So Moët Henessey India, the luxury wines and spirits division of French beverage giant LVMH, has made a scintillating entrance in India in grand style with the launch of its Chandon winery. The Rs 50 crore ($7.5 million) 21-acre winery, situated in the picturesque hilly region Dindori in Nashik, Maharashtra (known as India’s premier wine region), was unveiled at a high energy party. Gourmet brunch food, summer-accented sparkling cocktails in colourful stemware, glorious flower arrangements and colour-coordinated goody-bags greeted guests, most of whom were from the wine media and trade. It was impressive, to say the least.
Although Chandon has been making two sparkling wines – Brut and Brut rosé – for a year now at a third-party winery under the supervision of its own team, there was a palpable excitement at the grand curtain-raising of its very own show. At a dinner at Nashik’s Gateway hotel the evening previous, Davide Marcovitch, president of Moët Henessey described it as “cooking in your own kitchen compared to cooking at someone else’s… the food tastes different.”
Chandon has been ‘cooking in their own kitchen’ in five different countries in the last 60 years before stepping officially into India. Starting with Mendoza, Argentina way back in 1959: their first ever winery for sparkling wine outside of Champagne, France. Then after a longish wait in 1973 came #2 – Domaine Chandon in California’s Napa Valley where their sparkling wine is made from the classic Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This was swiftly followed with Chandon do Brasil also in 1973, in Serra Gaucha, where Brut is made with imported Pinot Noir and Chardonnay along with the addition of 40% Welschriesling from Brazil, all by the charmat (tank) method.
From all accounts, its next winery in Australia’s cool climate Yarra Valley, opened in 1986, has produced some of its best-appreciated sparkling wine. The Aussie wines are made by the traditionelle method again with locally-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the range includes special cuvées. Before the Nashik winery opened its doors, Chandon set up shop in Ningxia, China in 2013. Here, the wine has been tweaked to appeal to the palate “not used to the acidity normally found in champagne,” according to Gloria Xia, the winemaker. The stress was on aroma and a fresh texture, she added. Interestingly, China, which is famous for its yen for red wine, is gradually waking up to the “contemporary appeal” of sparkling wine, and the UK-based International Wine and Spirit Research has made note of the tripling of consumption in sparkling wine here between 2009 to 2013.
So, on to India.
There was much emphasis on the brand strength and age-tested French technology during the introductory speeches and this is spot on. Parent company LVMH has one of the most enviably dazzling portfolios in history of wine marketing – with stellar brands which include Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Krug, Château d’Yquem and New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay in their kitty, names which clearly demonstrate that they know what they are doing in the wine markets around the world. And should you still doubt, a quick whisk around the glitzy maison of Moet & Chandon at the top of Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne will certainly convince you.
In their inaugural speeches, Marcovitch and brand new Moët Hennessy India MD Steven Bullock made references to the quality and centuries of French know-how which gave Chandon the edge over other wines in India’s nascent sparkling wine market. Indeed, Chandon seems to have already settled itself fairly firmly at the top of the current Indian sparkling wines market, notching up early successes already.
The India Chandon Brut formula – they buy their grapes from premium local growers who must conform to their strict rules – is made with Chenin Blanc (the dominant grape) along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the quantities are tweaked according to each harvest. The Chandon Brut Rosé is made from Shiraz and Pinot Noir. (“You cannot make in Nashik exactly what you make in France,” said Marcovitch, “Both are totally different countries, with different terroirs.”)
Rajesh Dixit, estate manager, who led a group of us around his impressive, spanking new realm believes that creating a blend which marries the best grapes grown in a country with the human resources and technology from France is unbeatable. “Seventy percent of wine is made in the vineyards, and we feel the big game changer is the viticulture. So we pay our growers well, ensure low yields, that organic fertilizers are used, as many environmentally sustainable practices are used as is possible,” says Dixit. Grapes are picked in whole bunches, harvesting is done at the right time, and the grapes are transported in their own cold storage vehicles. Addition of yeast and filtration is done as per best Chandon practises, he adds. “Our wines are pitched as ‘party starters’ so the accent is on freshness, fruitiness and balance – a classical Brut and a fresh rosé.”
The walkaround showed a winery built with an eye on the future: the giant stainless steel tanks which dominated the air-conditioned factory can hold the equivalent of 50,000 cases of wine (built complete with customized ceiling insulation, state of the art machines for tirage, bottling, labelling, gyropalettes and every other detail provided for, including room for expansion. These include special tasting rooms and glass fronted rooms and wraparound verandahs overlooking the manicured lawns, made for throwing parties, brunches, evening soirées, picnics and everything in between – clearly gearing up for future visits from tourists and wine lovers.
Later, with a glass of brand ambassador Rohan Jelkie’s custom-created signature Elderflower spritzer in hand, I chatted with Wiboom Arunthanes, regional and business development director, Moët Hennessy Asia Pacific. Project Chandon India had started way back in 2009, with the selection of the right parcels of land for the winery and is designed along clean, modern lines: they have very sensibly not attempted to recreate an ornate slice of Champagne in our desi environs. As for the selection of the types of grapes, they had thought about it too. “When our team of expert viticulturists first came down to India, the first question they asked was about the grapes grown in India,” recounts Arunthanes, “Would they be good enough? And over the years of interaction we have had with the local growers, we know they are. Chenin Blanc is the backbone of our Brut. We wanted our blend to reflect local preferences and grapes that would grow best here. Then we looked at how we could make them better. We have signed long-term contracts with the farmers, and instructed them to pamper their grapes. The first vintage produced was in 2013, based on contracts signed in 2010. The first vintage from our own winery will be the 2014.”
Currently the two Chandons labels in the market are the Brut and the rosé, but would any more be added, I asked, perhaps a vintage sparkling, similar to those made in some of their other Chandon-making countries. “Quite likely,” replies Arunthanes, “But we need to wait for the market to open up to sparkling wine. The Indian consumer is still fairly a novice when it comes to this style. But we are patient. India has been here for 1000 years and will still be here generations later.”
With ambitious marketing plans in the anvil, the next step is, as was in China, to woo the generations of young Indian towards popping that bottle of Chandon at their next party. For that, wine education is the key, says Dixit. So plenty of bartending sessions and masterclasses will commence, to instruct the trade in the wheres, whys and how tos of sparkling wine. “The whole industry will benefit,” predicts Dixit, “The way I see it, the consumer will be the ultimate winner.”