A guide to Armenia, one of the world’s oldest wine regions

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

Through triumphs and tumults, the country’s wine industry is once again bouncing back. Here’s what you need to know about Armenia’s winey renaissance.

Ancient history

Whether Noah actually planted Armenia’s first vineyard after his ark ran aground on Mount Ararat, the country’s winemaking history is ancient. The Vayots Dzor region claims to be home to the oldest wine estate in the world, in operation around 6,100 years ago. Discovered in 2007, the Areni-1 cave complex contained evidence of large-scale wine production and the probable domestication of the vine.

Some believe that wine consumption goes back even further. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archeology Project for Cooking, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, found traces of wine on an 8-year-old Stone Age pottery shard 000 years old 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 ancient wineMcGovern details how 8e century BC. AD, the Urartian monarchs, an Iron Age kingdom that ruled the Armenian Highlands, dubbed Armenia “the land of vines.” Assyrians and Greeks also referred to Armenian wine in various texts.

The progress of Armenian wine came to an end when the Soviet Red Army invaded in 1920. Two years later, the country was merged into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. In 1936 it became the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Soviet Armenia.

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

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

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

Harvesting grapes in Armenia / Alamy
Harvesting grapes in Armenia / Alamy

The grapes to know

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

A few producers work with international grapes, mainly for Russia and other former Soviet republics. This market will shrink over the next few years, says Ara Sarkissian, wine manager at Storica Wines, a US-based Armenian wine import company.

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

“A lot was lost during the Soviet years, including knowledge of the traits of many native varieties that were ignored at that time,” says Sarkissian. Determining characteristics such as soil suitability, sun preference, vineyard appearance as well as the amount of maceration and aging the grapes can withstand, takes years of experimentation, an ongoing process over the course of of the last decade.

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

For example, Armenians have been flexible with grape names that foreigners find difficult to pronounce. “Khndoghni was renamed Sireni almost unanimously,” Sarkissian says.

Areni Black produces medium-bodied reds with fruit like cherry and strawberry accented with aromas of black pepper. It can be compared by its freshness, its silkiness and its transparency to Pinot Noir.

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

KhndogniWhere Sirenis a red grape variety common to the South Caucasus that gives aromas of dark fruits, deep color, good tannins and aging potential.

Key Wine regions

A historic view of Mount Ararat from Armenia, 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 vineyard-ravaging phylloxera 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 shapes,” says Varuzhan Mouradian, founder/winemaker of Van Ardi Winery in the Ashtarak region, just outside the capital Yerevan.

“For someone who is used to hearing ‘pre-phylloxera’ in conversation, it’s crazy to hear Armenian winemakers delineating their vineyards as pre- or post-Soviet,” says Chris Poldoian, an American sommelier of Armenian origin, who also serves as an ambassador for Storica wines.

There are four main wine regions. The best known is the south-central region of Vayots Dzor, a long, narrow plateau distinguished by its highest vineyards, some reaching nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. “To put it into perspective, the high altitude in mainland Spain and northern Italy is maybe 2,300 to 2,900 feet,” says Poldoian.

Aragatsotn is at a slightly lower elevation. Other regions of note include Araratlocated on a sunny plateau; Armavir, a mountainous area to the southwest; and the landlocked mountainous areas where Sireni grows.

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

Armenian grilled vegetable and fish spread with melon, redcurrants, gooseberry and wine /Getty
Armenian grilled vegetable and fish spread with melon, redcurrants, gooseberry 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 wine consumption.

Poldoian is hesitant to focus on Armenia’s ancestry, however. He prefers to highlight the “incredible wines made by thoughtful producers at the moment”.

Armenians have driven much of the revival using a combination of modern technology and traditional techniques, such as aging in earthenware jars called karasi.

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

So far, the best known winery is Zorah. Founder Zorik Gharibian, a successful businessman in the Italian fashion space, went from discovering a winery in Tuscany to Armenia after visiting his ancestral homeland in 1998. Zorah’s Areni , aged in karasi, fits perfectly into the trending category of aged amphoras. wines, which helps shine the spotlight on Armenia.

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

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

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

American sommeliers have taken notice.

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

However, small producers in remote areas lack the money, infrastructure or logistics to capitalize on such enthusiasm. ONEArmenia’s Farm-to-Bottle project worked to bring the consumer to the farmer. A crowdfunding campaign in 2017 helped build the first “WineCube”, a cabin-like tasting room in southern Armenia for Momik Wines.

Despite many challenges, the mood in Armenia remains optimistic.

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

Elisha A. Tilghman