If there is one company that has put India firmly on the world wine tourism map, it is Rajeev Samant’s Sula Vineyards, situated in Nashik, Maharashtra. And if there is one event which has taken snobbery out of wine drinking and succeeded in attracting hordes of youngsters to this magical beverage, it is SulaFest, held every year on the first weekend of February, since 2008 in the idyllic environs of Sula Vineyards.
The 10th edition of this trendy wine, music and food extravaganza is just two days away. It promises to be its best ever, looking at the exciting line-up of 120 international and national music artists slated to play at the festival. The setup in 2017 is bigger too, as the festival is spread over three days 3rd 4th and 5th February, compared to the previous two day format.
To accommodate the large number of artists, befitting a “World Music Festival”, three stages have been constructed, a Greek style Amphitheatre, Atmasphere and a new addition, Tropical Stage. Some of the renowned artists performing at SulaFest 2017 will be Bloc Party, an indie rock band from London, Dana Ruh and the Israeli duo with a catchy name “Infected Mushroom”.
Indian artists will be out in full force on Day 1 (3rd Feb) of the fest, when homegrown talent like Indian Ocean, Nucleya, The Raghu Dixit Project will be setting the stage on fire (not literally I hope)
Music across all genres will be featured, from techno, house, electronica, indie, reggae, afro, world fusion to psychedelic trance. Along with wine, this promises to be quite a heady combination.
Talking of wine, which of course will be there in plenty, there will be grape stomping sessions since it is harvest season at the winery, winery tours and organised wine tastings. Sula sold nearly a million cases of wine in 2016 and SulaFest is a great occasion to showcase its various labels and make people understand how that bottle gets from the vineyard to the table. It is also an exposure to Nashik, Maharashtra (about four hours drive from Mumbai), India’s most important wine growing region which many term as India’s own Napa Valley.
However, wine will not be the only beverage served. There will be other spirits too like Mount Gay Rum, Asahi Beer, Cognac all imported through Sula Selections, the import arm of Sula Vineyards. For teetotallers and health freaks, cold press juices from Raw Pressery will satiate your thirst.
And there will be food. Plenty of it from popular Mumbai restaurants like Bombay Food Truck, Mainland China, Busago, Maroosh, Woodside Inn and lots more.
There is a “Tent City” that has been set up amidst the vineyards, complete with a little weekend flea market “SulaFest Bazaar”. What you can expect to enjoy here are Sunrise Yoga Sessions, SulaFest Run and Foot Massages. There will be a Tarot Card reader to give you a little peek into your future.
The three day affair promises to be a lot of fun. The romance of a vineyard setting is unparalleled as it is. Couple that with great music and food and it becomes intoxicating. You will not know till you experience it.
To book tickets (hopefully there will be some left still as last few years have been completely sold out) here is the link.
Tristan Beau de Lomenie, the handsome and suave General Manager of Pullman New Delhi Aerocity made a telling statement while addressing the guests at “Taste of India”, a Winemakers Dinner at Pluck & Pling, the all-day fine dining restaurant at his hotel. He said, “This is not a competition but a collaboration among India’s top wine producers”.
He was referring to the winemakers from Sula, Grover Zampa, York and Charosa, who had flown down to Delhi, to present their wines at a well curated dinner at Pullman, the purpose of which was to highlight the tremendous progress made by the Indian wine industry, both in terms of quality and styles.
Tristan also made a little confession and admitted that four years ago, when he and his wife Isabel came to India, they were not very fond of Indian wine. However, over the years, he has been amazed by the improvement in the quality of Indian wines and now, not only has he become a fan, but is actively promoting them in his hotel.
This dinner was notable for several reasons. Four of India’s well known winemakers, Ajoy Shaw of Sula Vineyards, Karishma Grover of Grover Zampa, Ravi Gurnani from York and Ashok Patil from Charosa Vineyards had gathered together, taking time out from their busy schedules since it is harvest time at the wineries, to showcase their premium wines at the Pullman dinner.
While most wine lovers in Delhi are already familiar with established names like Sula, Grover Zampa and York, this was the first time that wines from Charosa (a winery located 55kms from Nashik in Maharashtra) were being presented in the capital. There has been a buzz around their Sauvignon Blanc and Reserve Tempranillo (India’s first 100% Tempranillo), and guests at the “Taste of India” dinner got a chance to try out both, along with Charosa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The presence of Ashok Patil, chief winemaker of Charosa, who spoke a little about his winery, made it special.
