Monday, 25 March 2013

India: day two

Nashik and The Vineyards

Today I was visiting Sula Vineyards; the pioneer and main winery of India based in Nashik, which has emerged as the Indian wine capital, about 200km north east of Mumbai.

I was met at the hotel by the young assistant export manager Shadrul and a driver. You need expertise to drive here, especially so in morning rush hour!

So once more it was into the fast flowing madness of Mumbai …

Finally, after horrendous traffic, we reached the outskirts of the city and headed out on the rickety and bumpy Pune highway (I will never complain about Bordeaux Rocade again!) After a couple of hours we suddenly stopped at a roadside snack bar for water and a local breakfast snack called medu vada, a delicious fried lentil puff ball with a green chilli chutney.  

Coming out of the city for the first time I could now see the mountains ahead and just how dry the countryside was. I was told the much-awaited monsoon was sorely needed and that in a month or so this whole place will be lush green. Hard to believe, but those cows standing in the middle of the highway looked in need of some lush green grass.

Three and a half hours on we arrived at Sula Vineyards; a picturesque setting with the so called craggy Nine Hill Mountain Range back drop. I counted more than nine but no one could tell me why or which nine it was, it just was.  The views are amazing with the green vineyard leaves dramatically breaking up the dry surroundings and the Wilson Dam creating a shimmering blue reservoir called Arthur Lake from the Pravara River. It’s much less muggy than Mumbai, with a nice warm breeze and of course no smog.

I was greeted at the main entrance of the Sula Vineyard estate by Cecille Oldne (from Sweden) the head export manager and Ajoy Shaw the resident winemaker. The harvest is in full swing at the moment but a tasting was prepared up in the board room; strangely too comfortable and actually physically quite difficult to taste from a mastermind style chair! Here I met American Kerry Damskey; part owner and world-renowned winemaker based in Sonomo in California. Kerry is known as the Indiana Jones of winemaking, finding remote off-the-beaten-track wine regions. He’s a very charismatic, friendly guy and we soon got into the tasting. I really liked the fresh, grassy, just-fermented 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and the half-way-through-fermenting 2013 Zinfandel.

We quit the board room and finally got into the winery where the smells, sounds and the heat reminded me of my Australian harvests. Things are run pretty much like clockwork here but the security guard, guarding the press is going a bit too far!

Lunch was at one of the two Vineyard restaurants and I was offered the choice between Indian or Italian cuisine. Naturally, I chose local food, spaghetti Bolognese didn't seem quite right somehow! Swapnil (Richard E Grant’s Withnail character did come to mind every time his name was mentioned) the domestic PR manager joined us for lunch. A cool, young guy, very studious with impeccable English, but unlike the others he is an ambitious local lad from Nashik and didn't actually study abroad.

We had some really delicious food including Khan de Shi (local sauce, with lamb), Kofta (vegetable/paneer cheese dumpling) in a spinach sauce and a warm grated carrot and pistachio dessert,  accompanied very well by the fuller-bodied-style Rosé. One I will certainly try when I get back home.

It was very hot now – around 35°C – so we delayed the vineyard tour until late afternoon. Swapnil kindly proposed a visit to the old city of his home town, no better guide than a local! 

The old town of Nashik is an incredible place with many temples.  The town’s name derives from part of the Hidu epic Ramayana where Rama’s brother Lakshmana hacked off the nose of Ravana’s sister Surpanakha, a demon enchantress. In Hindi, the name for nose being ‘nasika’. The town is also famous for hosting the huge religious gathering Kumbh Mela every 12 years as well as being an important pilgrim base for visiting the Shiva shrines in Trimbak and Shirdi.

We walked down through the town towards the sacred soul-liberating (moshka) Godawari River. The town has an immediately obvious slower pace than hectic Mumbai which allowed me to take some photo shots I have been longing to take since I got here, capturing the beautiful captivating colours, people and architecture.

