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Noah’s Vines
The Renaissance of Armenia’s Ancient Vinelands

by John Szabo, MS
June 13, 2019

The world’s most ancient wine-producing region, with 6,000 years of history, is barely six years into a modern winemaking renaissance. Unlike neighboring Georgia, where wine production has continued unabated for millennia, Armenia’s wine culture has ebbed and flowed, and occasionally been drowned by waves of inclement history. Yet a growing number of Armenians are returning home with ambitions to resurrect the country’s wine industry, exploring Armenia’s abundance of literally antediluvian grape varieties.

The story begins in the Armenian highlands, in a dark cave dubbed Areni-1 by archeologists. It lies about 60 miles southeast of the capital, Yerevan, near the village of Areni in the region of Vayots Dzor. Mount Ararat’s snow-covered peak is visible for most of the journey from Yerevan to Areni; the stratovolcano remains Armenia’s sacred national symbol, even though it lies outside the country’s present borders, in western Turkey. For wine historians, too, Ararat is a mythical landmark; on its slopes, Noah is said to have first set his Ark upon solid ground after the floods, planted vineyards, made wine and got drunk.

But Areni-1 holds scientific, rather than biblical, interest. An American-Armenian team of archeologists first discovered the site in 2007, and after several years of excavating, they determined that the cave had been used for making wine as early as 6,100 years ago. Although older vessels containing traces of fermented grape juice have been found in neighboring Georgia and Iran, Areni-1 is, so far, the oldest site unearthed where wine was not only stored, but also purposely made.

The view from the Armenian Wine Company The view from the Armenian Wine Company
Since grapes naturally ferment without intervention, it’s possible that the older vessels contained merely spoiled grapes. At Areni-1, however, archeologists found a four-foot basin made of hard-packed clay with a narrow channel leading to a buried clay vat. Copper Age vintners, it was concluded, crushed grapes by foot, then let the juice funnel into the vat below, where it would have spontaneously fermented under cool and stable temperatures. They then stored the wine in clay amphorae called karas, the Armenian equivalent of Georgia’s qvevri, though slightly different in shape.

Particularly exciting was the discovery of traces of a red grape variety—seeds, stems and grape cells, plus the red color pigment malvidin—on shards of karas. DNA studies have since linked it to areni, a variety named after the village nearby where it still grows wild today in canyons, gorges and on riverbanks. The cultivar is so old it has no known ancestors. It’s an ‘orphan grape,’ as Zorik Gharibian of nearby Zorah winery describes it.

Vhae Keusgheurian of Wineworks in Yerevan Vhae Keusgheurian of Wineworks in Yerevan
In its domesticated version, areni is also Armenia’s most important red-wine grape, central to the industry’s revival. Gharibian and others have forged a new link between the world’s most ancient wine grape and one of its most potentially exciting future ones.

During the intervening years, Armenia experienced both prosperous and, more recently, stormy times, before the current renaissance. “You have to go back 1,500 years to find the last Golden Age of Armenian wine,” says Frunz Harutyunyan, deputy director of the recently formed Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia. According to Harutyunyan, 500 BCE to 500 CE was the last heyday of Armenia’s wine production. After that, wine traditions faded, especially under the Ottoman occupation that lasted from the early 16th century until the beginning of the 19th century, and returned in the early 20th century. Later, when Armenia was part of the USSR, Stalin designated the country as a brandy producer under the Soviet Command Economy, dealing a decisive blow to the wine industry. By 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia’s vineyards had long been focused on neutral, high-yielding grapes for brandy and its wine culture was all but lost.

Ancient Karas unearthed in Areni-1, the world’s oldest known winemaking site Ancient Karas unearthed in Areni-1, the world’s oldest known winemaking site
Vahe Keusgheurian was consulting on winegrowing projects in California and Chianti when he planted vineyards in Armenia in 1998, the first new vineyards of the post-Soviet era. He also created two nurseries to grow and study indigenous vine varieties—“to see if we find a jewel”—work that has earned him the nickname “the Godfather of Armenian grapes.” By searching out parcels of ancient vines that miraculously survived both phylloxera and Stalin’s decree, he and his compatriots have so far identified some 300 varieties in the country’s 42,000 acres of vineyards.

More than a dozen years passed before Keusgheurian would produce his own wine (“It took a while for my skills to catch up with my dreams,” he laughs); in the meantime, he consulted on other start-up projects. Today, his Yerevan-based urban winery, WineWorks, functions as a playground for his own production and as a “winery incubator,” a custom-crush facility with about 12 clients. Several successful brands have emerged out of WineWorks, notably Koor, Kataro and Yacoubian-Hobbs, a joint project between Viken and Vahe Yacoubian and American consultant Paul Hobbs.

Other expat Armenians followed Keusgheurian’s lead, often as a way of bringing money and jobs back to the struggling country. Zorik Gharibian and his wife, Yeraz, first established a clothing factory in Armenia in 1998 to supply their successful Milan-based fashion business. An impassioned wine lover, Gharibian scrapped plans to set up a winery in Tuscany when he spotted the potential for winegrowing in his home country. “With another Chianti, what would we be achieving?” he asks rhetorically. “But here…” He points to the radically stony soils in his vineyards at nearly 4,500 feet in elevation in Vayots Dzor. “Here we can do something special.”

