Guess which cool climate wine is HOT right now in India

Piero Masi checking the grapes for ripeness at Fratelli Vineyards

Gagan Sharma visits Nashik and is pleasantly surprised to find Chardonnay poised to become the wine of the future

A new wine producer’s primary task is to understand the relationship between the vines, climate cycles, and the potential of the land at his disposal. In India this gets even tougher, simply because we’re off the universal grape belt of 30-50° North/South of the equator. Conventional viticultural principles

don’t apply to our geography. Yet, with every passing vintage, Indian winemakers understand these three factors of vine, climate aand soil better, allowing themselves an ever-growing confidence to experiment. In my recent trip to Nashik I noticed one such continuous experiment finally bearing fruit. It’s the oak-oriented Chardonnays, which India has been working on for 20 years now. They not only look very exciting and diverse, but also hold a massive promise for the future.

Unlike in other countries, growing Chardonnay wasn’t easy in India. The main hurdle was the psyche of the farmers. To begin with, they were shy to experiment and, even though some agreed to do so, they weren’t very happy with the results. The yields were negligible with marginal quality and of course, there wasn’t much demand in the first place. This obliged the winemakers to buy crops at extremely high rates, making the prospect of failure a financial and strategic nightmare.

Yatin Patil, Director of Vintage Wines, recalls the economic risk, and yet he allowed his passion for the varietal to prevail. He was the first winemaker to take the grape to farm, back in 2000. Vintage Wines’ 2005 harvest became India’s first single varietal, unoaked Chardonnay. And with the arrival of new oak barrels in December that year, their 2006 crush gifted India its first barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It has a definite personality with exuberant tropical fruitiness and a backbone of strong oak, making a brilliant treat for the palate. To date it remains the epitome of Indian winemaking courage. With Reveilo’s Reserve Chardonnay, India indisputably marked the arrival of a wine-style that will be followed for decades to come. Vintage wines today uses solely Italian clones and grows all its own Chardonnay grapes.

The Italians were quick to take note of this, and Fratelli Wines’ dynamic winemaker duo of Alessio Secci and Piero Masi soon followed suit. They planted their first Chardonnay vines in 2007 in Motewadi and the following year at Garwar. They too had to begin on their own. Alessio developed the vines at their winery’s site before passing them to the farmers in 2015. To offset the initial financial risk farmers feared, they not only paid them a high per kilo price, but also offered a minimum guarantee plan, which worked in their favour.

Piero Masi checking the grapes for ripeness at Fratelli Vineyards

Piero proudly submitted that he found their soil characteristics in minerality similar to those of Burgundy. This moved them to introduce Burgundian clones. According to Aessio it’s the minerality of their site combined with high-quality clones that make all the difference. And, probably, that’s why there’s no one else who produces as many shades of Chardonnays in the country as Fratelli. They initiated oak integration with an iconic Blue Label Chardonnay in their first year, which is now a virgin, unoaked expression. However, the urge to create a completely oak-oriented Chardonnay was still bubbling somewhere in the back of their creative minds. This gave birth to their French oak barrel-fermented Vitae Chardonnay, which commanded instant attention. I remember promptly lauding its quality of oak integration, lees influence, and minerality.

Following this triumph, the Vitae range,with a single-vineyard Sangiovese and an aromatic blend with Muller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer, became a symbol of gutsy experimentation by Fratelli. However, it has lately been de-listed to make space for a new identity. Chardonnay is now a part of the highly regarded Junoon white wine and JCB 47 sparkling wine, born from the collaboration between Fratelli Wines, the Italian partners and the enigmatic Burgundian, Jean Claude Boisset (JCB). It’s a limited release small-batch production which was destined mainly for international markets, with a modest allocation for India. As Alessio confirms, “JCB takes the lead in the blending process and aims at bringing in a taste of Burgundian culture. He has been instrumental in helping the label go in the Burgundy direction, which was Piero’s founding idea with Chardonnay.”

When asked why JCB would invest in Indian Chardonnays, Alessio points out that it reminds him of the Burgundy soil back home. Now, Junoon uses a 60-40 blend of barrel- fermented to stainless steel Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, while JCB47 is a high- quality bubbly with a base of 100% barrel- fermented wine and a long 24-month lees ageing. Although there’s a Junoon red as well, it’s the white sibling that’s captured attention since its first introduction with the 2016 vintage, which consisted of only 2,600 bottles.

After Nashik and Akluj, the next Chardonnay crops were being planted in the then yet-to-be-celebrated Hampi Hills in Karnataka. Krsma Estates planted their Chardonnay vines in 2009, bottling their first vintage in 2013. They envisioned the combined influence of their virgin terroir, cool nights with a diurnal drop in temperature, and unique soil type yielding a commendable expression. Vintage and Fratelli Chardonnays had already arrived on the scene, and Krsma had taken note of their potential.

