FEEL GOOD WITH FRATELLI - AN INDIAN ODYSSEY
COMPANY STRUCTURE & MARKET REACH
Fratelli wines, an Indo-Italian joint venture founded by the three brothers, Secci (Andrea and Alessio), Sekhri (Kapil and Gaurav), Mohite-Patil (Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh) and Piero Masi their viticultural and wine-making brains, is making huge waves across India. With clear cut division of responsibilities, the company has in a short span of 10 years taken over the Indian taste-bud as a drink of choice, a wine of preference, thereby not just creating a new product for the Indian market but also made wines affordable yet stylish, while educating and constructively opening the Indian mind set, which has so far been, one of very narrow choice of whiskies and rum beverages.
From my recent visit to India and speaking to about 100 consumers, I discovered that on an average one in every two Indian wine drinkers have either heard or read about Fratelli or have had a pleasant Fratelli to taste and will certainly drink it if offered. How has it managed to achieve this recognition and how did it all begin? I went to explore the world of wines from Fratelli’s perspective and the leap of faith it has taken into this ardous business of making and distributing wines in India (and now abroad). Starting off in Delhi, my first stop was the tucked away gated Chattarpur Farms, where the head office of Fratelli is located. Kapil Sekhri and approxiately 40 men "Fratellite" team in the marketing, finance and promotions department of Fratelli work here. (The location would soon change, according to what I was informed then)
LOCATION IS ALL ABOUT “SOIL, SOIL AND SOIL”
Hailing from a Pakistani lineage, Sekhri’s great grandfather migrated to India making it their home after partition in 1947. Having gone through terrible refugee hardships, survival instincts were rife in the family. Sekhri’s father drew on his entrepreneurial spirit from his fore fathers and in the 1970s, he along with his brothers, started the Tinna Industries which initially for many years, thrived as a footwear manufacturing company. Slowly, they expanded, adding edible oils in their range which got them exposed to farmers in India. By the time Kapil and his brother Gaurav finished university, the company was witnessing a huge growth curve and with the oncoming of the next Sekhri generation, Tinna expanded further, diversifying into infrastructural materials manufacturing rubber asphalts, used as road emulsions on highways and runways. Kapil himself has been one of the leading promoters, opening up export markets for the integrated rubber and tyre recycling as well as the asphalt sector of the business, while Gaurav focused on the agro-commodity trading side of the business. Wine was not a part of their every-day talk or consumption in the 1990s. But Kapil had known the Secchi brothers through the agro-processing business network since 1997. They started meeting regularly but wine still remained an offshoot of the business conversation, never the main stay of their talks.
According to Kapil, “The turning point was a holiday with my wife in Italy with the Secchi brothers when I was introduced to Piero Masi and he blew me away with his knowledge, passion and history of wines.” Piero Masi, an established and highly regarded wine maker in Tuscany has won numerous accolades including the famous label, Chianti Classico Casa Sola. Over the course of wine dinners and discussions, the idea of setting up something back in India started taking shape. Heading back to India excitedly, he called upon his agricultural network contacts. Mohite Patil, who are influential land owners in Mahashtra were known to them through their professional background. The idea of producing a Premium brand suddenly seemed to have gained a firm ground. Months later, after initial budgeting and financial estimates, a sum of INR 20 crore was invested, with each of the brothers contributing in an equal sum. Piero Masi was crucial to initiating the ground work and the funding was used to hand pick and import 350,000 saplings of around 13 varieties from France. He spearheaded the research by taking up a detailed study of the soils in order to plant these vines. For Masi, it all starts at the vineyards and that is the philosophy that Fratelli still upholds and respects. Kapil believes, “The soils are more important than microclimate for us and it is the diversity in soils that we were looking at. The Deccan Plateau occupies a chunk our Indian subcontinent and we were open to exploring. From the detailed study, we opted for Sholapur, with a mix of volcanic, free flowing sand, red clay soils where we could plant our 13 varieties. The site was special indeed. The altitude suited the grapes, ranging from 300-600m above sea levels, one of the highest in the region, even higher than Nasik. We were aiming for premium wines from premium vineyards and for that we needed the best sites..”
On its own, Fratelli’s location stands at quite a distance from the key metropolitan civilisations and rest of the Nasik Wine Belt, nearly 400 km south of Nasik (170km south east of Pune and nearly 300km from Mumbai). Things did take a while initially in terms of finding the right location; the first saplings underwent delayed planting - around 5 months after being imported in the 2007. During this phase, the business faced their first big share of anxiety trying to preserve and chill the saplings and keeping them alive. Finally, the sites were chosen where planting began towards the end of 2007. These areas are in the villages of Motewadi (50 acres), Garwad (150 acres) and Nimgaon (40 acres). All housed in the Solapur district, in the rural interiors of Maharashatra. Out of the 240 acres, 200 acres are supervised personally by Fratelli employees on a contract farming basis which assures consistent and qualitative nurturing.