The four wines from Sula Vineyards, India’s biggest and most well known wine producer commanding the largest market share, were Brut Tropical (my current favorite among Indian sparkling wines), Sula Riesling 2016, Rasa Shiraz 2014 and a lovely Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2016 which had a good balance between sweetness and acidity and a touch of Muscat. Ajoy Shaw, chief winemaker of Sula Vineyards revealed that Rasa got its name after the initials (Ra Sa) of the founder of Sula, Rajeev Samat. I was not aware of this and it is always good to learn something new.
Karishma Grover, chief winemaker at Grover Vineyards Ltd, presented Zampa Brut Soirée 2014 and Grover Zampa Chêne Grande Reserve 2010 along with two house labels that she has collaborated with Pullman. “Blanc by Pullman” is a Sauvignon Blanc while “Rouge by Pullman” is a blend of oak aged Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both easy drinking styles.
Ravi Gurnani from York winery was the only person among the four, who is technically not a winemaker but takes care of sales & marketing. It is his brother Kailash, who is incharge of winemaking operations at York Winery, also situated in Nashik very close to Sula. The wines that he showcased at the dinner were York Sparkling Blanc de Blancs (100% Chenin), York Chenin Blanc 2016 and, York Arros, one of the best value for money premium Indian red wines in my opinion.
It goes to the credit of Tristan and his team of sommeliers and chefs, in particular Director Food & Beverage Vishrut Gupta and Assistant Director F&B Deepak Shettigar, that the event was a huge success.
The efforts of the sommelier of Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity, Kriti Malhotra, were recognised and praised by everyone present. Kriti is certified sommelier from Court of Master Sommeliers and it was she who had coordinated with the winemakers and persuaded them to participate. She is a passionate and dedicated sommelier who is making a mark on the wine scene and setting a great example which should encourage more and more Indian women to enter this field.
Taste of India wine dinner was also a fabulous opportunity for the chefs of Pullman to showcase “Farm-to-Table”, a concept that they so zealously advocate. In fact, quite a few ingredients used in the dishes were plucked from their in-house organic garden. No surprise that the Cafe is called “Pluck”. The miniature Chef’s Garden created for the dinner, complete with root vegetables which guests had to dig out from faux soil and the different types of fruit and vegetable caviar, came in for a lot of appreciation. There were some hits and misses in terms of wine and food pairing, but there is always an inherent risk while attempting something unconventional.
Tristan Beau de Lomenie and his team need to be applauded for promoting both the “Farm-to-Table” concept and Indian Wines at Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity.
Tristan’s concluding words at the “Taste of India” wine dinner were that Indian wines are becoming a force to reckon with and can now complete with the best in the New World. Coming from a Frenchman whose wife Isabel, owns a vineyard in Barsac Bordauex, this is quite an endorsement.
Some of my fondest memories of winter are centred around food. Sitting around a bonfire eating peanuts and gajjak in Jammu during Lohri; driving for masala tea and hot pakoras to a road side tea stall in Rajpur from our house in Dehradun; plucking fresh spinach and mustard from our kitchen garden in Kaka Nagar, New Delhi, cooking it over an open fire and eating it along with home-made “makki rotis”.
Countless nostalgic food moments like these, associated with places where I have lived. Somehow I feel less guilty about over-eating at this time of the year. The weight gain that invariably happens, gets camouflaged by layers of clothing, which is a blessing.
During winters, the urge for a barbecue usually takes me to a nearby “dhaba”, or to Old Delhi, where you can stand around numerous roadside makeshift charcoal grills, and devour delicious kebabs and skewered meats.
But there are times, when I really yearn for a nice juicy lamb chop, paired with a robust red wine or some top quality grilled fish. For this, however, I head to a fine dining restaurant, preferably having outdoor seating, as this kind of food is best enjoyed when it is fresh off the grill, and cooked right in front of you.
When I read that K3, the all-day dining at JW Marriott, Aerocity New Delhi, had added an outdoor extension called K3 Alfresco serving barbecues and grilled dishes, it seemed like the perfect solution for my yearnings and I decided to check it out.
Luckily Delhi has had an unusually mild winter this year. So the thought of sitting outdoors did not seen very daunting.
K3, with its elaborate menu and popular Sunday brunches has already established its reputation as one of the best fine dining destinations in Delhi -NCR. I was not disappointed with the new addition, K3 Alfresco, either.