Krishna Prasad Chigurupati, owner of Krsma Estates, strongly believed that Hampi Hills’ Chardonnay could create a niche of its own. The initial vintages aimed at displaying the promise of the fruit, sans the wood. They kept experimenting with ripeness levels and winemaking styles before, in 2017, their Chardonnay interacted with oak for three months. It was due partly to their curiosity and growing confidence, party to a new consulting winemaker. I remember tasting a very young expression of the wine where the liquid and oak were yet to become a single entity. A few cellaring years later, it yielded a beautifully harmonious amalgamation. Unfortunately though, the promise failed to last. After five successful vintages, the vines demanded more nutrients than the soil could offer. In a hard decision, Krsma Estates had to uproot the varietal.

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While this was happening in Hampi, back in Nashik two neighbours, York Wines and Sula Vineyards, were gearing up for their Chardonnay expressions. Winemaker Kailash Gurnani, the creative genius behind York’s wines, believed that making a good Chardonnay was like a virtual pat on the back in the winemaking world. And his desire to make something beyond the by now famous whites and reds in India – Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon – drew him closer to the varietal. He realised the potential of Indian Chardonnays during the trials at his winery of Chandon India

Gurnani planted his first Chardonnay vines in 2014 and increased plantation the following year. 2018 was his first crush of the varietal, which was released as India’s first single-vineyard Chardonnay, called H-Block. The name comes from the section on his plantation where the vines were planted. The H-Block stands out from other oak-influenced Chardonnays in India. It isn’t a typical heavily oak influenced wine, nor would I describe it as a fruit forward one. It accentuates the plot’s expression and its minerality stands out amongst all the whites in the valley. It is primarily a stainless steel fermented wine with some fermenting in used French oak barrels. As he explains, “Oak in wines is like salt in food. A winemaker must use just enough to enhance the flavours. The aim is to make an overall harmonious and memorable recipe, not to glorify its parts.”

Four thousand bottles of H-Block were released in the first vintage ,growing in the number to 6,700 in 2020. I’ve always lauded Kailash’s winemaking style and philosophy. It is a minimalistic approach and strong on experimentation. Though H-Block at present is a single vineyard wine, Kailash would not like to market it as one. He sees a growing potential in the style and, with demand soaring, it might not always remain a wine of single vineyard origin.

On my way back from the trip, I wasn’t surprised that I had selected only Chardonnays to carry home. The pick of my collection was. Karan Vasani, Sula’s chief winemaker, has done an excellent job of creating a consumer- friendly wine that has exuberant fruit, balanced oak integration, an eye-catching label, and a price that encourages consumers to try it. Not only was this to be their first tryst with the varietal, but labelling it under their iconic Dindori range shows great confidence in its quality. Their first vintage was in 2018 with about 1,000 cases in production which were sold exclusively at the winery. From that modest beginning, confidence soared, and now production has grown five-fold. For the introductory vintage, they brought new French oak barrels, hence only some portion went through barrel fermentation. In the following vintages, less new oak is used, with the addition of a few experimental American oak barrels, and the wines seem to be faring well. I have my eyes set on their future expressions for sure.

Indian Chardonnays are definitely beyond their teething stage. The promise is immense and winemakers are backing their experiments thanks to the growing demand for the varietal. Piero Masi suggests that it may well be the grape of the future, as long as guaranteed quality is achieved within an attractive price range. Fratelli has done well with four different expressions. But Masi does add that it’s still challenging to grow good Chardonnay in India and firm control in the vineyards is a must. Fratelli initially produced 13,000 bottles of their Chardonnay Blue Label, which now has grown to 100,000 bottles!!

Yatin Patil confidently says that Chardonnay has definitely grown the most in quantity for them, with scope for more. For him, the way forward is to keep experimenting, understanding the varietal better, and aligning with consumers’ ever-altering palates. In India, fruit forward wines with some complexity work best. As soon as they get too oaky, consumers move away. Thus, it’s imperative to understand and adapt to changes, and not try to imitate an international style.

Karan Vasani is pleasantly surprised with the consumer response to Chardonnay; he didn’t anticipate it would be so easy to sell. Now he’s confident about putting his money on it as the style for the future. He sees a magnitude of versatility in the category and suggests that consumers try the full spectrum. He’s noted a growth in Chardonnay plantings and considers it a safe varietal to grow. He does add, though, that Chardonnay crops are more expensive than any other white varietal being grown in India, which justifies the higher price tag.

I’m a convert. Indian Chardonnays are where I’m placing my bets. Indian palates have definitely evolved and become more refined. Our consumers have become smarter with their choices, and more inquisitive about what they’re drinking. They wish to learn the story behind the liquid, and Indian Chardonnays definitely have a story worth telling. In my view Indian Chardonnays are an excellent vehicle by which Indian palates can adapt to drinking oaky whites, and lean towards experimentation. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Indian Chardonnays picking up awards and becoming a definitive style globally. India is seen as a hot country, and our Chardonnays may just shatter the cool-climate notion and open minds of international drinkers as well. Much like our sparkling wines, and oaked Cabernets (blends) I’m sure to carry a few bottles of desi Chardonnays on my international tasting trips, with total pride and passion.