VINEYARDS, WINERY AND TOURISM
By 2008-09, another big sum of INR 15 crore was pumped into setting up the winery in the Motewadi village in Akluj, which also houses their country guest house. It was agreed for the machinery to be imported from Italy housing 58 multi capacity tanks. Another 220 barrels rest at any point in time, of varying sizes including American barrels as well. As per the latest report, there are plans under way to renovate the guesthouse and open a lavish chain of boutique resort here in the next 2-4 years with the intention of boosting wine tourism for which there is huge potential.
From Delhi visit, I started my Indian wine trip via plane to Mumbai, then drove to Nasik. After a short break from there, it was road onwards to Akluj. A long but pleasant road trip facilitated by superior highway road construction along the National Highway network built across Maharashtra. Surely, rewarding for the vineyard experience that came out of it.
We reached the vineyards around the winery in Motewadi, tired and weary after a long nine hour road trip just in time to be greeted by a breath taking sunset against the backdrop of Fratelli’s spectacular Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc vines. You will be amazed to notice cool climate French varietals such as Gewurtztraminer and even German grapes such as Muller Thurgau being grown in this country - in small quantities but thriving. These are usually added to the blends! The high diurnal temperature differentials is what also adds to the ripening period for the grapes which is essential for accumulating acidity. During my visit in October, the night time temperatures went down to 11 degrees celsius and by 9 am, it would go up to 30 degrees celsius atleast.
The Garwad vineyards are about 10 km south of Motewadi where the biggest chunk of their plantation has been set up. About 150 of their own staff are involved in vineyard supervision led by their vineyard manager Ghula Dutta. Just taking the road trip through the gravelly, sand fuelled rural country roads is an experience of a lifetime. The only vehicle that could possibly conquer the unpaved, unmarked dirt roads in this part of hinterland is Fratelli’s 4 wheel drive, “the Jeep” in which we made this surreal road trip, which will forever stay in my memory.
The 30 minute wild and bumpy drive in the wee hours of sun rise, left us covered with a layer of sand and fumes, the murrum dusty aromas, the arid parched lands and the travel experience, all reminiscent of my childhood trips across north and west India.
The picturesque, rural landscape through our journey gives a true representation of the developing economy of India. The rugged and arid terrain is not one for the faint hearted but surely so, for the discerning traveller who loves to immerse in the deepest sense of 'culturally Indian while a progressively western India'. We approach a sparsely populated village waking up to the morning routine. Through the flying dust and sand propelled by the tyres of the jeep, it was glorious to catch a glimpse of the new rural India; kids in hoodies (mornings are cool in this part of India which is very favourable for grape growing) running and passing by us waving us ‘ta-ta’ as they brushed their teeth outdoors, some biting on their neem sticks while some using toothbrushes, the farmers and a few elderly workers heading off to work in their crisp dhotis, some stopping by at the tea stall which was just opening up as the chai walla pulled out the linen tea towel hanging from his shoulder, to clean the stall top and stove, getting ready to serve the morning tea and samosa. Adding to the modern undertones in the rural life, were the youngsters in jeans, four of them in a motor bike fitting comfortably, as they sped past us chatting and laughing amongst themselves while some others treading through the sandy terrain in their trainers.
A tractor coming from the opposite direction slowed down so we could get off the path to give way. Probably getting ready to fill a day’s worth of harvested sugarcane to transport to the nearby mill, all mechanised now instead of the erstwhile bullock carts. An eye opener to witness subtle hints of western attributes slowly sweeping through the rural India. And in a few minutes, the once occupied lands of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the rugged ochre coloured landscape where wars were waged in the 17th century, would suddenly transform into an eye pleasing foliage haven.
