Ajoy Shaw on Small Wine Producers

Veteran winemaker and consultant, Ajoy Shaw believes small producers in India have great potential to produce authentic terroir wines

Ajoy Shaw is a veteran wine consultant based in Nashik, the wine capital of India. He has been working with wineries for 25 years and is a fervent advocate of small producers. Brinda Gill finds out why…

Veteran winemaker and consultant, Ajoy Shaw believes small producers in India have great
potential to produce authentic terroir wines

What drew you to the wine industry?
In 1992, during my graduation in Microbiology at Garware College, Pune, I did a project on wines for a competition. It involved a lot of study and scientific analysis. The project won the competition and in the process I got drawn to wines!

What has been your work experience in wine?
In 1999, I saw an advertisement for the post of an assistant winemaker at Sula Vineyards. I applied and got selected. I joined Sula and worked there till 2017. From winemaking to making out the first invoice for Sula, to adding automation and barrels, I learnt and did a lot in those 18 years. I continue to have a great relationship with the company. I also worked on harvesting in California, Bordeaux and Burgundy during my Sula days which added to my winemaking knowledge. In 2004, I went to London at my own expense and did the WSET Level 3 exam and passed with distinction. After leaving Sula I have been working as an independent wine consultant to many wineries, including making wines from fruits other than grapes. I have also judged many domestic and international wine competitions.

How would you define small producers and why did that segment catch your interest?
Small wine producers typically produce less than 200,000 litres a year. They may grow their own grapes or source grapes from contract farmers of whose viticultural practices they approve. One of my juniors at college, Ashok Surwade and his wife Jyotsna converted their small home into a boutique winery by the name of Nipha and started producing wine from the grapes they were earlier supplying to Sula. Their portfolio includes Nipha Muscat Blanc which is the first Muscat to be produced in India, with great perfume and character. Their efforts prove that if you have the passion you can create good, innovative wines. Of course, small producers face challenges, especially with regard to finances. The cost of grapes is a big challenge for small producers who do not have their own vineyards. Increasing acreage under vines is the solution to bringing down grape and wine prices. However, small producers can work out these challenges slowly as they do not have volume pressures from the market.

Why do you feel small producers are important?
I feel small producers are capable of making interesting, innovative and extraordinary wines. They are not under pressure to provide wines at the same consistency year after year the way big companies have to. Very large wineries rely on technology to cut down production costs, and in the process, lose some of their gut feel for a particular style, especially when handling small lots of wines. Small producers, on the other hand, make wines from the heart. They tend to be more experimental and innovative, and generally use simple machinery with less manpower in order to cut costs. They are thus more sustainable and more likely to tweak their wine during the process of winemaking to create something different for the consumer.

Small producers make wines from the heart. They tend to be more experimental and innovative and use logic to make wine. They generally use simple machinery and sometimes less manpower

What part do you play as a consultant for small producers?
The most important part of my consulting involves advising my clients on how to enhance quality. This spans various aspects of winemaking. I tell them when to harvest grapes, I talk about skin contact and the pressing of grapes, barrel ageing vs oak chips and staves, how to manage the pH of the wines, and more. Then there are aspects related to cost cutting. I also give them advice about
wine labels, about creating different styles of wine and connecting with the right people for marketing their wines.

Do you believe Indian wines have greater potential than is normally perceived?
We produce a lot of grapes in India, including table and wine grapes, and there is immense potential for producing a range of wines, including wines with different flavour profiles to interest consumers. When diners go to a restaurant they look forward to enjoying different cuisines and wines.

There is enough land available to grow grapes and we have all the infrastructure for it. India is a vast country and there are many places that are suitable for grape growing. Currently, India
is the ninth largest producer of grapes in the world but the amount of wine produced is very low. I believe the number of wine producers and the types of wines are only going to grow.

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So you think that the Indian wine industry can give something new to the world?
I feel we need to explore our terroir and create our own styles. We do not need to copy the West or their styles but reference and learn from them. We should not depend on the West or other traditional grape-growing regions of the world to benchmark our wines. Each terroir is different and will have its own character. Take the example of Georgia (see page xx). The country is considered to be the cradle of wine. It has its own unique wine production style, with wines being produced from indigenous grape varieties and fermented in qvevri or in amphorae that are buried underneath the ground, where fermentation, maceration and maturation take place. Georgian wines have attracted interest because they are different. Another example is Dubonnet, a French
fortified wine mixed with spices which was popularised by Queen Elizabeth II.

We need to broaden our view about wine styles. India’s dusty and mildly chilly or warm conditions, as compared to cool climate conditions, will produce a certain style, that is completely different from the wines produced elsewhere. There are more small wineries in the world than there are big wineries, and the same is the case for India. The Indian wine industry is very young. The small wine producers in India can play a significant role in the wine industry by developing their own styles of wine.

Ajoy Shaw advises small wine producers on all aspects of wine production and marketing

What are the changes in wine production that need to be kept in mind?
Natural factors as well as winemaking techniques have to be factored in. The period of skin contact during fermentation depends on the quality of the grape skin matured under local weather conditions and will not necessarily have the same characteristics in India as in France or Italy. We are already harvesting as days are getting longer. This gives us a completely different quality of wine even though we follow the same process.

Even a maturation period of 18 months of ageing in barrels may need to be changed, depending on the aromatic intensity or the tannin levels of the wines produced. Malolactic fermentation which is necessory in Bordeaux may not be needed in India, as warmer conditions will produce grapes with lower malic acid. So, my role as a consultant is to bring out the best from the grapes that we have under local conditions. Basically, we need to be more adaptive and proactive rather than just wanting to imitate. A case in point is Sula Brut Tropicale, which is a fruitier roséstyle sparkling wine, and is quite fresh in comparison to the traditional doughy-yeasty, tangy, almost tart Champagne style.

Could you tell us about some of the wines you have worked on for small producers?
At Asav and Seven Peaks we have worked to produce a fresh, fruity style of wines which are doing well. For Plateaux Vintners we have made Vivaz Natural Chenin Blanc from organic grapes. The grapes are fermented with their skin and stems, giving tannins to the white wine, which is something unusual. For this the grapes are harvested when they are super-ripe and the tannins are also very ripe. It is also a natural wine and is produced without the addition of commercial yeast, making it India’s first wine from organic grapes in a natural style. The wine goes well with Indian food. For Vivaz Cabernet Sauvignon we have produced a wine with fruity flavours and tried to avoid the smoky flavours that characterise the typical Cabernet Sauvignon. This makes the wine a lighter version and it is more pleasurable to drink.

What are your thoughts on fruit wines?
I believe producing fruit wines is the best way to expand the wine market since a variety of fruits can be used to create wines that people enjoy and can relate to. The mind-set that wines can only be made from grapes needs to change. I have worked with pomegranate, kiwi and jamun wines. The Resvera jamun wines are light, fruity and refreshing, with off-dry sweetness. They have health benefits and pair well with spicy Indian food. Many fruits have curative properties with more antioxidants like resveratrol to be found in a glass of jamun wine than in a glass of grape wine! Infact, there is considerable potential for India to become the fruit wine capital of the world.

We should not depend on the West or other traditional grape-growing regions of the world to benchmark our wines. Each terroir is different and will have its own character