Dry wine, no matter what the vintage, makes me go light in the head. As I swirl the limited edition Sauvignon Blanc, observing the ‘legs’ of this expensive wine, I must confess that I’m not entirely steady on my own. I’ve broken the first rule on the road: don’t drink and drive. But then, I’m not the one who’s driving – fortunately, I’ve arranged for a car and driver. I gloat upon my foresight and gleefully consume my glass of wine even as I’m advised to spit it out. I’m at Chateau Indage in Narayangaon, on the first leg of my Nashik wine trail. The scenic drive here from Mumbai, via Kalyan, Murbad and Malshej Ghat, is a refreshing change from the clinical precision of an expressway – if you can ignore the speeding vehicles, that is.
A winding ride up the breathtaking monsoon destination of Malshej Ghat and a diversion at Ale Phata lead to the Indage Vineyards, and Ivy, their ‘rural’ wine bar. There’s nothing like a bottle of Rosé to further lift your cheery traveller’s spirit. Indage’s public relations executive, Mahua, greets me warmly. The irony of her name is not lost upon me in this intoxicating locale and I grin at her widely. In true vineyard style, I am plied with glass after glass of Rosé wine in the open, red brick bar stacked ceiling-high with myriad wine bottles coloured red, pink and white.
Towards the end of the afternoon, I mistake them for the colours of the French flag. Then, after a sumptuous Indian buffet lunch, and in a somnolent wine induced state, I am whisked away to the winery for a wine-tasting session with the resident winemaker. If you thought that wine tasting was a snotty exercise for the privileged, accompanied with Bouillabaisse, you’re mistaken. In my week long sojourn from one winery to another, I sipped wine in laboratories, discussed its chemical composition with alcohol technologists and, much to my delight, clinked glasses with many a local farmer over a hearty meal of lasooni methi (spiced fenugreek with garlic) and bhaakri (coarse roti made from jowar, bajra or nachni flour).
In the course of my wine adventure, I discovered that it’s not the character of the wine that’s important, but the characters behind the winemaking process who are crucial. To my surprise, the oenologist at Indage is no Frenchman. A young man named Ashok Patil emerges from the crevices of a winery dominated by wine presses, gigantic steel fermentation tanks, computerised filtration plants, oak casks and impressive bottling and corking machines. He hails from a family of traditional grape growers and has studied winemaking in Australia and New Zealand.
We shake hands and exchange pleasantries before he familiarises me with the swirling of the glass, the ‘legs’ of the wine and the ‘bouquet’. The heady scent of wine all around adds to the experience as I observe the ‘legs’, or the trickle of wine on the inside of the glass after a swirl, that tells me its age. I’m drinking the Indage Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, straight from the tank. Being a writer has its advantages, after all. By the time we’ve finished with the Ivy Brut, Chantilli Chardonnay and Shiraz, Figueira Port and Indage Reserve Cabernet, the winemaking process is a blur. “We’ll proceed to the tasting room now,” announces Patil. I’m confused. “You mean, there’s more?” I ask. I’m still rolling my last mouthful of Cabernet. Regretfully and as elegantly as possible, I spit it out into the metal grille along the floor.
The tasting room has the appearance of a conference room with a bar. The bar displays the range of Indage wines available in India and abroad. Here, I learn to distinguish between smoky and woody flavours, discovering that wine can also taste of strawberry, guava, capsicum, eucalyptus and a whole lot of other flavours depending on the soil that the grapes are grown in. Later, we drive past the vineyards and a French-style mini-chateau that overlooks the property. As the sun sets over Ivy, the visitors from Mumbai leave and local oenophiles – Narayangaon residents and farmers – begin to trickle in for their evening meal with wine. It’s too late to visit the Khodad Fort and the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope nearby – unfortunately, Indage does not offer accommodation here.
On the rocks
The road from Narayangaon to Nashik, NH50, is not for the squeamish. My heart lies in my winesoaked mouth as we dodge speeding trucks. Like surreal visions in a PS3 racing game, wayside eateries provide relief in the form of creative names like ‘Aathvan Pohe’, ‘Lai Bhaari’ Restaurant and Hotel ‘Chaan’, sure to bring a smile to the face of any trueblue Maharashtrian. Further relief is provided at the Panchavati Gaurav, Sangamner, in the form of a clean restroom. We reach Nashik at 11 pm. Climbing a flight of steep steps in the peak of Nashik summer, after 24 hrs of wine drinking, is no mean achievement.