The menu at K3 Alfresco is limited since it is predominantly about grills. Prawns, Scallops, Goat Cheese Tart and something called Provolone Brulee are offered as the appetizers. For the mains the choice is wider and the several options include Lobster, Fish (Sea Bass, Black Cod, John Dory), New Zealand Lamb Chops, Pork Chops & Chicken Breast. Vegetarians can choose between Charred Polenta and Wild Mushroom & Asparagus Gougère.
There is a wide variety of sauces to go with the mains, Béarnaise, Caper Beurre Blanc, Red Wine Jus, Pepper, Mushroom etc. Plenty of interesting sides too.
I ordered Grilled Jumbo Prawns, Goat Cheese Tart (absolutely delicious and must try) among the appetisers and Sea Bass & New Zealand Lamb Chops from the mains. The wine I chose with the seafood was Dr Loosen 2013 Riesling and with the lamb chops it was Frescobaldi Pater Sangiovese, both by the glass. The deal here is that if you order one main dish ( Rs 1500-3500) from the grill; the soup, sides and a pre-plated dessert come free of cost.
Now Sea Bass is a delicate fish which requires minimal cooking. Executive Chef Vivek Bhatt and Executive Sous Chef Ishika Konar had respected that. The fish presented to me was white, soft, flakey and just melted in the mouth.
The Prawns were a wee bit over but Chef Ishika nailed the lamb chops. I had asked them to be done medium and this is how I got them, succulent with the juices intact. The cooking techniques of the chefs was spot on. They understood the ingredients and respected them.
One reason why I like going to K3 is the well thought out wine list and some great offers by the glass. Plus there is Director Beverages, Ankur Chawla, one of India’s best sommeliers, whose advice can always be sought, when in doubt about which wine to pair with your meal.
K3 Alfresco is a dinner only, season bound offer (during winters till mid-Feb). I loved the romantic ambience. It seems like a perfect place to take your date on a cold winter evening.
In case you need additional heating, there are enough tower heaters which don’t let you feel the chill, even though you are seated in the open.
So if you are looking for a special evening to try out some delicious grills, you know where to head to.
Le Quinze Vins in Wan Chai Hong Kong looked like any other wine bar from outside, till I entered and saw an entire wall lined up with vintages from hallowed French estates. The kind that you bow down and pay homage to.
This is where I was meeting Gordon Rodrigues, a Hong Kong based banker, wine aficionado and an avid wine collector, on a recent visit to Hong Kong.
Gordon was a facebook friend whom I had known for over a year. This was the first time we were meeting in person.
The world of wine has connected me with some wonderful people across the world. There is always someone in every city willing to share a glass or a bottle and talk about their wine journey. Cultural barriers are transcended, views aired and often an everlasting friendship is formed over wine.
What Gordon had chosen for me that evening, was a Clos Rougeard “Brézé 2008”, a single vineyard Chenin Blanc from the legendary wine estate, Clos Rougeard, in Saumur region of Loire Valley, France.
This was the first time I was trying out wine from this revered, though somewhat low profile estate, famous for its “cult” Cabernet Franc.
To say that Clos Rougeard is to Loire what Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) is to Burgundy, will not be an exaggeration.
The estate produces three red wines Le Bourg, Les Poyeux and Le Clos, all from 100% Cabernet Franc, under the appellation label Saumur Champigny.
According to some, it is the finest expression of Cabernet Franc in the world and some vintages of Le Bourg, the leading cuvée of Clos Rougeard, fetch a higher price than Bordeaux classified growths such as Cos d’Estournel and Palmer.
Ever since the death of Charly Foucault, the eighth generation co-owner of Cos Rougeard, in December last year, the price of these wines has shot up even more.
Since production is limited to only 2500 cases a year, the wines get sold out very quickly and are hard to find.
Latest reports suggest that Clos Rougeard has been sold to Martin Bouygues and his brother Olivier, owners of Chateau Montrose in Bordeaux.
Clos Rougeard wines are truly artisanal in every sense and pioneers of organic viticulture (wines produced sans pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilisers) in the region.
The brothers Charly & Nady Foucault continued their father’s tradition of keeping vinification chemical free and made wines the way they should be made, with minimal oenological intervention. Wines are produced from low-yields, using wild natural yeasts and bottled without filtration.
More and more vintners are now turning towards organic viticulture, but Clos Rouegard has always been making wines in this manner without a drop of chemicals.
Saumur Blanc “Brézé” is a rare white wine made from 100% Chenin Blanc from hundred year old vines grown in just a one hectare plot. Brézé is acknowledged as the best terroir in Saumur appellation for Chenin Blanc, a celebrated white grape of Loire Valley.
