Amritraj Cruises into Wine World
Tennis Champion’s Reserve Collection Earns Praise
Wine is made all over the world, but it is mainly from the California vineyards that I file my report, so to speak. But last month, while visiting family in India, I had the pleasure of imbibing a glass of red wine from Vijay Amritraj’s Reserve Collection. The vintage was 2014, the same year that Amritraj launched his brand in the manner of so many Western sports celebrities. I thought of it as a maiden journey for the wine into the world.
Breaking into the Western World of Tennis.
For those of us of a certain age, Amritraj represents India’s entrée into the world of Western sports. While field hockey had been India’s strong suit, tennis, played in quintessentially British Wimbledon, was a whole different ball game, quite literally. It represented the piercing of privilege that we barely knew existed, let alone understand.
Then came Amritraj, traveling with his racket all over the world. Turning pro in 1970, the first Indian to do so, he made us proud by competing with the greats. At the peak of his career he was ranked sixteenth among the singles. As a child, I remember frequently seeing his name and picture in the papers. When he moved off the tennis court and newspapers, he slipped into our collective memories, jolted when we saw his Reserve wine.
Wine launch a bit like his tennis.
He launched his Reserve Collection in London, marking another first for Indians in the world of celebrity – not all sports — products. Think Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s Miraval rosé wine, Terry Hoage’s Grenache. Although invested in the production and marketing of his wine, Amritraj has partnered with Grover Zampa in Nashik, India. The Grover family has grown wine grapes for decades and their name carries recognition in India where wine is slowly gaining a toehold.
Facts about Nashik.
As I researched for this post, I found Nashik quite intriguing. I’d heard of it, of course, a town in the western state of Maharashtra, but who’d have thought that it would be a major wine producing center in India! I guess when we were being taught Geography in grade school, ‘viticulture’ didn’t exist in our vocabulary.
But here we are now. The soils of Nashik, a combination of red laterite with good drainage and sandy clay loam, the latter deposited by the River Godavari, provide the perfect pairing for growing a variety of wine grapes. Think Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Viognier and others.
Other factors go into making Nashik a prime location for growing wine grapes in India. Surprising is the latitude. Nashik sits between the 19th and 20th parallels north of the equator. Even southern Italy sits around the 40th parallel. But the elevation, between 2,000 and 2,400 feet, must make a difference to an area that lies south of the Tropic of Cancer. Also, California-like daily temperatures swing from the 70s during the day to the 40s at night, allowing the fruit to develop and retain enough acidity to give wine its structure. Interestingly for me, harvest season comes at the end of winter, from February to March. Compare this with the crazy-long harvest in California that starts at the end of summer and has been moving up as the earth has warmed.
Yet, only 8,000 acres out of 180,000 of arable land, are under wine grape cultivation, with a couple of dozen wineries pressing their berries. But clearly, the terroir is good enough that in 2013 Moët Chandon, yes, the French one, launched its champagne in India with grapes grown locally. This certainly gives Nashik bragging rights.
Now the wine.
A blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier, we enjoyed Amritraj’s offering. Unlike many light, airy wines, this one had depth. Dark, medium-to-full bodied with notes of spice, it had enough acid to pair well with a citrus-pistachio salad we had as an hors d’oeuvre. Beyond that, it paired well, and kept its flavor, over the next couple of days with everyday Indian food. I have had local wines in India and most need more work. Had I not known this was made in India, I would never have guessed.
Apparently, others thought so, too. In 2016, this wine won the bronze at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards.