"Since time immemorial, man has used whatever resources he had in hand to create alcohol,” says Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier and CEO of the wine consultancy All Things Nice. In the past, alcohol-making was a home-made affair that typically used any excess produce. It needed time and effort, but fermentation preserves food and gives it a second life. Thus, wine was born.
Fruit-infused fermented alcoholic beverages, then, have always been part of India’s food culture. “Any place where there is an abundance of fruit, you will find fruit wines. Wherever the quality of grains or fruits is high, naturally you will convert it into alcoholic beverage. If you think of it from a historical perspective, we have taken coconut and made an alcoholic drink out of it. I can’t think of any country in the world where their local fruit can’t be drunk as an alcoholic beverage. So there is a local market for it,” says Agarwal.
If fruit wines are so deep-rooted, why aren’t they as popular as, say, a Chardonnay? “We have still not been able to market and place fruit wines in that niche segment where the appeal comes from the perception that it’s a premium product. These products don’t yet have that kind of hype,” says Girish Minocha, CEO, Minchy’s Food Products, which produces Wonder Wyne in Himachal Pradesh. They offer wines with apple, plum and peach.
The slow-burn popularity of classic wine in India began somewhere in the 1980s, driven by the urban elite and coveted by the middle class. “India has a large demographic of middle class which has never stopped aspiring to emulate the consumption patterns of the upper middle class,” says Minocha. As the Indian economy opened up in the early 1990s, boosting personal disposable income, the young middle class was willing to adapt to food and drinks that were considered markers of prosperity. Wine made a splash.
In Himachal Pradesh, fruits like apricot and apple are now distilled and sold to tourists as wines. The locals, however, use them for alcoholic brews called chulli, extracted from apricots, and ghanti, made from apples.
“The literal translation of ghanti is a bell. It means this drink rings a bells and knocks you out,” says Minocha. Ghanti, which is not clarified, is often served in community celebrations like weddings. When Minocha converts apple into a fruit wine to be sold commercially, however, he follows the traditional process of grape-wine making. The fruits are fermented, aged, filtered, bottled, chilled and sold in elegant bottles that mimic grape wines.
If a trip to Himachal Pradesh would be incomplete unless you sampled an apple wine, the same holds true for Maharashtra’s mango wines, such as Rhythm, Coorg Wines’ coffee wine in south India and Naara Aaba’s kiwi wines in Arunachal Pradesh. They may not be sold in upscale neighbourhood wine shops in metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, but they hold promise for tourists and local markets.
These wines are light-bodied, low in alcohol content and pocket-friendly. Since they don’t have more than 10-15% alcohol, these work better for people who like low-alcohol beverages.
They are also perfect for first-time drinkers familiar with the fruit; for such drinkers, the bitter hoppy flavour of beer can be a put-off and whisky can be intimidating. When you are experimenting with alcohol for the first time, it’s easier to bet on low-priced items. These wines are typically priced at ₹500-1,200.
“We have seen fruit wines getting a lot of traction lately,” says Aneesh Saggar, owner of 17 wine stores in Maharashtra and founder of alcohol delivery app Spiritzone. The highest- selling brand in his shops is the Maharashtra-based Fruzzante, which makes wines from chikoo (sapodilla), mango, starfruit, pineapple and strawberry. Fruzzante rebranded its products as sparkling alcoholic beverages last year and opted for millennial-appropriate branding, like a craft beer.
There is government impetus as well to boost the fruit wine industry. In September, the Meghalaya government legalised commercial sale of local home-made wines. Brewing at home was legal as long as it was for personal use, sale was a grey area. “It would go a long way in helping farmers producing a variety of fruits in the state to sell their products locally which can then be value added by the local winemakers,” noted a 25 September article in Hindustan Times headlined Wave Of Cheer: Meghalaya Government Legalises Homemade wine.
Meanwhile, Minocha is planning for the next stage: fruit wine with a dry mouthfeel. “These will be premium brands which will be relatively drier and they will be able to command their shelf space alongside a good Shiraz.”