In all my trips until 2016, I can only name one where I had the luxury of doing nothing. Trust me, it’s the greatest privilege there is in this world and if you have it, you’re lucky indeed. That I could begin 2017 with yet another lazy retreat is a fact as sweet as the lingering aftertaste of sparkling wine.
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Ever since I tasted an exceedingly good red wine by Fratelli at Gaylord’s 60th year celebrations, I’ve wanted to pay a visit to their winery and witness the viticultural alchemy for myself. Wine harvest in India begins from Jab-Feb and I schedule a trip to Fratelli Vineyards in Akluj, Maharashtra in the month of January. I would’ve been content to spend a weekend there but they insist on hosting us for three days. I know now, that this will be a holiday where the clock stops ticking and I can allow myself a peaceful siesta or two.
And how can I forget my disastrous attempt to ride a quad bike (a four wheeled contraption) which ended in me crashing into a wall? I have to admit though, it was exhilarating at first and I believe I’ll fare better next time!
Living next to acres of verdant vineyards has been a long-cherished dream and it comes true for a few days at Fratelli Vineyards. In the morning, I wake up to see the workers at the winery setting up the processes and the birds chirping excitedly in the garden surrounding the main building. That’s where our guesthouse is located, accessed by a spiraling staircase that is a work of art in itself. We arrive after a longish drive from Mumbai, have a late lunch in the dining room on the same storey and enjoy a little siesta, post which we are taken on a round of the Motewadi vineyards. We encounter row upon row of little green chardonnay grapes. Once they grow a little bigger, they will be ready for harvesting.
Our visit to the vineyard comes to a quick end with the descent of the sun and we promise to return the following morning. But for now, a tour of the winery lies between us and a much anticipated wine tasting session. The winery is vast and there are so many different sections, dedicated to various processes that are part and parcel of wine-making. In one automated belt, we witness the process of wine bottling.
In another, we see the process of labelling. But the most fascinating part of the tour is the room where countless bottles of white wine are being fermented, to be turned into sparkling wine. While there are many ways of making sparkling wine, the basic process involves the introduction of sugar and yeast to induce fermentation. Thereafter, the bottles are rotated (riddling) to allow all the sediments to accumulate at the neck and then be popped out. Finally, some residual sugar is added back to the bottle.
While most of the wines at Fratelli Vineyards aren’t aged, the top one per cent of their grapes goes into making the premium SETTE vintage wines. The partly Italian heritage of Fratelli Wines was never more apparent than we entered the chilly, hallowed room where the casks and bottles of SETTE wine are displayed. I consider myself most fortunate that I was able to taste one of these the following day.
White and red wine-tasting
We have our tasting of three white wines on our first evening at Fratelli Vineyards and a session of red wine tasting with their assistant wine-maker the following evening. The wines we taste are chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. They’re all more robust than the light sangiovese bianco we had at lunch but I love the spicy notes in the sauvignon blanc and the smoothness of the chardonnay. The chardonnay is technically the most superior, we’re told. But I know I’ve given my heart to the sauvignon blanc. When it comes to cheaper wines, I stick with whites because it’s safer but at Fratelli Vineyards, I am reminded afresh of my original passion for the reds.
Our red wine tasting session with the assistant wine-maker Vrushal Kedari and one of the distributors of Fratelli Vineyards proves to be an eye-opener in more ways than one. We work our way through a sangiovese red, a vintage SETTE 2012 and a premium blend of sangiovese, cabernet franc and syrah. If the M/S blend has us closing our eyes in quiet appreciation, the SETTE vintage astonishes me with its unparalleled taste and texture. A better Indian wine I haven’t had thus far. It is the brainchild of Piero Masi, the Italian winemaker who joined Fratelli in 2006 at the behest of the Secci family, who were in partnership with the Sekhri brothers in Delhi and Mohit-Patile bothers in Akluj.
A slice of Switzerland
Imagine visiting a piece of paradise that isn’t even on the map. On the afternoon of our second day at Fratelli Vineyards, I come face to face with a living reminder of Switzerland’s terraced vineyards. Right from the mountains in the background to the vineyards at their feet and the glistening lake in their midst, everything about Garwar Vineyards feels like an echo of the European sojourn I had. Of course, these aren’t terraced but the sheer range and beauty of the landscape leaves me speechless. Here is a destination designed for panorama and 360 degree shots – because it’s practically impossible to capture it all in one frame.
On the advice of a staff member, we drive ahead of the elevated machan where we were to have our lunch and chance upon the promised rows of black grapes – so large that they might burst out of their skins any moment. It gladdens my heart to walk among these fields in the fresh winter breeze and imagine them populated with dozens of harvesters once the season begins (soon after we leave, as it happens).
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Finally, after much exploration, we settle down at a table in the machan overlooking the vast vineyards, lake and mountains and contemplate the beauty of life over sips of delicious sparkling wine. The wind whips tendrils of hair across my face and I seize the moment for some ‘dreamy’ photographs (you’ll see evidence of these on my Facebook page soon). Some lovely rose wine follows the sparkling wine and a cloud of contentment settles over me. I partake of the lunch spread sparingly and then we decide to go in search of that lake in the distance. It’s only a short walk away, we’re told. We walk in the late afternoon sun, giggly from the wine and replete with the fragrance of the terrain. Presently, we come across the lake we were in search of.
Currently, Fratelli grows 12 varieties of grapes in their three vineyards – these include seven reds and five whites. The whites are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau while the reds are Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon , Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Marselan and Petit Verdot. While all the wines are dry, they are very well balanced and leave a fruity aftertaste on the palate.
Getting there: The route to Akluj from Mumbai goes via Pune and Phaltan. It’s a six hour drive but if you live in Pune, you can reduce that by half. Here is the Google Maps link.
The guesthouse: The rooms are spacious, air-conditioned, have HD television, tea-coffee makers, room service and direct access to the lawns. Rates begin at Rs 6500 per person per night. When not touring the winery and vineyards, you can play pool in the dining room or carom, foosball and table tennis downstairs. The surrounding villages are also a pleasure to explore.
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