Article by Subhash Arora of The Indian Wine Academy

The unexpected rains and hailstorms caused major damage in wine grape growing regions like Nashik, Baramati and Latur. Some of the heavily affected vineyards lost up to 70% of their produce on the existing crop which was yet to be harvested, according to Sumedh Singh Mandla, CEO of Grover Zampa Vineyards.

These badly affected vineyards were left out with only canes with a few damaged bunches but no leaves. Some vineyards have completely collapsed on the ground making difficult to even re-fix them. Other wine grape regions of Maharashtra (Sholapur) and Karnataka (especially Northern Karnataka, Bagalkot and Bijapur) have also faced the effect of heavy rains and hail storms in a few areas, he adds. Reportedly, Southern part of Karnataka hasn’t been affected as badly.

Grover Zampa

The grapes on the vines were just at the half way stage of the ripening process with an average of 17-18 degree Brix whereas they should reach a minimum of 23-24 degree Brix to be ripe and make decent ‘still’ wines besides attaining phenological characters to give balanced ripening of the grapes. Such unripe grapes have been badly damaged due to heavy rains and hailstorms resulting in complete leaf fall and the crop dropped down.

‘Whatever berry bunches were left on the vines were also damaged forcing us to pick the left-over quantity in these vineyards and support the farmers to the possible extent. We foresee that it will be difficult for several wineries to meet the required quantity especially with the top brands,’ says Mandla.

‘Thanks to diversification of our vineyards in other areas, Grover Zampa will have some shortfall in premium wines but not a major one. We were able to harvest most of our vineyards well in time in Nashik. Besides, over 60% of our grapes are produced in Karnataka (especially in the Southern part) and therefore we are lucky enough not have a serious setback both in terms of quantity or quality,’ affirms Sumedh.

Sula Vineyards

Dr. Neeraj Agarwal, the Senior Vice President Operations and a viticulture specialist with deep roots in Sula is quite satisfied with the vintage. He says, ‘the monsoon in 2013 was optimum with rains spread out evenly over June to September. There was only a little rain in October, as a result pruning could start early in September. The growing season was inconsistent in terms of weather conditions with a warm November, cool December and an optimum January followed by cooler than usual February ending in sporadic rain and unusual hailstorms in different pockets of Nashik and different parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka in an overall warm March. But our Dindori vineyards were completely saved from the hail storm.’

‘The fluctuating weather conditions did not have a big effect on the Sauvignon Blanc which was ready as usual in January–end and early February, with good acid levels and ripe flavours. The Syrah, Zinfandel, Viognier, Riesling, Merlot and Malbec got an extra hang time to ripen by February-end while Tempranillo came in late by early March. The Chenin Blanc came early with wonderful ripe flavours and crisp acidity whereas the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest got delayed by a week. At Sula we picked up 90% of the fruit by the 3rd week of March before the temperatures started rising.’

‘The cool conditions in December and February resulted in wonderful fruit concentration and lively acidity in white grapes viz., Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Riesling. The warmth and the later harvest for the Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Malbec has given balanced acid, darker berry fruit, ripe jammy characters with ripe supple tannins. This promises to be an excellent year for the reds especially Rasa and Dindori Shiraz. The early harvested Chenin Blanc has pure fruit expressions with a crisp acidity while Cabernet Sauvignon is still fermenting and showing good potential. The cuvee wine for the bubblies shows a lot of promise with wonderful elegance, mouth-feel, crisp acidity and low pH.’

Ajoy Shaw, Sula’s Chief wine maker (who is currently enrolled and working towards his MW certification) is excited about this vintage. ‘Although it is challenging as the grapes matured this year in fluctuating weather conditions, this vintage is looking to be one of the best vintages in the past many years. I am expecting very high quality wines with complex flavours which are desirable in high end wines,’ he says.

Four Seasons -Baramati

Abhay Kewadkar, Business Head and Chief Winemaker of Four Seasons Winery in  Village Roti in Baramati has been quite positive about the climatic conditions in Baramati for their crops. He says, ‘Harvest ‘14 started with perfect conditions- very cool nights and warm days. This year there was extended cold period , resulting in very slow sugar build up  which is good for phenolic maturity.

We started with Sauvignon Blanc by Jan end. Very intense aromatic and freshness characters one could taste right in the berry stage. This was followed by Chenin Blanc, good maturity and still good on acid, well balanced, ripe tropical fruit. Red varietals and some Chenin Blancs had to wait till the matured grapes came in once the hailstorm on 9th march and its after effects had settled down.

Overall, this year has been excellent, harvest period much longer between pruning to picking.’

Akluj Vineyards of Fratelli

Alessio Secci, one of the Italian partners who is currently in India and was in Delhi last week says the climatic conditions were different than previous years but not like those in Nashik. He told me, ‘The climatic conditions in Akluj during 2014 harvest have not been easy in the sense that it has been different compared to previous years but in the final analysis we are very happy with the quality of grapes. In the previous years we harvested white grapes between January 21 and February 1. But this year, due to milder climate we had to delay by a week but the quality of white grapes has been very good. Nice balanced acidity and fruit forward taste with a nice ripening has been the feature this year.’

Akluj has been fortunate to have been spared the rains and thunderstorms in the Nashik belt. ‘Once white grapes were over, we were worried about red grapes. Usually it starts to become hot in February. Our main concern was to have all red grapes ready to pick at the same time but the temperature remained mild for the entire February. This was very good for a proper ripening with a slow and constant improvement in the acidity and tannins.’

‘We started hearing about the hailstorms and heavy rains in Nashik and around Pune during the third week of February. Our local team started to panic and was afraid it might follow in Akluj and wanted to harvest. But our winemaker Piero Masi, who was then back in Italy was in constant touch and we were confident that nothing would happen and we must wait. So the mild temperature of February helped ripen our red grapes slowly, making them fruit forward with nice acidity and elegant tannins. When the temperature started rising to reach the present 40°C our grapes were already in the tanks.’

‘Many contract farmers did try to force their buyers to pick up the grapes because of the fear of hail storm and rains but this had the added issue of low sugar levels and green tannins due to low temperature.  Since we use grapes from our own estate vineyards we have not faced such a problem; we are happy about the 2014 vintage,’ says Alessio as he signs off.

A good year for the vintners but the loss and damage to the crops would perhaps have a toll on grape supply next year. We would like to forewarn that with several farmers switching to eating grapes, the next couple of years will be difficult for the industry. Sweet and Sour may be delectable in Chinese cuisine but this is not something the Indian wine industry would relish.