The Unique Geography and Terroir of India’s Wine-growing Regions

India is an intriguingly unique territory made up of mountain ranges plains and plateaus, woven with rivers and framed by oceans and seas. From the snow-capped Himalayas in the north to the tropical rainforests of the south it’s a land of contrast and infinite potential. India is an extraordinary body full of microclimates with a rich geographic and cultural legacy and observing the landmass as a whole, before zooming in on the all-important wine growing regions, gives some perspective to it’s epic vastness.

The northern part of the Indo-Australian Plate’s continental crust forms the Indian subcontinent and the territory of India lies on the Indian plate; a minor tectonic plate straddling the Equator in the Eastern Hemisphere. Situated north of the equator, between 8° and 37° on the northern latitude and 68° to 97° on the eastern longitude, it’s the seventh-largest country in the world.

Of the total area of 3,287,263 square kilometres of landmass, around 29% of that area is made up of mountain ranges. The Himalayas lie in the North, the Aravalli ranges and the Western Ghats in the west, the Vindhyas and Apura range form in the centre, the Eastern Ghats in the east and the Agro, Khaki and Jacinta range in the northeast.

India has a land frontier of 15,200 km and a coastline of 7,520 km. On the south, the landmass of India projects into the Indian Ocean, specifically, the Arabian Sea to the west, the Lakshadweep Sea to the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal to the east. Plateaus make up 28% of the landmass with the Deccan Plateau being a foundation of the greatest influence on wine production.

Map Of India And The Deccan Traps

Volcanic beds of basalt lining the Deccan were laid down around 66 million years ago towards the end of the cretaceous period. The volcanic activity would have continued for many thousands of years forming layer after layer of rock and a vast flat area stretching for miles. This extrusive igneous rock formed as hot magma flowed from deep fissures up onto the surface of the earth. Granite can also be found across the Deccan and, given this is an intrusive rock formed by magma cooling below the surface, the indication is that two contrasting environments of formation occurred.

The Deccan Plateau is the foundational powerhouse for the production of Indian wines. Lying along the western edge is the state of Maharashtra and, within that, the city of Nashik: the wine capital of India. The river Godavari, originating from the Brahmagiri mountain, flows through the centre of the city and Nashik’s combination of tropical climate plus a high altitude, 584m above sea level, promotes a milder version of some of the more extreme conditions India can experience.

Maximum temperatures average 28°C during daylight hours throughout the cool season from November to February and build rapidly to 37 °C by May. The arrival of the monsoon causes a rapid drop in temperature, back down to around 28°C, but without affecting the daily minimum, which continues to rise until it peaks in June. Given this minimum average never drops below 10°C, there is no dormant season for the vines and two harvests a year are possible, if not entirely desirable! The robustness of the vine growth dictates that there are commonly two main pruning’s a year, one around April/May before the monsoon season hits and the second before the August/September growing cycle. So, even though India falls within the northern hemisphere their harvest patterns mirror that of the South.

The tropical climate promotes ripe fruit production while the land elevation offers a high diurnal temperature range of around 16°C, allowing for the development of keen acidity, structure and rich varietal character. As temperatures are prone to skyrocket as harvest approaches, the vintner’s primary focus is to achieve phenolic ripeness before the sugar content of the berries becomes so high it compromises fermentation to dryness.

Nashik itself is made up of a varied range of nutrient-rich soil types, from well-drained sandy variants to complex metamorphic formations. Created by the weathering of rock these formations result in layers of stones, clay and decomposition, which lend complexity of character to Indian wines.

Areas of richer soil across heavier, flatter land are shown to enhance the production of the white grape varietals while the reds thrive better planted in the lighter soils across hillier, rocky landscapes. The PH of the soils is predominantly neutral, leaning towards slightly acidic, with a typical PH of around 6.8

Annual rainfall typically totals around 750mm with most of this rain falling in the summer months with the arrival of the monsoon. The western Ghats serve to shelter the Deccan Plateau from excessive rain and drip irrigation is common post-monsoon until harvest, which usually takes place between late January and March for an extended period. The monsoon itself washes away much of the surface soil annually and the high waters cause aerial roots to grow which is a unique condition for the vintners to contend with. 750mm of rain falling over 3 months can seem pretty intimidating but soggy soil, plus the volcanic influence, keeps phylloxera away so there’s definitely an upside!

The intense rainfall also has the potential to cause osmotic shock to the vines so, in order for them to be able to handle the water stress, 80-85% of vines have been grafted onto texas dogridge rootstock. Ram’s hair and other variants have also been used in small quantities with quite a significant percentage of vines remaining on original rootstock. The majority of vines are trellised using vertical shoot positioning for manageability, as heavy foliage doesn’t fare well during monsoon season. Aside from spraying copper to prevent mildew, the dry summers keep rot at bay.

Nashik is historically table grape growing territory with 95-96% of agriculture dedicated to this industry. In 1996 Indian wine pioneers, Sula, began transitioning from table grapes to wine grapes and spearheading research and development to assess market potential. They contracted 200 farmers/growers initially for experimental trial and error, handing out cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz from Australia and identifying areas with growing potential.

Today the most commonly planted varietals are noble, international grapes such as Shiraz, Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Riesling. Mediterranean varietals like Nero d’Avola and Grillo have been extremely successful and there is still much potential for further experimentation with varietals and blending, given the youth of the industry.

Grapes are hand-harvested, as this is still cheaper and easier than machine harvest, with the added bonus of a higher quality end product whilst contributing to the employment sector. In 2001, implementation of the Maharashtra Grape Processing Policy stimulated a boom in the State’s wine production from 712 kilo litres in ‘02 to over 20 million litres by ’08 and growth has been steady ever since. The innovative establishment of the Nashik Wine Park also offers facility-share options to small producers, alongside tax and duty relief, to further foster the burgeoning industry.

With regards to the bright future of the Indian wine trade, after speaking to various producers and consultants, the consensus on a 10-year plan is that growers need to improve their presence within the global market and reduce costs. The primary consumer for Indian wines is currently the domestic market, with an affluent middle class emerging in urban areas and the explorative, un-intimidated demographic of under 25s, which accounts for almost 50% of the population. The integrity of international market acceptance assists acceleration domestically and export markets include the UK, Middle East, USA and Japan with neighbouring counties like Nepal & Sri Lanka plus some trade within the EU.

There is the challenge of wine vs spirits with regards to small landholdings, as wine grapes are not the most affordable crop, and table grapes have a vastly dominant share of the land, as they are both cheaper and easier to grow. India actually has more farmland in proportion to total landmass than most other countries in the world, with around 55% under cultivation of some kind. Similar to the USA, each state in India is subject to its own laws and legislation but the threshold for quality regarding Indian wines is high and steadily rising.

There are many unexplored regions north of Nashik with cooler microclimates and great potential for wine production. Currently, the majority of small producers are self-funded and the opportunity for investment is ripe given the vast potential of the tourism industry for both domestic and international markets.

The youth of the wine industry in India means there is a lot of research yet to be done, the potential to be explored and adventures to be had. It will be fascinating to watch the market landscape evolve over the next decade as India claims it’s stake within international markets in earnest and the consumer embraces the exotic intrigue of the premium wines coming from this glorious territory.

Written by:
Laura-Marie Taylor-Stoakes

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