Gharibian invited celebrated Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini to confirm his early intuition. After a tasting of local wines, which Antonini described to Gharibian as “the worst tasting of my life,” the two took the long road into the Armenian Highlands, the same that the archeologists traveled to reach the Areni-1 cave. When they arrived at the property Gharibian proposed to plant, Antonini looked at the piles of limestone and volcanic rock, considered the extreme elevation and climate, the absence of phylloxera (90 percent of Armenian vineyards are still own-rooted) and the perfectly adapted local grapes, and flatly declared, “It would be impossible not to make great wine from this site.”

Gharibian called in University of Milan professor Attilio Scienza to conduct detailed soil studies, and then planted the first vines, mostly areni, in 2000. After a decade of experimentation, Gharibian released his first wines under the Zorah label, the 2012 vintage. “I’ve made several mistakes along the way,” Gharibian says without embarrassment, pointing to one failed plot of high-density bush-trained areni.

But his efforts have paid off. Zorah’s Yeraz, a pure areni sourced from century-old vines is silky and perfumed, reminiscent of elegant nebbiolo; the floral and honeyed Voski, a blend of voskehat and garan demak, could pass for one of the Douro’s finest high-elevation whites.

Gharibian has also been instrumental in reviving the near-extinct use of karas. His areni noir Karasì (meaning “from karas”) is fermented in concrete vats before moving off its skins and into old karas. The results are lovely, preserving areni’s delicate red-fruited perfume. Sadly, there are no artisans left with the know-how to make karas so Gharibian had to scavenge nearby villages to assemble a collection of pots from the early 20th century, or before, to put to use. Meanwhile, Gharibian’s wife, a potter, has plans to open a school on the property to research and revive the art of karas-making.

Zorik Gharibian revived the use of Karas, Armenia’s traditional earthware winemaking vessels, at his winery in Vayots Dzor Zorik Gharibian revived the use of Karas, Armenia’s traditional earthware winemaking vessels, at his winery in Vayots Dzor
Gharibian plans to keep his wine production small, at around 100,000 bottles, but another member of the Armenian diaspora, the Argentina-born billionaire Edoardo Eurnekian, whose great-grandparents fled the Ottoman expansion in the early 20th century, has implemented much grander plans. Eurnekian owns several Armenian banks as well as the airport in Yerevan, in addition to the wineries Fin del Mundo and NQN in Patagonia.

Eurnekian bought land in Armenia in 2004, selecting a site between Mount Ararat to the south and Mount Aragats to the north in Armavir region, an hour’s drive west of the capital through the Ararat Valley, in the opposite direction of Gharibian’s project. His initial intention was to produce only brandy, and though the region is less extreme than Vayots Dzor, it still took two years of clearing basalt boulders before vines could be planted. He now has some 1,000 acres of varieties such as ugni blanc, folle blanche, rkatsiteli and kangun, a Soviet-era crossing of chardonnay and rkatsiteli, among others.

Yet the potential to make quality wine soon became apparent, and, coupled with the changing market, convinced him to shift his strategy. Eurnekian has slowly converted his vineyards to wine production, now more than half his total acreage. And he brought in consultant Michel Rolland to help his Argentine winegrowing team launch Tierras de Armenia, trading under the brand name Karas.

The team found themselves surprisingly at home in this rugged country. The almost desert-like conditions make irrigation essential, as it is in Argentina, while poplar trees line vineyards to block fierce winds, as they do in Patagonia. High elevations—most Armenian vineyards range from 3,500 feet to over 5,000 feet—mean intense UV light exposure during the day, followed by cold nights, which help to retain acidity in the grapes. Hail, too, is a major threat, as it is in Mendoza. Where conditions diverge is in winter; it’s so cold in most parts of Armenia that vines must be buried to protect fruiting canes.

The Karas label focused initially on nonindigenous grapes like syrah, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot and tannat, along with obscure but sensible oddities like montepulciano and marzemino, making a contemporary range of polished wines with wide appeal and friendly pricing. Though here, too, indigenous varieties like sireni, along with areni and voskehat, are slowly diverting attention.

Several other Armenian expats have joined the winemaking renaissance, including Armenian-American entrepreneur Armenak Aslanian at ArmAS Estate in Aragatsotn Province, and Varuzhan Mouradian, in Ashtarak just outside of Yerevan. Locals have launched new brands as well, including Voskeni, Old Bridge and the Armenian Wine Co. There are now more than 40 commercial wineries. Wine bars are also popping up across Yerevan and wine drinking is on the rise as Armenians rediscover their country’s deep winemaking heritage. Stepping back in history again, into the dark Areni-1 cave, one can’t help but think that those pioneering Copper Age vintners would be just as excited as we are by this region’s future.

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2019.
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Tags  Armenia