Alabama’s wineries will need to raise their game if they want to compete with the big boys and believe it or not, they could use India as their model.
I don’t mean to criticize the state’s winemaking efforts – everybody has to start somewhere and the first barrel of wine rolled out of California wasn’t exactly “world class.” California had been producing wine commercially since the early 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1976 Paris blind-tasting competition that California’s cabernets and chardonnays stole the international spotlight by scoring higher than some renowned Bordeaux and Burgundy bottlings. On America’s East Coast, Virginia has been making wine since Thomas Jefferson planted vines with, frankly, not-so-hot results until recent decades.
But why do I compare Alabama with India? Well, I recently tasted some Indian wine and the more I’ve learned about it, the more similarities I’ve seen between India and our home state. Both are new to viticulture (grape cultivation), both can face horrific weather and both have large population segments who don’t regularly drink wine. The biggest dissimilarity between the two is that India’s wine industry is growing while Alabama’s seems sadly stuck in neutral.
India has two main wine-growing regions – one in the North (at approximately 30 degrees north latitude) and another larger area in the South, descending as far into the tropical zone as 10 degrees north latitude. Mobile, meanwhile, lies at 30 degrees north latitude, Huntsville at 35 degrees north and the wine regions of France between 43-47 degrees north (most of California falls between 35-45 degrees north – more like Spain than France). All these numbers mean Alabama is on equal ground with India, latitude-wise, and could even have a viticultural advantage, since we’re not trying to grow grapes practically at the equator.
Of course there’s more to viticulture than latitude – hills, rivers and appropriately poor (yes, poor) soil all contribute to a vineyard’s success. Hilly areas help vines catch maximum sunlight. Rivers help maintain even temperatures, because water heats and cools more slowly than land. In otherwise intensely sunny regions, a river’s mist can filter sunlight, letting grapes ripen slowly rather than bake. Poor soil encourages vines to channel all their energy into producing grapes, trying to perpetuate their species, rather than producing lush green vines with abundant leaves, which actually can hinder grapes from ripening.
Can you think of sites in Alabama where there are hills, rivers and poor-quality soil? It doesn’t really take much thought, does it?
Beyond vineyard similarity, Alabama, like India, has historically lacked a wine-drinking culture. According to “Business Insider,” Alabamians consumed six liters of wine per capita in 2013 – or eight bottles. This pales in comparison to Washington, D.C., where folks knocked back more than 34 bottles each, but according to Wikipedia, India’s annual wine consumption is only 9 milliliters per capita – less than half an ounce! With a population of 1.2 billion, you can bet most folks currently drink none at all.
So, Alabama seems to have another slight advantage – we already have a greater per capita taste for wine.
Then there’s the weather. Alabama and India both have heat, humidity, tornadoes and hurricanes (“cyclones” in India) but at least Alabama doesn’t have monsoons. The constant rain during monsoon season brings mold and fungal growths to India’s vineyards, surpassing even Alabama’s humidity issue. India is learning to control such growths, though, and I’m sure we could, too.
What India seems to have that Alabama possibly lacks is one word: enthusiasm. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
By “enthusiasm” I mean the desire and determination to produce fine-quality wines using internationally recognized wine grapes, not muscadines. Most wine-drinkers want dry wines made from chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir grapes. The number of Indian vineyards planting these vines reportedly has grown from six to 50 during the past decade, while Alabama has 14, many of which still grow muscadines.
Indian news media say there’s a “wine revolution” underway and Sula Vineyards – whose wine I tried – claims to be leading the charge. The winery sits in India’s largest grape-growing region (Nashik, Maharashtra state, 180 km northeast and slightly inland from Mumbai), which traditionally produced only table grapes. Sula’s founder, Rajeev Samant, grew up in Mumbai but earned an engineering degree from Stanford University in California where, one suspects, he probably saw wine grapes being grown. He left his Silicon Valley job in 1993 and by 1997 was planting, with help from a California winemaker, French sauvignon blanc and California chenin blanc grapes on his 30-acre family farm.
Sula Vineyards released its first wines in 2000 and has since expanded twice – adding a second winery in 2004 and a third (with a million-liter capacity) in 2006. It now oversees 1,800 acres of grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, syrah (shiraz), zinfandel and merlot reds, plus chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, viognier and riesling whites – from which it makes 20 different red, white and rosé wines, plus Port-style fortified wine and India’s first dessert wine, Sula’s Late-Harvest Chenin Blanc. The winery strives to grow grapes organically and sustainably, limiting chemical pesticides and recycling everything from bottles to water. Tanks store monsoon rainwater to use during droughts, and downy mildew is controlled by copper hydroxide and copper sulphate, generally recognized as consistent with organic viticulture.
But how does Sula’s wine taste? I tried a 2013 Estate-Bottled Cabernet-Shiraz, which the menu described as “a smooth, medium-bodied red wine accentuated by ripe cherry and plum fruit, with attractive smoky notes.”
Well, I tasted a cornucopia of flavors in this wine. Blackberry, dark cherry, black current, blueberry, smoke, tar, mixed spice (loads of pepper), earth, licorice, oak, dust and a hint of prune. It was wild. It was almost scary. But it wasn’t bad and it was perfect with Indian curry – and isn’t complementing local food what wines are supposed to do? It’s deep purple but clear, with noticeable weight on the tongue (maybe from the humidity) and tasty with sausage-laden pasta, too. I bet Alabama could do every bit well, if we tried. (13.5% ABV. Imported by U.S. distributors but possibly not yet to Mobile; ask at your favorite wine shop.)