Landlocked between Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, the fast flowing rivers and highlands of Armenia are framed by the rugged mountains of the Caucasus. Early civilizations, ancient kingdoms, and a communist state all lived in what is considered the birthplace of wine.

Through triumphs and tumult, the country’s wine industry is once again booming. Here’s what you need to know about Armenia’s vinous rebirth.

Ancient history

It doesn’t matter if Noah really planted Armenia’s first vineyard after his ark washed up on Mount Ararat, the country’s wine history is old. The region of Vayots Dzor pretend to be home to the oldest wine-growing estate in the world, in operation about 6,100 years ago. Discovered in 2007, the Areni-1 troglodyte complex contained evidence of large-scale wine production and probable domestication of the vine.

Some believe that the consumption of wine goes back even further. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archeology for Cooking, Fermented Beverages, and Health Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, found traces of wine on an 8,000 Stone Age pottery shard years recovered from a modern Georgian site.

9th century wine press at Tatev Monastery, Armenia / Getty

While the exact details of ancient winemaking remain romantically murky, ancient texts authenticated by historians like McGovern offer a glimpse into Armenia’s ancestral glory. In his book Old wine, McGovern details how 8e century BC the monarchs of Urartian, an Iron Age kingdom that ruled the Armenian highlands, nicknamed Armenia “the land of vines. “The Assyrians and Greeks also referred to Armenian wine in various texts.

The advance of Armenian wine ended when the Soviet Red Army invaded in 1920. Two years later, the country was merged into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. In 1936, it became the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Soviet Armenia.

With the abolition of private enterprise, innovation stopped. The Soviets converted wineries into processing factories, and vineyards processed the fruit for brandy distillation or bulk wine production.

To increase the volume, vines were planted in unfavorable places, while others were abandoned or abandoned. Wines once coveted by Assyrian rulers and traded with the Babylonian Empire have fallen out of favor.

In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia regained its sovereignty. Young Armenians and those with investment money began to embrace the ancient techniques of the region and the legendary wine culture. In other words, Armenia has the distinction of being the youngest and oldest wine industry in the world.

Grape harvest in Armenia / Alamy
Grape harvest in Armenia / Alamy

The grapes to know

So far, researchers have cataloged 400 native varieties from a cache of wild vines cultivated by the early Armenians.

A few growers work with international grapes, mainly for Russia and other former Soviet republics. This market will shrink in the years to come, says Ara Sarkissian, wine manager for Storica wines, an Armenian wine import company based in the United States.

On the contrary, the new quality-oriented wineries focus on local varieties. However, committing to the legacy of Armenian grapes is not as easy as planting them.

“A lot was lost during the Soviet years, including knowledge of the characteristics of many native varieties that were ignored during this time,” Sarkisian explains. Determining characteristics such as the suitability of the soil, the preference for the sun, the appearance of the vineyard as well as the amount of maceration and aging that the grapes can withstand, takes a year of experimentation, an ongoing process. of the last decade.

“Unlike neighboring Georgia, where tradition dominates everything, Armenians are open to imported knowledge and technology,” Sarkisian explains. “The break with the Soviet-era past, devastating as it is in terms of the loss of tradition, was also an opportunity for a fundamental reset, which is at the root of much of the rebirth in progress. “

For example, Armenians have been flexible with names of grapes that foreigners find it difficult to pronounce. “Khndoghni was renamed Sireni by almost unanimous consent,” Sarkissian explains.

Areni Black produces medium bodied reds with fruit like cherry and strawberry complemented by black pepper aromas. It compares itself with its freshness, its silkiness and its transparency to Pinot Noir.

Voskehat is the emblematic white grape of Armenia. Translated as “golden berries”, the wine has a light to medium body. It is bursting with floral and stone fruit aromas marked by herbal and citrus notes.

Khndoghni, or Sireni, is a red grape variety common to the Artsakh region which gives flavors of black fruits, a deep color, good tannins and aging potential.

