Wine to Watch: Spreading sweetness and light, Arka

India’s relationship with honey is akin to having undercover agents in the family. You have grown up with them, but do you really know them? In December 2020, a report claimed the majority of Indian honeys were fake, adulterated, or chemically tweaked. It kindled a conversation about understanding them better. For an oenophile, there’s more to honey than just a breakfast spread or a dessert topping, or a cocktail ingredient. There’s also mead, an ancient fermented alcoholic beverage gifted by India to the world, which has been on the rise since its return in a nouveau, polished avatar about five years ago. And amongst its flag-bearers is Arka, an exotic dessert drink from Maharashtra.

Priyanka Save, a mechanical engineer by profession, was producing Fruzzante, where she, along with Canadian fruit winemaker, Dominic Rivard, turned different fruits into fruity, fizzy alcoholic drinks. Based in Bordi at the northern tip of Maharashtra, Fruzzante is the world’s first Chikoo (mud apple) winery that also produces drinks with starfruit, pineapple, orange, mango, and strawberry.

On one of his visits to India in 2017, Dominic caught a chill, and to soothe his itchy throat, Priyanka gave him a remedial concoction of warm water, spices, ginger, and honey. Dominic loved it, and enquired if it could be infused into their sparkling chikoo drink. This was enough for Priyanka to put her mad scientist hat on and begin experiments with fermenting honey. She has forever been passionate about showcasing the brilliant natural offering of her region and this was her chance to bring glory to the neighbouring Palghar tribal belt, whose golden nectar she had been relishing since childhood. A few months later, with assistance from Canadian mead-expert, Jay Hildybrant, Arka was born.

Priyanka says, “Honey and mead find mentions in the vedas, they were consumed by the Pandavas, by royalty, and dignitaries. A lot of inspiration for Arka came from those periods. Honey is an extract of flowers, and Arka is the ancient Sanskrit term for that.

People relate honey with luxury and sweetness and that’s what we wanted to put in the bottle. Also, we knew it could later be exported, hence the bottle and the label had to bring in Indian elements like the stamp, elephants, et cetera.” Amusingly, Priyanka shares that ‘Madhu’ was amongst the names proposed initially, as it is a common Hindi moniker for honey. However, Maharashtra’s excise policy prohibits any alcohol bearing a woman’s name! It’s a funny rule, but I reckon ‘Arka’ aptly conjures up the philosophy of the drink.

Arka, described as a wildflower honey comes in a distinctive bottle with a special cork and is imbued with several botanicals

When I tasted Arka from its first 2,500-bottle batch I was pleasantly surprised. It was aromatic, perfumed, had refreshing acidity, a pleasing furriness on the palate, and wasn’t at all cloying. The honey is sourced by the tribal inhabitants of the forests where flowers grow wild, which inspired Priyanka to christen it as ‘a wildflower honey’, as opposed to ‘multifloral’, which is the term generally used. Unlike wines, where yeast is rendered inactive by dropping the fermentation temperature or by adding sulphites, with Arka fermentation is arrested by adding more honey and suppressing the yeast rather than killing it. This not only sweetens the drink, but it also helps retain the honey’s original character that blossoms even more with aeration. The honey is organic, sourced from the wild as it’s supposed to be, mixed with naturally sourced water, no sulphites, no killing of the yeast; Arka is the true ‘arka’ of nature!

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Wanting to duplicate that appealing mouthfeel Priyanka started experimenting with flavours, and rose petals were a natural progression

At my first tasting, my instant reaction was “Wow! So much can be done with this drink.” With dessert wines, the idea is to capture the grape’s varietal character and no flavour additions are permitted. However, with meads, there are no such restrictions. Honey being a strong sweet substance retains its sweet flavour, to which an abundance of botanicals can be added.

Priyanka knew this from the start. Being an oenophile herself, she loves the mouthfeel of oak and tannins in a well-made red wine. Wanting to duplicate that appealing mouthfeel she started experimenting with flavours, and rose petals were a natural progression. They are considered regal, a symbol of romance, the utmost sign of purity in Indian mythology, all factors that fitted precisely in Arka’s philosophy. Dried rose petals added that furriness and grip, as well as giving the mead sufficient body that would be commendable in any good wine.

I tasted it straight from the tanks at the winery in March last year. From the first whiff, it arrests you and doesn’t let your attention wander. The bottle comes stoppered with a special cork that allows the mead to breathe and live until it’s consumed and becomes a memory.

After Rose Arka, playing with flavours became an obsession. Priyanka found herself naturally drawn to the Palghar belt again, this time for the Konkan Bahadoli Jamun berries. Priyanka confidently says, “We look for ingredients that impart flavours, and are close to Indian hearts. Who hasn’t enjoyed these dark, gummy, juicy, teeth-staining berries?” Jamuns are deseeded, pulped, and added to the base Arka mead before being sweetened. Much like a wine, it’s then rested in ex-wine neutral oak barrels for about three months before returning to the tank for stabilisation,
bottling, and shipping.

Experiments continue, and Arka will soon have two more cousins. The next one is a limited-release batch in collaboration with chef Varun Inamdar. Apart from being a super talented chef, he’s also uber passionate about chocolates, so this is one of the new flavourings for Arka. South Indian cacao nibs are lightly roasted before being infused in the base of the original Arka mead for about a week, then sweetened, rested, and released.

Rose Arka is a dessert mead flavoured with dried rose petals

The succeeding variant will fill the bottle with single-origin honey from the Vidarbha region and its famous Nagpuri oranges. That’s a combo that can’t go wrong, right? But this one may take at least a year’s wait, and since Priyanka is a perfectionist, it

may even be longer, so we shouldn’t get excited just yet. And there’s so much more to come.…

After Rose Arka, playing with flavours became an obsession. Priyanka found herself naturally drawn to the Konkan Bahadoli Jamun berries

Meads are gluten free, guilt-free and exciting because they have made us look at our alcobevs in a different light, an environmentally driven light. Fruzzante brought glory to many Geographical Indication tagged fruits, and now with Arka that range is set to grow further. Arka brings about a better understanding of honey, meads, our agricultural richness, and commends the efforts of the families behind the nectars. It’s a celebration of the Indian ethos, our rich cultural heritage, and our senses. And if you’re still not convinced, remember what Einstein said: “If the bee disappears from the earth, man will have no more than four years left to live.” With every sip of Arka you will make the earth breathe and be a more sustainable place to live in.

Arka Rosé Rs 1095, Original & Jamun Rs 1050 in Goa and Maharashtra. By April it will be available in Rajasthan, Delhi & Punjab. Prices will vary.