High in acidity and potentially long living, this is a white wine that can be aged for a long time. It is a “collector’s item” like the Cabernet Francs from Clos Rougeard and you are unlikely to find it on the wine list of restaurants, even in France.
Long and slow élevage (18-24 months) in cold Tuffeau cellars (local limestone of the Loire Valley) helps in adding complexity. 50% of the wine is aged in new barrique. This gives the wine great depth, length and richness.
Light gold in appearance with a dry sherry like nutty oxidative intensity, this precise, deeply perfumed and elegant Chenin Blanc with superb freshness and lively acidity, completely enveloped my senses. The wine expressed the complexity of the soil, such was its purity.
Reminding me slightly of a Hermitage Blanc, but with more richness, denser minerality and deeper concentration, the Clos Rougeard Saumur Brézé 2008 is one wine I will not forget in a hurry.
My first blog post of the year and it is not about wine. That’s because Sikkim, a nature lover’s paradise, where I spent a fair amount of time in the month of December, is so much on my mind.
In any case, I have been wanting to write on travel for a long time. Since I am always on the move, it makes sense to share my travel experiences in India and across the world, with my readers.
What better way to begin with than write about this picturesque mountainous state Sikkim, situated in the North-East of India.
Photographs of the majestic Kangchenjunga (28,169ft), the third highest mountain in the world which lies partly in Sikkim India and partly in Nepal, have been enticing me since many years. But for some reasons Sikkim never figured on my travel itinerary, till my husband got posted there recently, as the Post Master General of the state.
Now was my opportunity to see this part of India. So I booked myself on an Air India flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok and set out to explore this second smallest state, which become part of India as late as 15th May 1975.
Usually before setting foot in a new place, I try and find out everything there is to know through the internet. But none of the websites on Sikkim gave me information which I am sharing through this article.
The two and a half hour flight from Delhi glides along the mighty Himalayan range and on a clear day, you can get a glimpse of most ranges, including Mount Everest. Be sure to book a window seat (RowA) on the left side of the plane while flying towards the east. Internet search of the peaks prior to flying out will help you in identifying them from air. This will make your air plane ride quite interesting.
Though the distance from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok is just 125 kms, it takes four and a half hours or more to reach, due to perpetual traffic jams on NH31A and the hilly terrain. Since travel time is much more than what the distance suggests, plan ahead accordingly. This holds true for travel throughout Sikkim .
However, it is a beautiful up-hill and down-hill drive along the emerald green Teesta river and it is best to switch off from the traffic conditions, look out of the car window and enjoy the serene views. Water does have a calming effect on the senses.
There are two travel options from Bagdogra to Gangtok. Either a pre-paid private taxi from the airport or a shared taxi-jeep depending on your budget. But be prepared for some rash driving by the cabbies, which might cause a panic attack, if you are not used to traveling on hilly roads.
The entire North-East gets pitch dark by 5.30 pm during winters. In case you are traveling at this time of the year, choose your hotel wisely. If it is near MG Road, which is the throbbing heart of Gangtok and has some semblance of a night life, you may find things to do in the evening.
Otherwise, opt for a hotel which offers some activities and a meal plan (preferably dinner), so that you don’t have to go hunting for food at night. Most of the town wears a deserted look after 7.30 pm in winters.
However, the biggest advantage of visiting Sikkim during winters is the clear view of the mighty Kanchenjunga range on most days.
During summers visibility is not the best. Plus you will have to jostle for space with raucous hordes of tourists who will be arriving from all parts of India.
Monsoon (June-mid September) is not advisable either due to frequent landslides which cause road blocks and hamper travel. Plus no views.
Ideally the best time to visit Sikkim is end February to April, if you love snow. Most of the mountain lakes are frozen at this time and April end is the season for flowers. October to December is best for the views, though you will not find any snow, except on the distant peaks.
If you have limited time, I would say two days is enough for Gangtok, for local sight-seeing. You can look up any Sikkim tourism website and pick out the spots. Local taxis are the best option here. They operate on a point system (1 point = one tourist spot) and not by meter.
I would recommend walking if any of the tourist spots are within a few kilometres of your hotel or place of stay.
Not to be missed are Enchey and Rumtek Monateries, Tsuklakhang Royal Chapel, Hanuman Tok Temple (for the best view of the Kanchenjunga). You can avoid the much hyped Tashi View Point (8 kms from Gangtok town) as the nearby Ganesh Tok temple has better views.