Swapnil insisted I go to the Gumpha temple where Sida hid from the evil Ravana. Being the only westerner in sight, it was a weird feeling but Swapnil insisted it was all ok.  To enter the temple, you have to join the long queue firstly leaving your shoes on the side of the road.

After quite some wait you finally arrive at the temple entrance: a tiny hole in the wall with a small chute descending into darkness. People are crammed in front and behind as you curl into a ball and shuffle into the tunnels which progressively decrease in size, and holes that lead into tiny underground worship chambers (not for the claustrophobic!)

It is said no matter how thin you may be, if you have sinned you cannot pass, and vice versa for larger people. I passed through with flying colours (slightly worrying about that unpaid Australian speeding ticket from 2008 that I threw in the bin!) However, I did feel strangely lighter afterwards but that might have been because I had just been squashed in tiny tunnels with 60 people! Swapnil then took me down to the market area for his favourite drink: hand-pressed sugar cane juice called ‘ganeka ras’ (ras meaning juice) – a quite ghastly green, murky colour, with a thick consistency and a very intense green sweetness. Not my cup of tea and one is enough I can assure you.

Down by the river a bustling market lines the banks where, alongside the food stalls, market traders were preparing the dye colours to be used for the up coming festival. Healing remedy stands are abundant and at one particular stall I was told that I should buy goats testicles to cure my receding hair: saw me coming! Voodoo dolls were also for sale and one sales pitch was to buy it for noisy neighbours. I don't have neighbours so politely declined offer.

The second temple – and the city’s holiest shrine – is the large, open-air Kala Rama Temple. Shoes off again, but this time had to pay for them to be watched and looked after by a trustworthy Indian at the gate. The temple is built on the site where Lakshmana sliced off Surpanakha’s nose. The stone walls are made with wonderful precision and Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are all represented in unusual black stone. I'm not sure what the constantly beeping security gate you had to pass through was all about  (weirdly the only thing I have seen without a security guard in India). Maybe a touch of Indian humour?

By now the cool breeze had returned and so we went into the vineyard meeting viticulturists Vinayak Nehe and Kasturi Salvi for a tour of the site. They don’t harvest twice here but in this climate the vines require pruning twice or the shoots will give two harvests; the second always being small and unripe bunches.

As the sun started to go down we made our way back to the winery and I could hear music and laughter as we neared. The terrace of the wine bar was full of young local Indians who all work in Nashiks new industial area for the likes of Ford, Siemens and Coca Cola. Ajoy, the Sula winemaker, met us once more and we tasted through the Sula range with a quite stunning view of the sunset. Very impressive overall and I particularly enjoyed the 2012 18g/l residual sugar Riesling and the 2011 Rasa barrel-aged Shiraz.

It was time to check in to the Sula Beyond resort, only five minutes’ drive away. Lovely place and I recommend a stay here: see for more information.

The hotel restaurant was just superb too and we had a table outside on the terrace. Shardul and Swapnil took care of the ordering of some local food including: Chicken Tambada Rassa: small chicken legs (poussins in french) in a red chilli curry sauce; mutton sukka (marianated and then cooked dry); macchli kollwada (local fish in batter) with red onion in coriander and yoghurt. And a major discovery of the fruit called mango! I’d never had a properly ripe one before, aren’t they good?!

Good night, back to Mumbai tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

India: day one

The day finally came for me to fly out on my next ‘flying winemaker’ expedition. This time I’m off to two places I have never been before: India and New Zealand. 

My journey started in Bordeaux and before long I was on the BA flight to Mumbai, India. This may sound like a strange destination but, yes, they do make wine … very good wine, I am led to believe. It’s harvest time, now so what better way to see than to find out for myself? 

After a nine-hour flight I arrived late Monday night to a stinking hot Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji airport. And after everything getting x-rayed five times, I was in a tiny taxi headed for the hotel.  I awoke early the next morning to sunshine and a blue, smog-filled skyline of what seemed like endless construction.  Breakfast was good and a very Indian affair: idlis (puffed rice cakes), thick pancakes with fresh green chilli, tomato and coriander called uttapam served with medu wada (dumplings) and Sambar (a red curry soup).