We turn right at the Fratelli labelled marker and the view gets filled with neatly marked rows of green vineyards passing by us. The air seems cooler suddenly, possibly evoked by the greenery. Passing through Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vineyards, I paused to witness the sprawling Sangiovese vines at the back (the same grape that is used in Italian Chianti wines is now in India?) that have comfortably made themselves at home in the Indian sub-soil. Continuing further, our jeep struggled to gain traction, as it started it climb a hill. Finally, we came to a halt and got off take a walk up a set of steps that go atop the hill. There is a stunning hut with a view of the vineyards at one end, purposefully and strategically built by Fratelli to entertain guests over picnic lunch and wine tasting. Trekking a few steps further up through the brown grassy bushes, we reached the top of the hill to get a splendid panoramic view of the entire Fratelli plantation at Garwad, covering Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Muller Thurgau, Petit Verdit , Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines- the wind was cooling and views, exhilarating. I was informed that the land here was bought in 2007 and since then, the Mohite-Patil brothers have been involved with designing, development and building the infrastructure around this region which was nothing but barren, unoccupied hills before. Once the hills were cleared of shrubs and rocks, bespoke canals were built to stream water from the nearby Veerbad dam. Three industrial style water tanks spread around the hills, store this oncoming water and electric pumps work around the clock, distributing it through an effective and well-designed ‘drip feed’ irrigation system into the VSP (Vertical shoot positioning) trained vine system set up in Garwad, the planting of which is similar to most of the modern vines around the world. They have also planted trees around the water tanks, to promote cooling environmental zones, so as to increase greenery and shade in an otherwise sun-baked rural country side.
A sanctuary created in the middle of this sun scorched, drought-stricken land, it’s an amazing feat to observe the Garwad vines at work. This site has not only changed the topography of this ex-Maratha empire, making it amenable to commercial vine farming but is also working towards creating greenery, providing employment prospects to the villages nearby, facilitating sustainable practices by saving and regulating water. Thus opening up the once inaccessible Indian hinterland to progressive, economic development while offering wine tourism, that the country can so make use of! Apparently talks are also on to modernise the State Highway system that lead to the surrounding towns.
Back at the winery we went down into the private cellar for tasting. Well lit and airy, the tasting cellar is kept cool and right behind the barrel room. Here is a list of wines that I reviewed and my ratings below.
FRATELLI CHENIN BLANC, 2017
Lemon squash and stone fruit forward, racy and piercing acidity, the soft structure shows typicity of the grape. Easy to drink as an aperitif. (79/100)
FRATELLI SAUVIGNON BLANC, 2017, 13.5% abv
Lemon, grassy with pear and peach fruits, leafy notes with mild spicy aromas. Palate is rounded and spicy. The acidity does stand out causing a mild disjoint however good quaffing wine. (81/100)
FRATELLI CHARDONNAY, 2017 (Unoaked version), 13.5% abv
Vibrant and expressive wine and the best of their classic range amongst the whites. There is a creaminess on the texture. Overall a well-made wine showing classic Chardonnay typicity. (84/100)
M/S WHITE (MASTER’S SELECTION), 2015
(80% Chardonnay, 20% Sauvignon Blanc)
Piero Masi and Steven Spurrier blended wine, this white is surely one of their outstanding featured range of white wines. Picked estate owned vineyards (Chardonnay from Motewadi, Sauvignon Blanc from Garwad). More Chardonnay dominating in terms of texture and personality than sauvignon Blanc, there is the distinct elegance and weight in the wine imparted by Chardonnay. Fruit and floral notes are very Sauvignon Blanc distinctive. Notes of jasmin flowers, elder flower, lemon, grapefruit, apricot imparts elegant aromatic characters to the wine. Hint of minerality such as smokey stony attributes are noticeable. (88/100)
FRATELLI, SANGIOVESE BIANCO, 2016, 13.5% abv
Interesting to note a white wine made out of a red grape. Just for the creativity we have to give credit to Fratelli. The grapes are picked early, pressed very softly for a quick short period no more than 0.5-0.6 bar (atm pressure), the must that comes out is actually colourless. Then it undergoes fermentation as a white wine. If needed, food grade active carbon (imported from France) may be added post fermentation to decolorize the wine. The next press of the grape is used for the rosé and then for red wine.
