Earlier this month, I was asked to present to some young Indian entrepreneurs a topic that traced the history of wine. Considering the literature available on the subject, it would have been an easy ride, right? Not as much. The topic came with a twist-the subject had to be linked with the evolution of wine in India and trace the beverage’s past in this history-laden country.
History never quite fascinated me as a child but when it concerns wine, I am always willing to dig up juicy facts and finding answers to questions like the title above. Here, I use my own theory with a very brief historical background on why I feel India never really embraced this beautiful beverage.
While many Indians, me included, have seen the devas imbibing some mysterious beverage in silver glasses on innumerable adaptations of the scriptures on television sets, I still wonder if this magical potion was any sort of wine. One thing is clear though-it had intoxicating properties or it would have shown differently in the mannerism of those enacting TV artists.
Thousand years passed by and we had everybody from Aryans to Mughals to the English making an impression on what India is today including our drinking habits. Speaking of the English (especially Scottish), it is them who Diageo owes record sales of their key blended whisky brand. If there was a third religion in India after Cricket and Bollywood, it has to be Scotch Whisky! (Disclaimer: Views are personal and have been offered uninebriated)
So if the Maharajas could also endorse ‘patiala’ of a slick dram, how come wine exited the country so quietly? There are hardly any chronicles of the British wine experiences while in India and whisky was clearly the relevant drink for the upper Indian class. As per my hypotheses, two factors would have adversely affected wine in becoming a mass Indian phenomenon:
– The average Indian palate that had grown up on rich, complexly flavoured food, would have found wine somewhat unappealing due to a completely different spectrum of flavor profile and nuances. Also, the Indians weren’t traveling the way they do today. So appreciating those wines was even more difficult. Moreover, whiskies especially single malts would have sufficed the need of a complex rush of flavours, with a good alcohol potency backing it. Thus making many patrons on the way. This holds true to a large extent even today.
– The greatest wines would have never reached India that could pull the locals into drinking wines. And when I say locals, I daresay elitists since wine by no means could have been a mass drink in a politically and economically divided colonial India. Wines, if any that reached us would have probably been spoiled in transit. Also, let’s not forget that even the greatest of the wines would have lacked the quality and consistency a couple of centuries ago unlike what they are known for today.
Also, wine in India had neither been an economic mainstay nor a way of life as was the case in our European counterparts. Probably the only wine that defied any of the above theories was the great Cos d’Estournel from St. Estephe, Bordeaux. But then again, it remained an elitist pursuit and couldn’t have alone governed a mass wine scene in India.
It is also believed that the best of the Indian wines were showcased in an exhibition in the late 1800s but again, it didn’t create enough ripples.
Like with Indian cuisine, we lack recorded evidence that can tell us about the kind of treatment wine was subjected to in this glorious country with a rich past. All we know is that the clock kept ticking away and wine only got further pushed into obscurity as the country battled for freedom and more macro-level issues gained centrestage. One had to wait till the early eighties in the 20th century for wine to finally see a revival.
While wine may have missed the train in becoming as successful as whisky, there have been positive developments in the recent past that might make bring the two beverages at par very soon. Wine imports are rising and local production has seen a surge like never before. Quality is getting better and wines are finding new markets and patrons. The good work must be carried on and a new chapter should be added in the history books.