Halfway up Trivashmi Hill, at the Pandavleni Caves the next morning, the view is worth it. The group of 24 Buddhist caves, on the outskirts of Nashik, dates back to the 1st century CE and is believed to have sheltered a number of significant Jain Tirthankaras. Across the ancient carving and inscription in stone, lovers Sanju and Anita have inscribed their own names in chalk. At the foot of the hill is the Dadasaheb Phalke Smarak and Museum, where a photo exhibition commemorates the life of this pioneer of Indian cinema who hailed from Nashik. A restaurant that overlooks an open-air theatre is a popular hangout while the museum showcases archaeological excavations from around the region. History makes way for geology as I discover a local gem – the Gargoti Museum.
About 35 km from Pandavleni and on an off-road from the Nashik-Pune Road at MIDC Sinnar, this is a mineral museum housing the private collection of KC Pandey and his company, Superb Minerals. Alongside minerals such as the flaming orange Citrine, the bright blue Cavansite and the fungus-like Okenite are precious gems, fossils, dinosaur eggs, even rocks from the moon and Mars (carved out of lunar and Martian meteorites).
Un peu Chenin Blanc
The room at the Panchavati Elite Inn is less than modest. An unclean toilet and linen, and poor service ensure that I use it merely as a pit stop for my nights in Nashik. The next morning, I begin my wine tour. There are over 34 wineries, big and small, around the city but a trip to all will see me in rehab. I leave for ND Wines via the vineyard-lined road to Pimpalgaon.
A wrong turn takes me to Khedegaon where a cattle fair and the Somwaar Bazaar (Monday Market) are in progress. I call for directions and I’m asked to take the route to the Saptashringi shrine. I marvel at the peaceful co-existence of religion and wine in this temple city. Here, I am intrigued by their logo of a farmer on a bullock cart. Located in Nashik’s famous wine region of Niphad and Dindori (from which it derives its initials), I learn that the winery was established by a group of local grape farmers. It’s their sixth anniversary that day and I am offered a celebratory drink – in their laboratory. Seated amidst beakers and test tubes that carry various wine blends, I am grateful to receive my Chenin Blanc in a wine glass. As I roll the wine around my tongue, and against the roof of my mouth as advised, the flavour is strangely reminiscent of Sula’s Chenin Blanc. It is Sula’s Chenin Blanc. Administrative manager Vinod Deokar tells me that much of the wine from their 400-acre wine-producing vineyards is bottled for Sula.
As I step out of the laboratory, a family of pilgrims on their way back from the city of Shirdi seeks salvation in a case of wine. After a walk through the vineyards and winery, with their view of Teespur Lake and open countryside, I wonder why the ambience is not more cheerful and less factory-like. Or why this cannot be the setting for a wine bar or a grape crushing festival.
The next day begins with the legendary misal pav (sprouts, onion, sev dunked in spicy curry and served with bread) at Tushar on College Road before I hit the parallel Gangapur Road leading to the Sula Vineyards. A left turn from the local Mahanagar Palika board and bell bring me to a fork in the road, where in keeping with the spirit of Nashik, one path leads to the spiritual (the Vipassana meditation centre) even as the other tempts me with wine. I choose the latter. The Californian-style yellow-bluewhite Sula Wine Bar overlooks the vineyards and the Gangapur Dam in the distance. It’s easy to tell why this is a popular venue. Its spectacular view, international look, good music, sparse yet tasteful décor are in stark contrast with the government-officestyle feel of the others. Wine accessories and mementos are for sale and I eye an oak barrel that doubles up as a bar table. Hotel management graduate Meenal Kansara takes me through the motions of the winery.
Every visit is a new experience and I learn how Sula’s Dindori Reserve is fermented in oak barrels, always kept moist with a hydrating system that sprinkles water droplets from the ceiling. I hydrate myself with the Reserve as he goes on to explain the champagne racking process. In the tasting room, I try the fruity Sula wines along with cheese, crackers and olives. I’m told that the Nashik soil and weather are ideal for grape growing, and that the first vineyards and winery in this region were owned by Pimpane. This unusual name resulted from the unfortunate combination of the name of the region – Pimpalgaon – with the word ‘champagne’.
Today, Sula’s Rajeev Samant owns Pimpane’s few hundred acres of vineyard apart from his own 35 acres. Three kilometres from here is Sula’s new baby, Beyond, a place that lives up to its name. A beautiful Mediterranean-style house, overlooking vineyards and lake, it seems a world away from civilisation. I’m asked to stay for lunch and the cook, Panditji, rustles up a delicious meal at short notice.