The most important thing to remember is that the best time to view the magnificent Himalayan ranges is early morning between 6 am-10.30 am. So plan your day accordingly.
Other than the picturesque views, what strikes you most in Gangtok, is the lack of incessant honking (horns are illegal within the city limits) and the cleanliness. There is a hefty fine of Rs 5000 for littering. This is a pleasant change from most Indian cities and I really wish it could be replicated in the rest of India too.
The people of Sikkim, a mix of India Gorkhas (Nepalese), Lepcha and Bhutias are very friendly, helpful and courteous. Since majority follow Buddhism, they are gentle by nature and non-aggressive. Another delightful change from North India.
Practically everyone who visits Gangtok makes a day trip to India’s Border Post with China, Nathu La, a mountain pass connecting Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Situated at an altitude of 14,216 ft and just 55 kms from Gangtok, Nathu La forms part of the ancient Silk Road and is one of the three open trading border posts between India and China.
A dampener for foreign nationals is that only Indians are allowed to go till Nathu La and that too after applying for an Inner Line Permit. In fact, most places in Sikkim fall under restricted area requiring a permit to visit. So check before hand if the place you intend to visit requires a special permit or not and carry enough passport size photographs and photostat copies of your Aadhar or Election Card.
Nathu La is closed for all tourists on Mondays and Tuesdays. So keep that in mind too.
Tsomgo or Changu Lake (40 kms from Gangtok at an altitude of 12,700 feet) which is on the way to Nathu La is however open to all tourists, Indian and foreign. But you need a separate Permit for this, other than the one for Nathu La, though both fall on the same route.
It is a spectacular drive on dizzying mountain roads. However, since you will be climbing from 5200 ft to 14,000, in just a matter of two hours without acclimatization, you are bound to suffer from high altitude sickness, like I did. Symptoms are a blinding headache and nausea and the only cure is slow descent and adequate rest.
One place which should be a must on your itinerary if you are traveling to Sikkim is Pelling (7,200ft) in West Sikkim. Though just 115 kms away from Gangtok, it takes more than fours hours to reach as the road is non-existent. It is practically a dirt track.
But then again, switch off from the horrendous road conditions, concentrate on the beautiful poinsettias and numerous waterfalls along the way and take in the magnificent views. If only Sikkim had better roads was my constant lament throughout my travels.
Do stop at the picturesque tourist town, Ravangla in South Sikkim, about 65 kms from Gangtok, on the way to Pelling and visit Tathagata Tsal or Buddha Park as it is known as.
In my opinion, the best place to stay in Pelling, is the beautiful heritage resort, Elgin Mount Pandim, which is within walking distance of Pemayangstse Monastery and about 8kms from Pelling town. You get spectacular views of Kanchenjunga range from here, provided the mountain wants to reveal itself to you. Most times it is shrouded in clouds.
Must see place situated very close to Pelling is Rabdenste Ruins, the second capital of the Chogyals (temporal and religious rulers of Sikkim from 1642-1975).
If you don’t have much time, avoid going to Yuksom (40 kms from Pelling), the starting point for Dzongri and Goecha La Treks to Kanchenjunga Base Camp. There is nothing much to this town except Norbugang, the coronation site of Phuntsog Namgyal, the first Chogyal of Sikkim. Yuksom was the first capital of Sikkim established in 1642 AD.
I was also disappointed by the much revered Khecheopalri Lake (34 kms to the northwest of Pelling) as the scenery was not inspiring. So unless you have a religious bent of mind, save some precious hours and spend more time in Pelling. The drive to and from Pelling to Khecheopalri takes nearly two hours on narrow hilly roads.
My staple diet during my stay in Sikkim was local Tibetan dishes momos and thukpa which you find everywhere, from roadside stalls to restaurants. I also tried Nepali cuisine at Thakali on MG Road Gangtok, which has many good restaurants and bars.
Sikkim is an organic state and most local produce like fruits and vegetables is sold along the highways. You must try the fruits especially oranges and kiwis.
Also don’t forget to carry back some Dalle Chili Pickle and Chilli Paste with you. Though not as potent as Bhut Jolokia (ghost pepper), world’s hottest chilli, it does pack quite a punch.
Meanwhile, I am still in a Sikkim state of mind and dream of exploring other parts of this beautiful heavenly state. Would love to see Yumthang Valley, Lachung, Lachen & Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim, if I get a chance to visit again.
By: Lavina Kharkwal
All photos posted here are clicked by me except the ones in which I am there.