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The average Indian wine drinker can’t tell a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Sauvignon blanc

AP Photo/Gurinder Osan
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

There is an old webcomic that punchily describes the two kinds of wine drinkers in the world. There’s the snob who revels in swirling the glass, sniffing the bouquet, and identifying the tones and undertones. And then there’s the drinker, for whom it’s just, well, wine to glug down. The average Indian wine consumer is still the drinker, not the snob—she may enjoy a glass or two once in a while, but is still unable to differentiate a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Sauvignon blanc, or a Pinot noir from a Pinot Grigio.

“Wines in India have only started becoming popular in the last decade and even then knowledge is limited on grape varietals and flavours and complexities,” wine professional Sonal Holland said. “As people learn more, they are also drinking wine more, which is very encouraging.”

This direct correlation between higher awareness and increased consumption was found in a recent survey commissioned by Sonal Holland Wine Academy and conducted by Drshti Strategic Research Services. The survey tried to determine what urban Indian wine consumers know about wine, how do they perceive wine, plus why, where, and how often do they drink wine.

After questioning 878 wine drinkers from across five Indian metros, chosen according to highest wine consumption, the report arrived at some key findings: Indians prefer wine by the glass, it is seen as a healthier and classier drink, it is popular as a gifting option, wines are women’s drink of choice, and smaller cities and a younger crowd are promising segments.

According to the report, the Indian wine industry has seen a growth rate of over 14% between 2010 and 2015. “Wine needs to be made less intimidating,” said Holland. “People need to be informed and educated, and it’s important to get rid of this aura around wine that it is unapproachable and too sophisticated.”

Holland, India’s first and only Master of Wine, a title enjoyed by around 350 people from across 28 countries, has her own YouTube channel, Sonal Holland Wine TV, on which she addresses basic things like whether it is okay to put ice in your wine (“Never!” she says sternly), how to pair it with Indian food, or what temperature various wines should be served at. The videos are short, with cheerful music playing in the background.

Yatin Patil, director of Reveilo Wines and president of All India Wine Producers Association, held wine tastings of the Italian wines his company introduced to the Indian market.

“There are a couple of varietals like Chenin blanc and Syrah which everyone knows and every Indian wine producer makes, so we introduced the Grillo and the Sangiovese from Chianti and Tuscany,” said Patil. “We have been working towards making the Indian consumer aware of these wines and a lot of people, after trying it, have liked it and started buying these wines. This can’t happen by merely placing the bottle in a shop.”

The survey indicates that women enjoy wine more than men. Even those who were teetotalers are choosing to drink wine at home, when they go out, and on special occasions. Some of the women polled in the survey said, “My family doesn’t mind if I have wine; it is acceptable to have wine in society”; or “I feel proud when I drink wine. My husband feels proud too. And he is most happy that we can sit together and share a drink”.

According to Holland, the tendency to purchase wine by the glass is worth exploring for restaurants and hospitality companies. However, Patil points out some of the concerns in serving wine by the glass, mostly the challenge of how to store the wine after a bottle has been opened in order to maintain its quality. “Sometimes we advise the restaurants to throw away the remaining wine in an open bottle if it has been more than two days and someone needs to bear that cost,” said Patil.

A factor that contributes to a larger consumer base among women is that wines are seen as healthy drink that contain antioxidants and are good for the skin apart from being less potent.

These perceived health benefits might also be converting men into wine drinkers. “Most men, especially those in their 40s, told me that they started drinking with beer or rum, then graduated to gin and vodka and then eventually to single malts,” said Holland. “But recently many have switched to wine on doctor’s recommendations and because drinking wine doesn’t get them wasted, so they can go for their morning jog the next day.”

Price is another factor that, the survey found, determines buying habits and this is where the Indian principal of purchasing anything kicks in—the cheaper the better. Of the 878 people polled, 49% of them listed price as the most important factor when buying wine and titles, like “Reserve”, “Chateau”, “Superieur”, on labels have lesser influence than familiarity of brand name.

According to the survey, the Indian wine market is dominated by domestic wines, favoured by lower prices and wider availability. However, there is a perception that a high-priced foreign brand is superior to an Indian brand at the same price point. “The superior wines by Indian companies are priced upwards of Rs1,000 as are the foreign brands in the market,” said Holland. “However, what most people don’t realise is that the high-priced foreign brand is probably the most basic category of wine that they offer, but if they buy the Indian offerings of the same price, they are getting a premium wine. But Indian consumers question the high price simply because it is an Indian brand for which they are not willing to pay more than Rs500 to Rs600.”

What the wine industry needs, according to Holland, is a makeover. “Surrogate advertising for beer and vodka in India always focuses on fun and happy times, but wine is something that will talk about quality and flavours and have visuals of chateau or corks. It is time we made wine fun and stopped taking it so very seriously. It’s only a beverage for god’s sake.”

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