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Indians Acquire New Taste for Wine - 2004-02-15

India's fledgling wine industry is growing rapidly as upwardly mobile Indians acquire a taste for drinking wine.

Traditionally, Indians who drink alcohol have chosen whisky, rum and other locally-distilled spirits. But with globalization, times and tastes are changing - at least in more sophisticated circles. Not only are middle-class Indians drinking more grape wine, they are mostly drinking wine produced in India.

That is good news for entrepreneurs like Rajiv Samant of Sula Vineyard, who ventured into wine manufacturing seven years ago, battling the odds in a country without a wine culture.

Mr. Samant says Indian retailers are offering mid-priced wines like sauvignon blanc at $9-15 per bottle, and as a result the market is expanding rapidly. He says Indians consumed about 3.5 million bottles of wine last year, nearly double what it was five years ago. And the growth is expected to continue.

"We are seeing a growth rate right now of 20 percent a year, which I think can easily be sustained for the next five to six years," he said.

Locally-produced vintages are favored in India because of price: imported wines are slapped with high duties and account for only about 20 percent of the Indian market.

The local industry has slowly built a taste for wine and brand awareness among more sophisticated consumers by running wine-appreciation courses and wine-tasting sessions. They have also been training restaurant and bar owners how to match wine with food.

To meet the growing demand, five new wineries opened last year in a traditional grape-growing region around Nasik, in Western India. Here, says Mr. Samant, the dry soil and favorable temperatures, warm in the day, cool at night, made it suitable for him to plant cuttings of such Western varieties as cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.

Mr. Samant says Indian wine has also been exported in small quantities, with some of it going to traditional wine producers such as Italy. He says that makes him optimistic about the industry's future.

"One of the big reasons I am so optimistic is that we have got perfect growing conditions and we are making some really nice wines," explained Mr. Samant. "So we are going to be able to compete not just in India but on a world-wide basis."

Statistically, India has a long way to grow before it compares with countries like Italy. Annual per capita consumption is only about one teaspoon of wine. But in a country with a billion-plus people, the wine industry is confident it has nowhere to go but up.