Ripe lemons, lemon pie, yellow stone fruits such as apricots, mango on the nose. Juice, taut with racy acidity and refreshing. Noteworthy effort has been made to produce a white wine from this grape. (82/100)
VITAE BARREL FERMENTED CHARDONNAY, 2015
Fermented and then aged in barrel for 12-14 months in new French oak, this is an outstanding wine showing impressive integration of oak, fruits and acidity. Lemon, green fruits, olives are most dominant while hints of eucalyptus aromas are also captured. Oak has been judiciously used and gives an elegant richness while still retaining the fruit notes. Creamy texture, lees ageing and fruit concentration gives it an imposingly rich structure. (91/100)
M/S SANGIOVESE ROSE 2016 (MASTER’S SELECTION)
Pressing upto 0.8-1 bar. If by accident too much colour leaks out, the wine is then diluted by adding a bit of sangiovese bianco. Strong notes of red cherries, lemon, soft grainy and well spaced tannins retaining the delicate character of the wine. Fruit forward, light and makes for a good summer wine. (87/100)
M/S RED (MASTER’S SELECTION), 2015, 13.5% abv
(Sangiovese 60%, Cabernet Franc 20% and Shiraz 20%)
This is also a master’s blend where Masi and Spurrier have come together to create an elegant blend. Picked from Fratelli's own vineyards (Sangiovese and Shiraz from Garwad, Cabernet Franc from Nimgaon), the wine has notes of stewed red cherries, red and black plums. Oak has imparted a fair amount of distinctive vanilla, liquorice, toasty notes. Acidity is high and tannins are pronounced, ripe and fine grained. Still young and needs time to mature. Best to lay it down. With potential to evolve. (83/100)
FRATELLI, CABERNET FRANC SHIRAZ 2017, 13.5% abv
60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Shiraz
An unoaked soft and fruit forward version of the wine. Notes of ripe and fresh blackcurrant, black cherries are omni present. Quite spicy with black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Tannins are polished and ripe. Fruit has good expression and weight to integrate with acidity. Harmonious expression. (87/100)
FRATELLI, MERLOT 2016
Fermented and partly aged in old barrels (20%), the wine has a pleasant and refreshing flavours. Mostly ripe red plums, full bodied and textured wine with smoke notes from oak is very subtle and the complexity of oak comes out gracefully through soft vanilla, dark chocolate and peppery hints. The fruits and oak are beautifully balanced and there is remarkable tension in the wine. Vibrant and classy. (88/100)
FRATELLI, SANGIOVESE RED 2016 (12.5% abv)
Fresh and ripe red fruit expression with fine tannins. Acidity and fruit in harmonious balance. Juicy and lively. Not hugely complex and meant for early drinking. (82/100)
FRATELLI, CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016 (12.5% abv)
Ripe blackcurrants and black berries, ripe, tight and finely powdered tannins from the fruit, the intention to display the fruit personality of the wine. Acidity is high. Not hugely distinctive. Commercially made simplistic style. (79/100)
VITAE SANGIOVESE, 2015
Barrel fermented wine with skins on. Pressing is done judiciously following this and juice goes back into the barrel for malo lactic and lees ageing for 5-6 months. Then transferred into old barrel for a further 15 months. One of the most well-crafted wines of Fratelli showing fine characters and definitely age worthy. Black cherries, blue berries, vanilla, cinnamon and black pepper, liquorice and earthy undertones. Oak usage is judicious and adds to elegant complexity. Mellow and understated with commendable typicity, wine showing a potential to age for 5-7 years. (90/100)
60% Sangiovese, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon
Barrel fermented and aged for another 14-18 months in new oak, this is rich, fuller and finest expression of their Cabernet Sauvignon. Dense, ripe and cooked black cherries, oak lends black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, anise and marzipan flavours. Texture is soft and luscious and the wine is just evolving with chocolate and gamey characters. Some vegetal notes of capsicum is noted although its faint. Tannins are polished and very dominant. The wine is focussed and has a confident expression. Another 5 years will see the wine getting better, edges softening and further integrating. Good quality of fruit is evident in this wine. (91/100)
(Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese)
More evolved, typical Bordeaux character, this wine is rich and fleshy with soft and juicy tannins although the structure is firm and dense. Notes of red cherries, black plums and black berries, green capsicum vegetal notes are still evident. Black pepper, vanilla and smoky notes from oak add to elegance and finesse. (93/100)
GRAN CUVEE BRUT, FRATELLI SPARKLING
(100% Chenin Blanc)
Golden apples, pear with zesty acidity and mouthwatering lemon flavours. Zippy, ripe and refreshing. Creamy uplifting mousse, persistent finish. Elegant sparkling and a superb uplifting celebratory wine. (90/100)
Fratelli started off with an aim to take off as a super-premium wine producer when they started off in 2006. But very soon realised with increasingly aware, price savvy and affluent upper middle class who are developing a taste for wines, it was necessary to add an affordable yet stylish mid-range under the premium range to cater to this band. With this in the mind, they released their second range of “Classic wines” of Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Shiraz wines made from second press free run must which has proved increasingly popular, priced around INR 500. The highest level, “Premium” select wines such as Sette and Vitae at the upper end are priced around INR 1900 and are made in smaller volumes.
