TD Conversations: Sujata Patil, Wine Sales Head, Monika Enterprises

Sujata Patil of Monika Enterprises, India’s largest importer and distributor of international spirits, talks about the Indian wine market, evolution of the consumer and two newly introduced wines.

Since the ’90s, the Indian wine market has been on the uptick, with homegrown brands making wines more accessible to Indian audiences and naturally, opening up the market to international wines as well. Today, Indian wine consumption stands at over 30 million litres annually, with the market growing at a rate of 25 per cent. This growth has been steadily driven by rising disposable incomes in a burgeoning population that has gained exposure to international trends through travel and social media, among other channels. We caught up with Sujata Patil, Wine Sales Head of Monika Enterprises, one of the country’s largest spirits importers and distributors, to understand where the domestic wine market currently stands, the scope for the wine import industry and for a couple of recommendations on Wine Day.

Sujata patil monika enterprises

“India has been drinking wine seriously for a little over two decades now and yet, the market share for wine remains miniscule in the overall scheme of things. A growth rate of 20-25 per cent might look good on paper but then, you have to consider the base as well. That said, it’s steady growth and that’s encouraging. One trend I have noticed is that people have become a lot more curious about wine and are willing to experiment with not just grape varieties but even countries of origin. Now, interestingly, this curiosity in imported wines has been fuelled by the domestic wine industry. It is because of the homegrown brands that a lot more people have access to wines and that has, in turn, improved the prospects for international brands,” says Sujata Patil.

The interest in imported wines is indeed rather encouraging, as is the growth in the sector, especially considering the astronomical duties levied here. “A bottle of wine that costs €1 in its country of origin, for instance, would be priced nearly 11 times that in India, simply because of duties. It’s understandable that any government would want to levy a certain amount of duties, especially as anti-dumping measures, but a little more prudence would go a long way in supporting the industry.”

Grape varieties
Aside from newer grape varietals, Indian consumers are also curious and willing to experiment with wines from several different and unconventional countries of origin.

Pricing is naturally the critical factor when it comes to how the wine sells, and according to Sujata, the bracket between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,500 is the fastest-moving. But there’s more than just numbers that play an important role in determining the success of a wine. “Even the more expensive varieties, priced above Rs 2,500 have takers, albeit in much lower numbers but then, that’s understandable. The fact that there are still takers for the more premium brands in itself is quite encouraging. Also, when Monika Enterprises started building its portfolio, we ensured that we introduced grape varieties that are either not available or widely known in India. For example, the durif variety from Australia, which worked very well for us.”

But while there’s a fair bit of interest on the part of consumers, most of this is limited to urban centres. Sujata, though, has hope that these bits of the market will eventually open up. “The biggest markets remain Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bangalore. Then come markets such as Goa, Pune, etc. Tier II and Tier III cities represent an enormous chunk of our population, and there’s a lot of potential there. Although wine hasn’t exactly made a considerable dent there, this is where domestic brands play an important role. With the entry of more affordable wines in these markets, imported brands become an aspirational product. Even we have recently ventured into Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, among other locations, with our economy range of products. Once these settle in, there will be a natural movement towards the more aspirational products.”

Wine drinking
As Indians explore wine in larger numbers, there are also an increasing number of sommeliers in the country. Restaurants and hospitality groups are hiring more sommeliers too. These trends are a clear indicator of rising wine consumption among Indian audiences.

Another trend that is clear evidence of Indians taking to wine is growing number of sommeliers in the country. “A sommelier course involves intense training, and the fact that there are a lot more younger people these days who are taking it up, along with restaurants and hospitality groups hiring sommeliers in greater numbers, is a clear indication that wine consumption is steadily rising. In fact, a young sommelier plays the role of an educator in their peer groups, influencing buying and consumption decisions.”

When it comes to varieties of wines and grapes too, continues Sujata, there are certain trends that have emerged recently. Rosé wines, which were not that popular even five years ago, are now in demand in an increasing number of markets. And it’s the same story with the pinot noir varietal of grape, which has garnered a lot of interest recently, country of origin notwithstanding.

Monika Enterprises has a number of parameters to consider when selecting various brands to introduce in the Indian market. “Price, of course, is an important factor that we consider, especially in the economy range of wines. Aside from that, of course, the varietal of grape also comes into play. We have a sampling panel that checks every product that is shipped to us for suitability to the market. But it’s not just an internal panel; we have sommeliers, retailers and even a complete newbie on board, just so we can get a complete picture of what the wine is like and how it’s likely to be received in the market.”

Now, it was time for recommendations and Sujata told us about two new wines that Monika Enterprises has launched, perfect for Wine Day. First up, is the Terroir Daronton Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A well respected and much-loved wine the world over, it is made in the Rhone Valley from a blend of three grape varietals – Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre. With hints of prune, fig and caramel, this bold wine pairs perfectly with spicy, rich dishes Indians favour. It’s grown completely organically and the winegrowers are part of the Winegrowers for Sustainable Development.

The other new introduction is the Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Vines Zinfandel from Sonoma County. “The story behind this Zinfandel wine is very interesting. The vineyard started developing a ‘heritage clone’ in 1982. They grafted cuttings from pre-Prohibition era plants onto rootstalks of new Zinfandel plants. And the result was an entirely new plant. The project finally concluded in 1997, with a Zinfandel wine with unique characteristics. When plants as old as these produce fruit, they do so in fewer numbers but the flavours are a lot more concentrated, and this is what results in the unique flavours of this wine. It’s also a bold wine but not as much as the other one, so you could still pair it with Indian dishes that are on the medium range when it comes to spices. Of course, any pasta in a red sauce would also complement the fruity flavours of Zinfandel.”

While Sujata signed off with suggestions to save these wines for a special occasion, Wine Day is as good an occasion as any. If you’re bored of the usual stuff and done exploring the range at your local retailer, maybe it’s time to try something unique, not to mention, with tonnes of heritage.

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