The bylanes of Old Nashik
I take a break from wine and head to the Old City for a change of scene. I find myself at a chivda tasting session at the famous Kondaji Chivda stall opposite the Sita Gumpha. Hmmm… I identify a full-bodied spicy taste with a hint of raisin, cashew and… je ne sais quoi. The ‘Makhmal Chivda’ is a clear winner – fortunately, I’m not required to spit it out. The stall owner seems pleased by my choice and hands me a packet. I’m in Old Nashik, wending my way through tiny lanes lined with astrologers, steep stone steps and throngs of pilgrims. Ramkund, also the site of the Kumbh Mela, is where pilgrims take their holy dip and ashes of the deceased are immersed. After a visit to the old Naroshankar, Kapaleshwar, Goraram and Kalaram temples nearby, I recall Wilde. Except that here, in Nashik, religion is the wine of the masses. And vice versa. “Drinking wine is like meditation or classical music. Unless you know what to look for, you won’t enjoy it,” is not a quotable quote available off the Internet but a pearl of wisdom from MP Sharma, ex-winemaker, Sula Vineyards and current winemaker, Vinsura. A retired chemistry teacher, this septuagenarian, with his tweed cap and moustache, has the bearing of an ex-army man. At the Vinsura winery, on the road to Lasalgaon, we begin our tasting session with salted moong dal. There are no rules, says Sharma, and gives the example of an employee who enjoys his wine with puranpoli. Swirl, sniff, sip and spit.
Taught to make his own wine by a friend when on scholarship in England, Sharma improvised upon the process with his strong base in chemistry. Persuaded to join Sula by its owner and past student Rajeev Samant, he helped develop the various Sula blends with Californian expert Kerry Damski. Once this process was well established, he moved on to newer challenges – this time, helping develop Vinsura, the ambitious wine project of a group of grape farmers from Vinchur. “These farmers were educated, well-travelled and exposed to the opportunities in wine-making. I thought it would be an interesting project,” he says, informing me that he divides his time between Mumbai and Nashik, conducting wine appreciation and tasting programmes when in Mumbai.
Next day, I’m on the road to Ojhar, looking for Janardhanswamy Ashram – not to cleanse myself of the past week’s guilty pleasures but to seek some more, at the neighbouring Renaissance Wines. Winemaker K Balakrishna, ex-Grover Vineyards, shows me around the country-style winery, with its attractive sunlit courtyard and prints on brightly coloured walls. A wine bar is under construction. We get down to business immediately and go through the swirl-sniff-sip- spit routine with the Renaissance Chenin, Sauvignon, Cabernet and Shiraz wines even as a ‘Do not spit’ sign hangs on the door. I’m also given a sneak tasting of their secret Merlot and Pinot Noir experiments.
Finally, as I bump along NH3 on my way back home, I ask the driver to be careful. I can hear my 14 complimentary bottles of wine clink dangerously in the boot. Later, over the weekend, I invite a few friends over for a tasting session. The guests include my friend Swati, who hails from Nashik. “I work with the Nature Conservation Society of Nashik, you know,” she says, gently. “So?” I ask. “The vineyards are destroying the balance of the eco-system in Nashik. The bird population has decreased ever since the grasslands, their nesting habitat, have been gradually replaced by grape farms. The near extinct Maldhok birds, only six to seven of which remain in Nashik, too are fast disappearing.” “How do you monitor all this?” I ask. “We have a sadhu who acts as nature informer from his dwelling on the top of a mountain,” she says. It’s odd, this relationship between religion and wine.
Mumbai to Narayangaon Mumbai-Murbad (110 km)-Malshej Ghat (45 km)-Narayangaon (68 km) Narayangaon to Nashik Narayangaon-Sangamner (50 km)-Nashik (68 km) Nashik to Mumbai Nashik-Igatpuri (48 km)-Kasara (12 km)-Shahapur (40 km)- Mumbai (87 km)
The Nashik Wine Circuit Route
Wines Nashik-Pimpalgaon (33 km)-Vani Phata (3 km)-ND (11 km) Sula Nashik-Gangapur-Savargaon Road- Sula (9 km) Vinsura Nashik-Vinsura at MIDC Vinchur on Mumbai-Aurangabad Road (50 km) Renaissance Nashik-Renaissance on NH3 (20 km).
This narrow but picturesque road with twists, turns and some rough patches doesn’t see as much traffic as the NH3, but it’s best to leave early in the morning. Beware of overtaking vehicles, especially on the ghats. Go via Kalyan to Murbad and plan a halt at the waterfall-laden Malshej Ghat if you’re travelling in the monsoon. Turn right at Ale Phata for Narayangaon and Indage Vineyards. Go well prepared with maps and directions as there is no mobile network for long stretches. It’s advisable to fill fuel at Kalyan or on Murbad Road as service stations are located far apart. A few garages and puncture repair shops are located alongside service stations such as Amar Auto Garage near Murbad Service Station. Ale Phata has a few repair shops and there’s Shri Tyres for wheel alignment. There are few eateries on this stretch, mostly local and roadside restaurants, so if you’re finicky about food and restrooms, it’s best to stop at Kalyan.
Avoid travelling after dark on the two-lane NH50, a road marked by rash truck drivers and traffic. You can stop at Panchavati Gaurav, Sangamner, for some excellent thalipeeth, clean restrooms and fuel at the Indian Oil pump opposite, if you missed the HP pump near Ivy. Nashik’s wineries are easily reached within 30-90 mins from the city. For ND, take the road to Pimpalgaon, that is, the Mumbai-Agra Highway (NH3). Turn left at Vani Phata and it’s a straight road ahead. For Sula, take the Gangapur- Savargaon Road, and turn left at the Mahanagar Palika board and bell and then right at the Vipassana fork. Vinsura is on the Mumbai-Aurangabad Road, at the MIDC Vinchur turn near Lasalgaon. Renaissance lies a little before Ojhar village on the Mumbai-Agra Highway. If you find yourself near Hindustan Aeronautics Limited like I did, you need to backtrack a little.
The Mumbai-Agra Highway (NH3) is easy but unpredictable as far as traffic is concerned, varying from a 3-hr journey on good days to an 8-hr drag on a bad day. Manas Resort at Igatpuri is the best place to stop for a bite or to use the restroom. There are plenty of service stations on the highway, especially on the Shahapur- Bhiwandi stretch. If you need help on the ghats, an Indian Oil pump (Rajdeep & Bros) lies just below, in Kasara, with a puncture repair shop alongside.
Any time is a good time for wine. However, if you’re eager to see the harvesting and crushing of grapes, or even participate in it, it’s best to do this drive between November and March. The monsoon season, from June to September, is also a great time of year to plan a visit – this is when the vineyards and their surrounding countryside turn a lush green Do remember not to drink and drive
Recommended time of year for a visit is November to March. Different grape varieties are harvested at different times of the year and the grape-crushing season therefore tends to vary. Information is provided by the winery on request. Tours and tasting sessions are conducted on request on a charge of Rs 300 per person. Entry to the wine festival hosted at the vineyards is by invitation only. The Ivy Family & Wine Bar is open between 7.30 am and 11 pm. Meal for two costs approx Rs 1,000 (including wine). For reservations, call 02132- 245977; Website: chateauindage.com. They also have two Wine Cafés in Mumbai (Tel: 022- 67520940; Website: vintagerestaurants. com).
Open to visitors throughout the year; harvest and crush season is from January to March. Bar timings: 11 am to 10 pm on weekdays, 11 am to 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Wine tours and tastings run hourly between 11.30 am and 5.30 pm (Rs 150 per person for 4 wines and Rs 250 per person for 6 wines). Cheese/ meat platter: Rs 100-300 per portion. Advance booking recommended for groups of over 15. Bookings: Mobile: 09970090010; email:[email protected]; Website: sulawines.com
Renaissance Wines in Ojhar is a countrystyle winery, with an attractive sunlit courtyard and a wine lounge. Try their restaurant Suraa. Website: renaissancewineryindia.net
Located in Nashik’s famous wine region of Niphad and Dindori. No wine bar. Free tours are arranged on request. However, there’s a charge for wines tasting (approx Rs 50 per glass). Tel: 02557-235202-03; Website: ndwines.com
Located at Gangavarhe village, about 20 mins from Nashik, the winery has a small restaurant as well. Tours and wine tasting sessions are from 12 noon to 6 pm at a charge of Rs 150 per person. To book, call 09657728070. Website: yorkwinery.com
A small winery with a modest tasting room. Wine tours and tasting sessions are conducted free of cost (under renovation at the time of writing).
About the author:
Janhavi Acharekar’s literary journey includes fiction, travel, copywriting and book reviews. Her writing have appeared in The Times of India, The Hindu and The Statesman.