Armenian wines—despite a checkered past—look toward a brilliant future.
In a land resembling a cross between rural Utah, inland California and South Pass, Wyoming, with a capital city (Yerevan) that is safe, attractive and progressive, modern Armenian winemakers are a diverse and hardy lot. Representative backgrounds include that of a Berkeley chef, a Milanese fashion guru, an Argentinian infrastructure billionaire, a Moscow MBA graduate and the family of a Bostonian victim of past Bolshevik repression.
This land—smaller than the country of Belgium or the size of the U.S. states of Delaware and Vermont combined—has in the past five years seen a grueling four-day war as well as a separate Velvet Revolution that toppled the government. This period also included a drinking revolution where wine bars in the capital of Yerevan blossomed tenfold, and 25 new wineries were founded in just 2018.
Armenian Wine In History
Beginning over a decade ago a series of archaeological ‘firsts’ were discovered in a cliffside cave near the mountain town of Areni. These included the earliest known shoe, the oldest known brain tissue from the Old World and a 6,100-year-old winery—the earliest ever discovered on earth. In what is now known as the Areni-1 Cave, the public can view clay cylindrical containers (each more than a yard/meter in diameter) where wine was produced for burial ceremonies.
Boris Gasparyan of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia spoke about this cave.
“When you map all the early sites regarding ancient winemaking, they are all religious. We hypothesize that wine appeared in the context of religion. It was not any everyday product until the Iron Age.” (In the region where Armenia is located, the Iron Age began about 1,200 BC.)
The truth is clear: whether for rituals or relaxation, Armenia’s descendants have been sipping fermented grape juice for millennia.
During Soviet rule between 1920 and 1991, winemaking in Armenia suffered from a heavy focus on quantity over quality. Brandy was then considered more important to produce than wine. In 1980, Armenia produced a quarter of all brandy consumed in the Soviet Union.
Aramis Mkrtchyan, a viticulture specialist at the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia, told of this past.
“During the time of the Soviet union, all wineries belonged to the government. They destroyed many vines and there was no interest in know-how. They produced high quantities of very sweet wines according to planned production. Just three years ago there was no organization to unify producers around the table to work together and strategize. Now Armenian wine producers are more unified after the wine sector was recognized by the government as key for the economy.”
A visit to a few Armenian wineries reveals how this nation’s winemakers form a proud group that is unusually replete with big thinking entrepreneurs.
Karina Baghdasaryan, PR/Marketing director for the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia, told of the country’s recent wine history.
“There’s a lot of new foreign investment, often by Armenians living overseas. In the next two years we expect millions of dollars in investment, mostly in vineyards. Annually, we produce 10 million liters [2.6 million gallons] and export three million liters [0.8 million gallons].”
Grapes grow in five viticultural regions in the country, and—according to the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia—the country has more than 400 indigenous grape varieties, or about half as many as Italy, which is geographically 10 times larger. Of that total number, 31 grapes are used to make wine. For whites, common grapes include Voskehat and Kangun. For reds, Areni rules. (Areni is sometimes referred to as Areni Noir.)
Wine made from the Areni grape is a bit of a chameleon—think Merlot blended with Pinot Noir, or Syrah merging with the swimming energy of an Ökügözü. Areni can lilt and seduce, or shout and command. Think cherries and spice: the kick of a Carménère with the confident ease and gentle structure of a Beaujolais cru. Here is both grit and velvet, zest and sweetness, versatility and confidence. Areni can be feminine as well as masculine, though more of the former. It’s more quietly seductive than overtly flirtatious. It’s Penny Lane by the Beatles rather than Rolling Stone’s Satisfaction, lamb chops more than grilled sirloin—but only slightly so. More right bank than left bank Bordeaux, more Rhône valley than Cahors.
But—only just so. Areni huddles close to the ridge line that divides roundness/assertive distinctions. Sometimes it crosses over, like a bold and curious cadet who dashes over a border for a quick peek before jogging back.
The quality of Armenia’s top wines today—whether white or red, rosé or bubbling—is frequently stellar. One key reason is that several Armenians who left the country are returning, armed with ample cash, business and marketing savvy and networks of wine consulting contacts to aid their efforts. Another factor is that during the last three years the government has begun a serious push to aid winemakers market this ‘Sacred Land of Wine.’
Climate can be challenging. Subzero temperatures in the province of Armavir, for example, result in some wineries needing to bury the base of their vines during winter to protect them. Non-indigenous grape varieties can suffer in adverse conditions. Yet winemakers are rapid to adapt. One explained how when their Chardonnay and Colombard grapes were damaged by frost, local Rkatsiteli grapes (typically used in Georgia for wine and in Armenia for brandy) were used instead to produce their extra brut sparkling wine. Conversely, aridity from blistering summer heat requires irrigation in most vineyards.
Many wineries use Armenian oak (also known as Caucasian oak because much originates in the Caucasus mountains) which can be up to 250 years old. The cost of these oak barrels is about a quarter the cost of imported French oak. This wood originates from forests in the Artsakh region (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh) which is disputed territory—self-proclaimed as autonomous but internationally recognized otherwise. This oak provides strong flavors including sweet tones such as vanilla, as well as spiciness and aromas of eucalyptus.
Ararat Mkrtchyan of Voskeni Wines studied mathematics in Moscow, then worked with Deloitte before returning to work with his family’s Armenian winery. He spoke about this oak.
“Armenian oak is considered more intense than French oak because the humidity is lower. So, it requires less contact time with wine. It is a different and darker species of oak with tighter porosity and has spicy potential for wines. But it must be well prepared and dried for at least three years to avoid the taste of green tannins.”
The last stipulation—requisite aging—was neglected by many wineries in the past.