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07.19.2006

2004 Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc, Nashik, India

sula_CheninBlanc2004.jpgRegular readers know I jump at any opportunity to try interesting wines, especially from regions that I'm unfamiliar with. I've been hearing about Indian wines off and on for a while now, and I took special note when I saw recently that some famous winemakers like Michel Rolland were going there to help people make wine. India is such a huge country with such a wide range of topography that there just have to be places that are good for growing wine grapes, provided there were people with the interest and the expertise to do so.

Apparently, the Nashik region of northern Maharashtra has been growing table grapes with success for decades, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to sink some wine vines in the ground and see what happened.

One of the earliest pioneers was Rajeev Samant. Samant was a Stanford-educated software engineer who at a certain point in his career as a finance manager at Oracle decided there was another path he needed to take through life. He quit his job and decided to follow his passion for wine back to his home country. After some initial investigations and after enlisting the help of California winemaker Kerry Damskey (recently of Palmeri Vineyards and several others) Samant took a gamble and started what was effectively India's first commercial winery.

Sula Vineyards has now been around for almost 10 years and its hard to call it anything other than an unqualified success, if only for the fact that it has not only created an Indian wine industry from scratch, but also because wine consumption in India has been growing steadily since Sula wines appeared on the market there. In addition to making wines for local consumption, Samant has also taken the step of becoming an importer in order to better contribute to the growth of the industry.

Sula Vineyards makes a large number of wines including a Shiraz; a Zinfandel; a Cabernet/Shiraz blend; a Merlot; a red blend, white blend, and rose that all include some indigenous Indian varieties, a Rose of Zinfandel, a Sauvignon Blanc, a sparkling wine, a late harvest Chenin Blanc, as well as this off-dry Chenin Blanc.

The grapes are grown in the foothills of the Western Ghats, the mountains found about 200km outside of Mumbai, India. In certain places these rolling hills resemble the stairs down to rivers and lakes (which are also referred to as ghats), and they offer well drained soils and a fairly wide range of day and night temperatures as required for healthy vinifera vines. Sula seems to be focused on sustainable agricultural practices such as organic composting instead of chemical fertilizers, and hopes to be fully fertilizer and pesticide free some day.

I was really pleasantly surprised by this wine, not because it ended up being profound, but because it is clearly a solidly made wine, without flaws, and an excellent value. Having had the chance to taste it I will be encouraged to try other Indian wines, and to check out the vineyards whenever it is that I make it to India for a visit.

Finally, let me go on record here as saying that I'm sure someone will eventually find some good limestone terroir in the Northern foothills of that subcontinent (roughly at the same latitude as California's Central Coast), and one day we'll even see really high-end wines coming from India. Who knows? They might even come from Sula.

Tasting Notes:
A classic straw color in the glass this wine has a soft nose of stewed apples, lychee fruit, and a hint of minerality. In the mouth it has a light sweetness with a good acid balance and primary flavors of tart Fuji apples. The fruit flavors and the sweetness remain crisp and pleasant throughout the palate, though lacking in significant complexity. Well chilled, this is a very pleasant, if uncomplicated wine to drink, especially with spicy foods.

Food Pairing:
It's not surprising that this Indian wine might pair well with a wide variety of Indian foods. I had it with squid in a red curry and chives sauce as well as with a Tamil lamb curry, and it met the intense heat and complex exotic spices of both extremely well.

Overall Score: 8/8.5

How Much?: $13

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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