The Source: Sula’s premium collection

The Source Resort opened in 2017 and is situated on the site of the original winery where it all began

Rajeev Samant, CEO and founder of Sula Vineyards, says, “I worked very closely with our winemakers and team to come up with the idea of The Source. It is all about small-batch premium wines of a more European, Old World style. Till then, Sula wines were more New World. The Source brings wines that are artisanal, undergo barrel ageing, or are produced with lesser-known grape varieties in India. These offer the consumer a choice of new, luxury wines at an affordable price point.”

Rajeev Samant, CEO and founder of Sula Vineyards

Sula Vineyards was founded in 1999, a few years after Rajeev Samant returned from California where he had pursued an undergraduate degree in Economics and a Master’s degree in Engineering Management at Stanford and later worked for Oracle Corporation in Silicon Valley. Having experienced the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in California, and the verve of Napa Valley, he was keen to create a successful winery in Nashik. And over the past 25 years he has achieved just that and more.

Sula Vineyards has emerged as the world’s most-visited winery; Sula wines, spanning Sula, Dindori, The Source and Rasa labels are top selling wines in India. Sula is one of India’s most-awarded wine brands and Nashik is regarded as the wine capital of India, primarily owing to Sula’s presence.

Given the popularity of Sula Vineyards as a must-visit destination in Nashik, the company opened a resort in 2017. The resort was built on the site of the original winery, and was named The Source to honour Sula’s beginnings. Visitors arrived in great numbers to enjoy the surroundings of the vineyards, visit the winery and enjoy wine tastings and wine-paired meals.

Around the time work on the resort was going on Rajeev observed that discerning Indian wine drinkers were looking for something new and different. There was a growing awareness of fine wines, and wines from different grape varieties and styles. An increase in disposable income coupled with a willingness to spend on premium imported wines came together with an openness to trying out wines at a higher price point that were artisanal.

“Through our sales and visitors to the winery we discovered that wine drinkers with discerning tastes were becoming more premium in their tastes and their spending habits and moving away from Indian wines and drinking imported wines. We believed we could produce equally good wines at a price point between the Indian and imported wines,” said Rajeev. “So a decision was taken to fill the sweet spot between Rs1000 and Rs1500 a bottle with a range of premium wines named The Source to go with Sula’s resorts.”

The new category was launched in November 2017 with The Source Grenache Rosé. A lovely pale pink, dry wine with citrus and tropical fruit flavours. The Source Grenache Rosé leans towards the rosé styles of Provence, distinguished from the Sula Rosé that was already in the market made from Zinfandel grapes and more Californian in style.

The front label of The Source Grenache Rosé has no mention of Sula, which gives it a distinct identity of its own with a charming illustration of The Source resort. The label was inspired by Napa Valley wine producers such as Robert Mondavi who depicted images of their wineries on the label.

Speaking about the design of the label, Rajeev traced his love for winemaking to the time of his visit to the pioneering winemaker in Napa Valley in the late 1980s. Robert Mondavi and several other winemakers in Napa considered their terroir as unique and they thought they could compete with the great wines of Bordeaux. Mondavi has a beautiful estate. His original label was based on the gateway to that iconic estate, Rajeev recalled. “I said to myself, we are building a beautiful resort here in Nashik so why should our label not reflect our resort and tie it all together?” That is how the idea of a unique front label came about. And the concept of the new design, new name, new style and a higher price point than the regular Sula wines, created a premium wine that appealed to customers. “The Source Grenache Rosé was an instant hit,” Rajeev asserted. “It is the number one premium rosé in India and outsells any imported rosé in the above Rs1000 price point.”

With the success of The Source Grenache Rosé, work started on the next wine in the category, the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve. Sauvignon Blanc was the winery’s first crush launched in 2000 as a fresh fruit-forward California-style wine with no oak, it was popular with wine drinkers.

