The luxury car manufacturer of the wine set is clearly Chandon, the champagne maker. And much like the exclusive Rolls-Royce, the winery sits in solitary splendour, about an hour north of Nasik, against a picturesque backdrop of the ancient Dindori Hills. The difference in atmosphere and style is evident from the instant we drive in through the iron gates and up the sweeping driveway. The tasting room is expansive and elaborately furnished, with a dramatic view of the perfectly manicured lawns and the vineyard beyond.
We are met by the veteran winemaker Amrut Vare who has been with the India operation since its inception in 2014. He ushers us through the small picture gallery showing the other places on the planet where the parent company LVMH has planted the Chandon stake—Argentina, the USA, Brazil, and Australia.
Next is a tour of the vineyards and the cathedral-like winery, with its giant stainless-steel fermentation tanks. As the only dedicated maker of sparkling wine in India, Chandon has now captured 50 per cent of the market with its three premium varieties: Brut, Rose, and Delice. The first two are superbly crafted, with a fine, persistent effervescence, but the Delice, designed as a nod to the Indian market, is much too sweet for my taste.
We turn around to make our long way back home to Mumbai, but not before a diversion to see the last two wineries on our list. The first of these is Vallonné Vineyards (the word means hilly in French), which lives up to its name, with an undulating landscape that slopes gently down to Mukhne Lake and to the Kavnai peak of the Sahyadri ranges beyond. We dine on the terrace of their speciality Southeast Asian cuisine restaurant Malaka Spice, chewing on Vietnamese prawn satay grilled to perfection and admiring the magnificent view. Vallonné, established in 2009, lays claim to being the first true boutique winery in India, with production capped at 50,000 litres and prides itself on making premium French-style wines at affordable prices.
The young French-trained winemaker Sanket Gawand takes us through his excellent wines, and we single out the viognier for its subtle oak flavour and the merlot for its full-bodied rich mouth feel. Vallonné has two unique offerings that differentiate it from the other vineries in the areas. The first is Vin de Passerillage (a dessert wine), made exactly as it is in the Jura region of France where the grapes are hung indoors on straw racks to dry, with the resultant wine being golden yellow in colour and extremely sweet. The second is the ‘own your barrel’ concept where you can have a wine crafted to your own specifications, right down to having your name on the bottle! For being avowedly and proudly French, and for producing innovative and quirky wines, the car analogy for Vallonné can be none other than Renault.
Just a short drive down the road is India’s second largest wine producer, GroverZampa, the result of the merger of Grover Vineyards in Bangalore and Valle de Vin in Nasik. With an annual production of 2.2 million litres of wine, it is a distant second to Sula. Nevertheless, the place exudes a sense of ease and confidence, and the company has plans to build villas on the hill beyond the vineyard. A new tasting room and a restaurant are already under construction. Just in January, GroverZampa bought the three wineries of Charosa, Four Seasons, and Myra, so it is definitely Hyundai in a race to catch up with Honda!
After a brief tour of the vineyards, we sit down to sample the wines with Sushant Soni, the affable hospitality manager, and I am impressed by the wide range on display. The GroverZampa Art Collection, with its labels designed by famous Indian artists like Jatin Das and Paresh Maity, is a quirky take on marrying art with wine, but I think the art wins out in this case.
A little bit more upmarket and more to my liking is India’s first celebrity wine label, the Vijay Amritraj Reserve Collection, available in both red and white. Perhaps the idea is that the Indian wine will forge a name for itself on the international scene the way the famous tennis star did in the 1970s. But the runaway ace is served up with Chene (in French it means a man with a heart of oak), a wonderful blend of shiraz and tempranillo aged for 15 months in French oak barrels. Truly saving the best for the last, this is a smooth rich wine with the intense flavours of dark fruit and a memorable finish. Not surprisingly, it has won many accolades for GZ at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair competitions when it was first launched in 2012. Definitely my favourite pick of the entire Nasik trip!