Opening more wineries to further boost distribution capacity has been one way to get over the increasingly onerous registration fee structure in India. Vrushal Kedari, the chief winemaker across the range of Fratelli wines explained, “At the moment I supervise 4 wineries in total. One in Karnataka with a capacity of 350,000 litres (grapes from Maharashtra are transported from Akluj to Karnataka by road and blended along with grapes from other rented vineyards for sales into Karnataka), second in Solapur with a capacity of 300,000 litres for producing our Classic, Vero and Port(sweet) range , third in Pune with a capacity of 350,000 litres, the biggest still is our Akluj winery with a capacity of 1,350,000 litres where the premium end production takes place (comprising of Sette, Vitae and M/S)”.
IMPEDIMENTS IN THE MARKET STREAM AND HOW FRATELLI POSITIONS ITSELF FOR THE CHANGING INDIAN CONSUMER TASTES AND LIFESTYLE
In a very short period of time, Fratelli has successfully managed to bolster their distribution channels ranking second in India after Sula Wines as per a survey conducted in 2013. Kapil Sekhri is keen to further explore the market. According to him, “The market is not as buoyant as it was in the last 5 years ago. Growth in India is now a more restrained 15% unlike the earlier 25%. The only way can further get into the market is by expanding our consumer base by organising consumer tastings, food festivals and exhibitions and increase our exposure not just into retailer networks but also restaurants and hotels.”
Kapil also add that Indian market is still volatile with many non-serious players and though it can be frustrating, he plans to use this to Fratelli’s advantage by re-iterating their commitment to quality, fully backed by their international alliance. “We are actually 7 brothers with different strengths and backgrounds. Our goals are common and Indian-centric while our approach is international because we know that the upcoming generation is smarter, more exposed and thereby will demand the same levels of international quality. While many affluent middle-aged consumers still prefer international wines, we have noticed this changing- there are many pockets in the West and South of India where by the markets are more developed and consumers are open minded. North of India is more price-sensitive than being palate-sensitive and hence the reason why we have diversified into the budgeted range of wines.” Fratelli’s mission is to achieve annual sales of 4 million bottles by 2020.
In order to gain increased visibility through the off trade sector, Fratelli entered into an alliance with Jean-Charles Boisset, the owner and winemaker of JCB in 2016. A Burgundy (in particular Vougeot) born and bred debonair, who studied in the US and has set up wineries across California and France, he strongly believes that Indian palate is ready to move over from traditional whisky to more food friendly beverages such as wine. With this in mind from 2018, the JCB White, Red and Sparkling wines will be made available through Fratelli’s distribution chain of the leading gastronomic restaurants in India. Through this distribution, Fratelli aims to appeal to a section of the Indian market that looks towards accessing international wines.
CAPTURING THE INTERNATIONAL TASTE BUDS
Fratelli has also brought together the highly acclaimed wine critic, responsible for bringing Californian wines on the world map, Steven Spurrier along with Piero Masi to do a master’s blending of their range new range of M/S Premium wines. These are available in M/S Red which is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The intention is to produce a premium “Super Tuscan” equivalent in India. The M/S White is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and to appeal to the younger generation, there is also the captivating and delicate M/S Sangiovese Rose.
Fratelli has won numerous awards in Decanters, IWC competitions in the last few years and is becoming a wine of choice amongst not only amongst the Indians today, but is also available outside India. In the UK, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum wines are distributing these wines to some of the leading central London restaurants such as Bombay Gymkhana and Trishna. According to Vrushal Kedari, “The aim is to make subtle wines with distinction, along with easy drinking style. The Indian cuisine is very diverse and spice forward and our wine making styles are exactly the opposite – there is restraint use of oak showing consistency and refreshing attributes which make them easy to pair with spiced Asian Foods.”
Many of Fratelli’s classed wines are being exported to not just the UK, but also to Japan, Italy, Denmark, South Africa, Australia and Hong Kong. Starting with 13, today they have over 20 wines across their range of wines.
The Fratelli brothers are very committed to the future. This is a business that started out of pure passion but through the journey has taught them invaluable lessons in endurance, determination, resilience and patience which they endeavour to continue practicing. Each of the brothers is entrusted with a set of responsibilities. The Secchi brothers with the ground root function of developing viticulture and winery, Sekhris with the distribution, marketing and financial operations, Mohite-Patils with the infrastructure, production and ground operations and Piero Masi with the technical expertise. As per Sekhri, “This is not a business to be involved in for 3 or 5 years. I now understand what it means to involve generations. The Indian market is atleast a couple of decades behind the Western front but we are here for long and will help evolve our consumer’s taste buds while equally learning at the same time from them and adjusting our wine style.”