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Great American wines at Rs 650/bottle

By Alok Chandra
August 27, 2005 15:35 IST

The Norseman Leif Ericsson is reputed to have discovered a land west of Greenland in 1001, which he named Wineland after the grapes a crewmate is said to have found growing in abundance.

The land was certainly North America, but whether the grapes were Vitis vinifera (the grape species that today produce most wines) is doubtful, since most native American grapes produce wines that are termed foxy -- an unflattering description, and a taste that once encountered is never forgotten.

Be that as it may, winemaking in America started with its colonisation in the 1500s, but really took off after 1850, and along the way saved the wine industry when it was discovered that American rootstock was resistant to the phylloxera louse that devastated vineyards worldwide (except in South America) in the end of the 19th century.

Over the years the native grapes have been replaced by 'noble' French varietals -- even Zinfandel (a black grape, once thought to have been an American crossbred) is one and the same as the Primitivo grape of Italy.

And over the years California has emerged as the state where 90 per cent of all American wine comes from (which is why most wine lists mention 'Californian', not American) -- of which wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley (just north of San Francisco) tend to be considered the best.

The big US wine companies (like so much else in America) are really big: E&J Gallo does about 75 million cases; Constellation Brands (which bought BRL Hardys and Robert Mondavi) over 60 million; The Wine Group an estimated 45 million. Of the three, only Gallo has made any effort to enter the Indian market: its Carlo Rossi table wines are widely available (Rs 650-800), while Sierra Valley (Rs 900-1,100) and Turning Leaf ( Rs 1,100-1,250)

are varietals that climb the quality ladder. Other Californian wines (brought in by importers) on the shelf include Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge (Rs 1,250-1,500); Corbett Canyon from The Wine Group (Rs 1,150), a lovely range from Kendall Jackson (Rs 1,800-2,100), and some sublime wines from the Stag's Leaf winery (Rs 3,000-5,000).

Californian wines (like French wines) tend to be good quality -- and expensive. While partly due to the ability of American wine consumers to pay more for the best-quality wines, it must be recognised that 90 per cent of wines are retailed in the US at $4-8 per bottle: Carlo Rossi sells for $5.50-8.50, while Franzia (one of the largest-selling US wine brands) is available for $7 (and much less if bag-in-box).

And you may have heard of Two Buck Chuck -- drinkable table wines from Charles Shaw that retail for between $1.99 and $2.99, and did a million cases in their first year!

There's little chance of similarly-priced imported wines becoming available in Bharat desh so long as we continue to have to bear 250-275 per cent customs duties, so the only way reasonable quality wines can become available at low prices (Rs 150-250/bottle) is to replicate the strategy used for 90 per cent of American wines in India.

This will not please the wine snobs (who don't think that anything priced below Rs 1,000/bottle can be any good), but will certainly expand the market manifold.

Having said that, what wouldn't I give for a Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Special Selection 2002 from Napa Valley (ripe fruit with toasty oak, intense flavours, $120/bottle) or a Ch√Ęteau Montelena Estate Napa Cabernet 1999 (dark, rich, blackberry fruit, supple, long finish, $160).

Guess that at heart I am a wine snob. We'll drink to that (okay, sip, slowly).

Alok Chandra
Source: source