“Wine is bottled poetry” is rightly said by Robert Louis Stevenson and this can be personified to the work of Mr. Abhay Kewadkar, who is currently the Chief Wine Maker and Business head Four Seasons Wines Limited, India. His is one of the pioneers of the wine making business in Indian and has greatly shaped this niche industry till today.
Here is an excerpt of his interview with TNT- the Northeast Today News.
TNT- Tell me something about yourself, and about the organisation you represent?
Abhay Kewadkar-I am the Chief Wine Maker and Business head Four Seasons Wines Limited. Our winery and vineyards are 1 ½ hour drive south of Pune and we grow and make our grapes there. It is a modern winery having chateau elements of palace with the latest equipment that you get globally today. In terms of technology and wine making skills, we are amongst the best not only in Indian but even in global standards.
We make over a million bottles with about 13 labels made from French varieties of wine grapes ranging from Cabernet of red wines including four seasons cabernet sauvignon, four seasons shiraz and four seasons merlot. From among the white wines we have four seasons chenin blanc, four seasons sauvignon blanc. We also make four seasons viognier as well as the ritu rosé.
The most recent launch is a super premium red Vintners Reserve which was launched in Kolkata which is of limited quantity. It was launched in only 6 major cities so to say the metros because they do not have enough volume. It was launched price point of 1,500/- rupees and basically we have a portfolio that starts at about 1,300/- rupees and goes up to 1,500/- rupees and we have a pan India presence.
Market of NE is ready to develop and grow rapidly because of the weather and the tourism here. The local people also have a taste for wine and it is ready to grow. And that is why I thought it is important for me to come here personally and see and meet people. For example I am here for a wine tasting event with about 75 people.
TNT- When and how did you get into the business of wine making?
Abhay Kewadkar-Basically I am a chemical engineer and the history of quality wine making in India is as old as my career in wine making in India. It was in 1984 that Chateau Indage was formed those days Champange India Limited was the name of the winery.
The winery was dedicated to make export oriented units to make sparkling wine with a French collaboration. So, I started there as a trained engineer and then the company gave me the opportunity to not only work with the French wine experts whom they were associated with for this project in India but they also sent me for training to France in 1984 to go and work on the cellar and get direct on hand experience. That is how I started learning my wine making.
Between 1984 and 1991 I was working with them in 1988 they started another winery which was specifically for the Indian market. The Name was Chateau Indage limited. I was responsible for wine making and also the winery manager for both these wineries, one was for export and the other was for the Indian market.
In 1991 I moved to Bangalore to set up Grover Vineyards because here we were doing exclusively sparkling wines and Grover was coming with a project to make exclusively still wines using again French varieties of wine grapes and it was naturally an extension of my knowledge and also a new opportunity. I wanted to learn and develop and implement something more and so the move from Pune to Bangalore was natural for me in 1991 to set up Grover Vineyards.
Subsequently, Grover Vineyards became an internationally well known brand and we were selling not only in Indian, Pan India but we were also exporting and we were exporting to even France and UK. I was with them till 2006.
Then the opportunity came when United Spirits approached me saying we don’t have wine in our portfolio and we are looking for somebody to head the project and implement the project for us. I shifted to United Spirits and we started with the acquisition of a winery in France called Bouvet Ladubay in Loire Valley which is a winery with 150 year old heritage. Then we set up this project called Four Seasons wines near Pune by grapes which are locally grown in India which are synonymous with the French Varieties and make our own wines. Again it was a green field project.
I was directly responsible and involved in 3 major wine projects in India and also acted as a major point of contact for consulting. Many small wineries come to me and seek my advice of which as a professional in the wine industry to my extent of knowledge and expertise. I would say that I was a major catalyst because today in India we have about 70 wineries.
TNT- As a pioneer in winemaking in India, According to your experience, what do you look for when you make good wine? How would you know if you have got good vintage wine?