Key Wine regions

A historic view of Armenia's Ararat Mountain, Khor Virap Monastery, and vineyards / Getty
A view of Mount Ararat from Khor Virap, and the vineyards / Getty

Armenia’s wine assets include volcanic soils, high altitude sites, and old vines. The absence of phylloxera, which pests vines, allows winegrowers to plant vines on their own roots, rather than being grafted.

“This means that our grapes have been kept close to their original forms,” says Varuzhan Mouradian, founder / winemaker of Van Ardi vineyard in the Ashtarak region, just outside the capital Yerevan.

“As someone used to hearing ‘pre-phylloxera’ in conversations, it’s crazy to listen to Armenian winemakers demarcate their vineyards as pre- or post-Soviet,” says Chris Poldoian, an American sommelier of Armenian origin. , which also serves as an ambassador for Storica wines.

There are four major wine regions. The best known is the south-central region of Vayots Dzor, a long, narrow plateau that stands out for its highest vineyards, some reaching nearly 6,000 feet above sea level. “To put it in perspective, the high elevations in mainland Spain and Italy’s North is maybe 2,300 to 2,900 feet, ”Poldoian explains.

Aragatsotn is at a slightly lower elevation. Other areas of note include Ararat, located on a sunny plateau; Armavir, a mountainous region in the southwest; and Artsakh, on the border with Azerbaijan, where Sireni grows.

“In the regions, villages and hillsides are explored, and winemakers learn the characteristics of unique vineyards,” Sarkissian explains.

Armenian spread of grilled vegetables and fish with melon, red currants, currant and wine / Getty
Armenian spread of grilled vegetables and fish with melon, red currants, currant and wine / Getty

Modern industry

It is natural to be drawn to the history of Armenian viticulture as it is the origin story of human consumption of wine.

Poldoian, however, is reluctant to focus on Armenian ancestry. He prefers to highlight the “incredible wines made by savvy producers right now”.

The Armenians led much of the revival using a combination of modern technology and traditional techniques, such as aging in terracotta pots called karasi.

The collective effort for quality has helped the winegrowers to find export partners. Vahe Keushguerian, founder / winemaker of Keush and Zulal, says as a landlocked country: “Armenia cannot produce cheap wines. It needs to carve out a niche in a more expensive segment.

So far the most famous winery is Zorah. Founder Zorik Gharibian, a successful businessman in the Italian fashion space, went from opening a winery in Tuscany to Armenia after visiting his ancestral homeland in 1998. L’Areni de Zorah, matured in karasi, fits perfectly into the trendy category of aged wine amphorae, which helps shine the spotlight on Armenia.

Since Zorah’s founding, the list of imaginative wineries has grown. Storica imports four: Keush, for traditional sparklers; Zulal for the vibrant Areni, Oshen for wines aged in barrels and a rosé of Shofer. Hin Areni and ArmAs Estate also export to the United States

International attention doesn’t hurt. Paul Hobbs, the Californian winemaker who has spread his wings in Argentina, the Finger Lakes region of New York and Europe, developed a fervor for Armenia during a trip in 2005.

His latest project, now a partnership with Viken Yacoubian called Yacoubian Hobbs, innovated near Areni-1 in 2014. Its wines, a white blend and two Arenis, can be purchased online, which makes them more accessible to American consumers.

The American sommeliers have noticed it.

“As the birthplace of viticulture, Armenian wines are a liquid story,” says Kyla Cox, Atlanta-based wine consultant and founder of Liege Camp. “These wines reflect a sense of culture and place perhaps more than any other wine region.” She frequently presents wines in her events.

However, small producers in remote areas lack the money, infrastructure or logistics to capitalize on such enthusiasm. the From farm to bottle project by ONEArmenia worked to bring the consumer to the farmer. A crowdfunding campaign carried out in 2017 made it possible to build the first “WineCube”, a tasting room similar to a hut in the south of Armenia for Momik wines.

Despite many challenges, the climate in Armenia remains optimistic.

“Armenia is small, landlocked and poor,” says Mouradian. “But what he has is resilience, an adaptability and a desire to show the world his world-class wines. A bright future awaits Armenian wine.

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