on what the visitor should expect from India, as we were there for a week and saw so little of this overwhelmingly vast country. But, I will say this. If we measure the greatness of a country in the response that it inspires from visitors, then India is truly awesome. Love it or hate it, I guarantee you will not feel apathy towards the place. Such strong reactions could only be inspired by a country as unique, diverse (albeit infuriating at times!) and special as India.

I’ll be back!

More Information:

Costa Rican winemaking: http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12517&Itemid=66

Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai: http://www.olivebarandkitchen.com/

The Four Seasons Hotel sky bar, Mumbai: http://www.fourseasons.com/mumbai/dining/aer/

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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