Abhay Kewadkar-The first rule of winemaking is 70 to 80 % the quality of the wine is made or decided in the vineyard. It is possible to make bad wine out of good grape but it’s virtually impossible to make good wine out of bad grape. So having a good quality grape is imperative as a starting point. So your control should start in the vineyard, when you have a very good quality grape without any disease. The vine should be very healthy so that they reach their maximum phenolic maturity where in white wines we have good aromas and in Red wines we have good Tannins. We also need to control the yield. If we take too much crop, then the quality of the wine is bad and so you have to have a controlled yield, healthy grapes, healthy vineyard and the grapes have to be extracted in a healthy and hygienic way after the harvest to the winery and once this is done then only you can think of making good wine. Of course we need to have good quality grape.
Second rule is having established that your grapes are of good quality that you make no mistake. In the wine making business, most of the mistakes are irreversible. For me this is my philosophy for making wine is you must get the complete expression of a varietal like if you are making a sauvignon blanc, whatever it is associated with, the natural character of the wine must come through. If you are making a chenin blanc or a viognier the same rule applies.
If you want to make wine out of a very ripe grape, don’t get n over ripe grape because the aroma will be lost. If you harvest them green then you will get a vegetal aroma which is also not good. So, for me I would suggest to make a wine which is as pure as possible so as to get the expression of a varietal.
In the Red wines if you are using an oak barrel. It must be used in a way that it complements the fruit and the natural tannins which are available in the grape. If it is over oaked then the wine would get the wood aroma or wood tannins and so you don’t get the complete expression of the varietal.
It is important to keep it as simple as possible; as we say in life that the most difficult thing to do is to keep things as simple as possible.
TNT- What are the challenges that you face in the industry now that you are delving into the northeast? What challenges are you expecting here?
Abhay Kewadkar-First, is that we don’t have a wine culture in this Country and it has not come naturally to us over the years and centuries as in contrast to Europe or in America and the knowledge of wine as a category is at a very nascent stage. People still don’t know how to serve wine. At what temperature the wine should be served.
They say that red wine should be served at room temperature which is ideally 18 to 20 degrees and not the room temperature of a particular location. It is relative from one place to another.
White wine has to be served chilled but people misconceive this has to be applied to red wine as well. Sparkling wine has different temperature requirements and even in still wines.Wines which are acidic need to be served at 8 or 10 degrees. Wines which have gone through Oak barrel like some of the charodn es should be served at 12 degrees. Young red wines which are very fruity can be served at 14 or 16, a medium bodied red could be served at 16 to 18 and a heavy bodied red you would normally serve for 18 to 20.
Second challenge is the storage conditions of wine in the marketplace. Not many retail shops or on premise retail outlets have correct storage facilities for wine. Wine need to be ideally stored at 15 to 18 degrees centigrade but in summer for example in Kolkata and if the shop does not have A/C, How many shops in this country have temperature controlled storage facilities. In summer temperatures can go as high as 35 to 40 degrees. I can do my best to make good quality wine in the winery bt it would be futile if the storage quality is bad.
The third issue is the very high taxes and duties on wines. In some states the VAT can vary from 30, 40 and some states have gone up to 70 percent. In some states the VAT is applicable on the menu price which is extremely high.
TNT- What potentials do the Northeast present for the wine Industry?
Abhay Kewadkar-We are in very nascent stage of wine consumption in the country and more awareness at the moment is limited to the metro cities. The awareness is even lower in Tier A and Tier B cities. I saw the opportunity to grow the market in TIER B and Tier-C cities and that is what explains my visit to this city of Shillong and the only way to go is up. The wine industry is a growing rate of 20 percent year on year and in a market like this it could go 30 to 40 percent because the base is very small. Wine makers like me when we come to this city we raise awareness, educate people make them taste.
TNT- Are conditions favourable for wine making in North East India?
Abhay Kewadkar- Nobody grows wine varieties of grapes in Northeast India but I am aware that table variety of grape is grown in Mizoram and if that is so with some more research then wine variety of grapes can possibly be grown.
TNT- There are certain wines which are indigenous to the region like rice, pineapple banana etc. Is there potential for that in the global market?
Abhay Kewadkar-Definition of wine is a product of fermentation of fruit juice and so you can make wine almost out of any edible substance. However wine is synonymous with grape globally and economically it is more viable and grape has more diversity as there are many varieties. Grapes gives you the liberty of different style of wine making and this exites the consumer.
-Interviewed by Mewanshwa Kharshiing for TNT- The Northeast Today
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