Libby’s brother Pete and his girlfriend Steph are currently living and working here in Mumbai so I decided to go and meet them in Bandra; about a half-hour rickshaw  ride south from my hotel. Sounded easy.  

After reading a chapter of my ‘lonely planet’ and boldly walking out through the front doors of the hotel I was (to be truthfully honest) not quite fully prepared for the next 40 minutes.  I chose carefully (not) from the 3000 rickshaws that wanted my rupees and was suddenly in the back of half an oil drum. It was being towed by a complete nutter through a gigantic chaotic jumble of fast-flowing and wriggling busses, taxis, cars lorries, motor bikes, bikes, people, dogs, cats and cows all obsessively trying to overtake one another, no matter what it took, life included.  The deafening sound of horns certainly kept you awake (as I later learnt was the objective) and I was in the thick of it. 

Talk about a white-knuckle ride! We dodged, scraped, braked, accelerated, screeched and beeped our way through the craziest and most impossible video-game-like scenario for a mind-aching, palm-sweating, 30-minute ride. Beats any fairground waltzer and it’s only a pound a go!  It’s a good job Mumbai has a population 16.4 million as the driver almost ran out of people to ask where exactly the address was that he had so confidently known when I got in. But hats off to the guy; he got me there in one piece with quite envious skill, determination, aggression and luck. Sorry I didn’t take any photos.

Steph works for Reality Tours: a fantastic organisation that has developed tours of the slum area called Dharavi, pouring profits back into Dharavi. An incredible 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in its slums and Dharavi is the biggest. In fact, Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia, being home to over one million people, crammed into just 1.75 square kilometres!  

However, life in Dharavi is pretty normal in the way people pay their rent, their bills and go about their daily business, despite the conditions. A city within a city, as it is known, with a staggering US$665 million annual business turnover.  How? I was fortunate to find out. 

Sunny, a native of the area, gave me an absolutely superb detailed – and at times rather uncomfortable – tour of Dharavi. I learnt the slum population is actually made up of many religions working together, but then living in their own religious groups. Each sector of the slum is responsible for a certain business type such as the plastic recyclers, the leather tanners, bakers, textile workers, steel, pottery and aluminium recycling. 

We were led carefully through this fascinating warren of streets. Behind every door and window people were working away at their trade in horrific working conditions and without any protective clothing. Every square inch of space is used and even when we went up onto the roof tops, we found another level full of people stacking, drying plastic, sorting and collecting. People here will work a minimum of 12 hours and many sleep, eat and work in the same room alongside the machinery.  

We continued our walk, snaking through each section and then into the residential quarters. Here each tiny living space houses six people and although most have electricity and (un-potable) water – with the aid of an electrical pump – there are no toilets. It is estimated that there is one toilet per 1400 residents which is quite appalling.  However, with the city bursting at its sides and the increasing price of property for sale and rent, plus the ongoing corruption, the slums are becoming the only option for many people.  

This tour certainly changed my perspective of what a ‘slum’ is and if it is at all possible to put the poverty aside for a second, the residents’ sheer graft, hand skills and innovation should be a message and inspiration to us all.  I will also remember forever the beautiful colours of the ladies’ saris; the bright flowers hung on drab objects; the children playing marbles; the tiny photo gallery and education centre; and the mothers and infant daughters rolling and drying poppadoms in the baking sun on up turned wicker baskets. No photography is allowed out of respect to the people, but if you’d like to learn more visit

Pete, Steph and I headed back to Bandra where they live to go for a few beers and a bite to eat and I have to say, amongst the madness  of this city the Indians are very funny indeed. First bar was a very lively, upstairs room where we had a few beers (no wine here) and some poppodums (I now know where these come from) toped with onions, tomatoes and chillies. The second bar was the automobile themed Totos, with cars hanging from the ceiling and so on. However, the bartenders and waiters outfits made it look like we were in Mario Land! Genius. (I think the moustaches might’ve had something to do with it too).  But there was wine here, and on tap – oh yes! And a choice: either a sparkling Italian red or a sparkling Italian rose, apparently the new in-drink for young Indians. 

