First published in 'The Statesman' on 22 Dec 2006
The current trend sweeping page 3 news and party crazy crowd seems to be ‘themes’. Everything has a theme- the fall/winter collection of any designer, birthday parties, kitty parties, even call in shows on business channels have joined in! Watching ‘Floyd Uncorked’ on ‘travel and living’ motivated me to explore some vineyards in Maharashtra.
Nasik was close enough from Pune (about 220 kms) to make the trip in one weekend. We decided to hire a vehicle so our family could enjoy the drive. A more important reason was I did not want to expose our car to the possibly bumpy roads we would surely encounter in the countryside. We set off early on Saturday morning and surprisingly did not encounter any traffic out of Pune. Soon we were cruising along the state highway. We met several groups of people walking in the reverse direction- all walking and singing. Closer inspection revealed them to be ‘varkari’s’ who were making the winter pilgrimage on foot. Basically from the farming background the men and women sang bhajans of Tukaram and Dyaneshwar, as they walked in the blazing sun. Some even walked barefoot! Some of the groups surprisingly carried a mike and speaker system for singing. There was usually a truck close by, which carried their belongings.
The countryside was largely bare on this stretch unlike on the Pune – Kolhapur road. Some stray aster and marigold fields lit up the scenery with a burst of colour. Sugar cane was the predominant crop in most parts followed by vegetable (mainly cauliflower) cultivation. The cane-crushing season was beginning so there were many bullock carts, trucks, and tractors transporting the cut sugar cane to the sugar factories. We crossed Rajgurunagar, Narayangaon and Sinnar at top speed.
As we neared Nasik, we could easily identify the grape plantations by the vines growing on trellis. The route had three ‘ghat’ sections or hill roads. The Chandanapuri ghat is said to be tricky and dangerous. Monster sized vehicle-carrying trailer truck drivers seemed to easily navigate the sharp curving roads though we did encounter a couple of overturned trucks. Not being a part of the golden quadrilateral, we paid toll only once. The highway was in a fair condition considering that my spine was used to daily shocks on Pune roads! There were several dhabas enroute to cater to the hungry!
As we entered Nasik, I admired the wide roads and traffic light obeying public. We decided to check in at the hotel and have lunch before actually going to the wine yard. That was a good decision since the place we were going to did not have any provision for food. One thing I must mention though. The wine yard website and staff were very helpful on the phone and the Internet. However when we actually tried to find our way, we got horribly lost. This despite the fact that there were several signposts with arrows marked on them! They definitely pointed to the left when we had to go to the right. Finally we managed to find our way and what a beautiful sight the plantation was. It was ideally situated in the bowl of some hills and the land gently sloped down to the lake.
The parking lot had cherry trees planted with tiny fruits growing on them. The grape vines were planted in rows supported by trellis and had pipes for drip irrigation snaking in between. The vines themselves had luscious bunches of grapes growing on them. They were light green and looked almost like berries. We had a guide to take us around the facility. He said some of these grape varieties were imported from Australia and elsewhere. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Zinfandel were some of the names of varieties that I do recollect. The various notes/ bouquets that one gets on tasting the wine are from the grapes itself. Our tour began at the crushing tanks. Here the grapes are mechanically crushed for their juice. No signs of women and men dancing in large casks of grapes as I had seen in movies! Of course this was much cleaner! The skins are removed for clear wines but left with the juice for red wines for any where from 30-50 days. The liquid is filtered much sooner to get rose wines. This juice is transported in steel pipes, which are cooled to fermentation tanks where yeast is added. It stays in this tank for some time and is then pumped to another tank for further fermentation. The temperature is maintained at about 2 degrees Centigrade. There is an opening at the top so air contact is made. The entire liquid is also churned time and again. The red wine is allowed to mature in oak casks, which are specially imported for this purpose. In about 6 months time the wine is ready to be bottled. CO2 is pumped into the wine and it is then pumped into sterile bottles and sealed either with cork stoppers of screw caps. Crushing season is only in February and March and the rest of the year is devoted to bottling and nurturing the vines. Seems like a simple process is it not, just get the grape juice and let it ferment!
We had a tasting session in the tasting room. Our guide took us through the rules of the game- See, Swirl, Smell and Taste! Just a mouthful and we had to feel all the characteristics mentioned in the pamphlet!! Very difficult I tell you. After three of them frankly I could not tell the difference. I admired the French experts who could tell the exact year and wine yard from where the wine came. Amazing. I obviously had a long way to go. I can safely blame the spicy foods for taking away the power to appreciate such fine nuances.
We sat there on the terrace enjoying the breeze and the view of the plantation. There was no music playing in the background or any blaring ring tones. Just kids playing and sound of a truck being loaded with cartons of wine. They sold wine that was 20% cheaper than outside (no sales tax). Along with this they also sold paraphernalia like corkscrews, wine buckets, T-shirts, and even a barrel of wine! Now whoever bought that certainly had something to celebrate! That point I mentioned about wonky signboards caught up with us again. The plate on the door said ‘push’ and as I did so, managed to uproot the carpet on the floor outside it. It should have been ‘pull’ instead. I think whoever put up those signs must have partaken some from a barrel! That was my only complaint against the establishment.
We returned to the hotel, happy and somewhat tipsy. This was another tactical decision point in hiring the vehicle namely to leave someone else to do the driving as we enjoyed our theme- wine!! After dinner we explored College road in Nasik. I actually got a chance to see westernization there in the form of the huge well lit stores there. The next day we left early to explore yet another old and famous yard on our way back. However we were not permitted inside there but there was a very nice restaurant and wine bar on the highway itself. Very reasonably priced and delicious food. This vineyard had a much wider range of wines. They actually had tables set amidst the grape vines and the staff was very polite and helpful. Another round of wine tasting followed however this time we had to order separate glasses each time unlike before.
There are several such vineyards in the region, which make and bottle wine. Maybe you can visit some more when you plan your trip. Some do contract farming for the big boys in the region. Many more want to join the party. I hope they also consider organizing some living accommodation in the plantation ( in business parlance this is referred to as the hospitality space I am told), which will make the trip even more memorable. We returned home by Sunday afternoon itself, a wonderful thematic weekend getaway with some learning thrown in too. I am actively looking for another theme for my next getaway, any ideas?