However, as Rajeev put it, he was also aware of high-end Sauvignon Blancs from the great Bordeaux châteaux, such as Château Margaux and Château Mouton Rothschild, which were produced in a very luxurious style with a lot of time spent ageing in oak barrels. It had been 20 years since the company released its first Sauvignon Blanc and Rajeev felt India was ready for something different. The Source Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, the second wine in The Source collection, was launched in 2018 and was very well received. It has also been Rajeev’s favourite white wine for several years.

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The Source Cabernet Sauvignon, which Rajeev called, ‘an inspired choice’ was launched two years later in 2020. “Cabernet Sauvignon is not the easiest grape to grow inIndia, but we have been getting better at it. The grapes were sourced from south Maharashtra where Cabernet grows much better than in the north and we succeeded in creating a wonderful, more classical age-worthy Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon, which was full bodied with more structure, and could therefore be priced much higher.”

However, the need of the hour was The Source Cabernet Sauvignon, an affordable, smooth and fruity wine that does not spend as much time in expensive oak barrels, and is therefore appreciably lower in price than the Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sula’s two sparkling wines, Brut and Tropicale, made in the Champenoise method with secondary fermentation in the bottle were moved in 2018 to the Charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in sealed tanks, in collaboration with their Italian wine consultants, from Prosecco. Considering the climate in Nashik, the Italians said there was no reason why Sula should not be growing the Moscato Bianco grape, used in Italy to produce Moscato d’Asti sparkling wine, a huge seller across the world.

So Sula planted India’s first Moscato grapes. The Moscato harvest was good, and the winery decided to produce a Moscato sparkling wine to round off The Source range. The Source Moscato is not a dry wine as Rajeev pointed out. “When you come down to it, people like to drink sweet wines and Moscato is by definition a sweet wine.”

With The Source range doing so well, the winery was ready to try a different version of Chenin Blanc than the popular style first produced in 2000. Rajeev was impressed by the dry, barrel-aged Chenin Blanc from South Africa and the Loire Valley. So a small batch of Chenin Blanc was made with hand-picked, ripe grapes from Sula’s Dindori estate for the Source range, allowing the wine to spend some time in barrels. The Source Chenin Blanc Reserve was launched in 2022.

The Source range offers a more luxurious experience at an affordable price

Sula’s regular Chenin Blanc is pure fruit, fermented in stainless steel tanks, in and out in a month. The Source Chenin Blanc Reserve spends six months in French oak barrels and is released much later.

“We add about 10% Chardonnay to give it a little more mouth-feel and help with oak integration,” Rajeev said. “The Source Chenin Blanc Reserve has improved with each vintage and right now, it’s among my favourites.”

The latest addition to The Source portfolio is Pinot Noir, launched in 2023.

“Pinot Noir, is one of the great reds and was a glaring gap in our stable. When Pinot cuttings planted for another winery that changed its mind became available we snapped them up immediately. We are producing an oakaged Pinot Noir and to my mind it is like a Burgundy Pinot. I see a great future for it in Nashik as it grows well here. Ten years ago, the view was that it was not possible to grow Pinot Noir in India. With our Pinot Noir being spot on, we have realized that we no longer need to limit ourselves. This is the varietal that we are now going to be expanding.”

Over the last six years, Sula and The Source have emerged as two distinct categories, with the former offering wines that are fresh and fruit forward to be drunk young, and the latter producing premium wines from select grapes with more expensive winemaking techniques.

“Consumers appreciate the differentiation. because they know exactly what they should expect from each category. They know they pay a bit more for The Source wines to get a more luxurious experience at an affordable price. The three wines in the high-end Rasa label are even more expensive. We are really happy to have achieved these stand-alone brands in India in the premium segment.”

“These are very exciting times,” Rajeev said. “Sula is leading the way by producing wines of distinction and higher quality in India. The Source has shown us that the sky is the limit! The great thing about The Source is that it has brought a lot of wine drinkers back to drinking Indian wines after they had moved towards imported wines. That is real success and I am very proud of it.”