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.

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