For dinner we tried a small restaurant and had:
Papdi Chaat (meaning to lick: a North Indian fast food; crisp dough wafer on which various ingredients can be placed. Ours had tamarind chutney , yogurt and chilli)
Bhuna Gosht (Mutton red curry)
Baingan barta (roasted aubergine, mashed with coriander, mustard oil, coriander and chilli)
Panner Tikka (skewered and grilled Indian cheese)
Batata wada (coriander/green chilli chutney)
Very good indeed, and washed down with a bottle of water.

And yes the taxi ride home was as bad, if not worse, as the way in as it had the added thrill of being dark.

What a day! Tomorrow an early start for a three-hour drive out to visit Sula Vineyards in the Indian wine capital of Nasik.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Hurricane
The secret is out! I can finally reveal that during the last year I have been working together with JC on my very own wine project thanks to the encouragement from Tony Laithwaite! 

For 13 years I have longed to make the purest Grenache ever, but other people’s ideas and fashions demanding high alcohol, lots of oak or Shiraz in the blend have not, for me, been the best style for this difficult grape variety.  Grenache Noir is a grape that I put in a category alongside Pinot Noir and Tempranillo as being the most fickle and attention-seeking grape varietals of all. 

Grenache Noir is very often talked up as a full bodied, dense and strong wine but really it is actually a very complex, delicate and not that ‘noir’ grape variety.  Poor tannin ripeness and oxidation are the main factors that ruin the great pure Grenache fruit character that many people haven’t actually experienced before. 

I have been moaning on and on about this as winemakers tend to do! I’d moaned so much that Tony finally turned to me last year and said “well do it, then. Don't tell anyone and do it your way”. That encouragement sparked what is now my ‘Hurricane’ wine, the purest old-vine Grenache ever!

We starting carefully pruning last January using the ‘taille long’ method. You prune the spur to six buds and then on bud burst re prune leaving just two buds, so delaying the bud burst and in turn the flowering, thus avoiding the poor flowering Grenache is renowned for.  We made lots of green pruning in the summer taking the unwanted and water-sapping sucker shoots and leaving canes much longer than normal, increasing the leaf area for maximum photosynthesis.

The harvest had to be spot on and the Duran family team – including: Celine, Axel, the brothers, sisters and cousins; led by JC, Papy Pierot and myself – was the dream team. We carefully hand harvested at the crack of dawn at optimum maturity, carrying case by case the tiny Grenache bunches back to the garage winery in the village.

I used selective yeast and also introduced a new technique of malolactic co-inoculation. This means instigating the malolactic ferment and finishing the malolactic fermentation whilst the alcoholic fermentation takes place.  Normally this is not done until the end of the alcoholic fermentation. The aim of this is to finish the wine as early as possible to capture the freshest and purest essence of the variety.

Getting the wine to bottle with all its fresh fruit intact is quite a task and has been the priority since the beginning of the year.  Finally, the bottling date was scheduled for just around midnight last Thursday night.  I arrived in Maury late in the evening and got straight to work with JC on the exact final blend in the small garage winery. No need to take sample as I could reach the small vats of different batches from my upturned crate seat!

The blending continued late into the night trying 2% of this, how about 5% of that, but by midnight we had the blend. No sooner had we decided than the old doors of the cellar started rattling and a sudden freak storm with a hurricane wind raged through the village: a sign perhaps!?

After much bottling organisation my mind still boggles at why bottle, box, capsule and label producers don’t cooperate with one another! However, after a few last-minute dilemmas the wine was safely bottled at 11.21pm. I hope you get to taste some; I made only 400 cases and it’s available soon at Laithwaite’s… Bonne degustation!