In Armenia, home to the earliest known winery, a new generation fights to save an ancient tradition.
Armenians love to party. They find any excuse to revel in the streets with some sizzling barbequed kebabs in hand and plenty of lavash bread to go around.
And often, alcohol is the star. In October, scores of people from around the world flocked to the village of Areni, where the earliest known winery was discovered in a cave dating back to 4,100 BC.
Winemakers from all over the country, including local independents working out of their garages, gathered in the village in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province to offer their finest vintages at the annual Areni Wine Festival.
For millennia wine in Armenia was produced using the same painstaking methods, and stored in the traditional karas—a ceramic vessel that is still employed to this day. Wine was used for divination in ancient shrines about 3,300 years ago.
Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus documented the transportation of wine from Armenia down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the 5th century BC. Armenian winemaking culture has endured the test of time, surviving regional wars and conquests repeatedly. The intensely rich volcanic soil is an enduring symbol of eternity for Armenians, and wine exemplifies longevity.
The main focus of Armenian wine has traditionally been Areni, which is the name of an ancient ovular-shaped red varietal. The problem with Areni is that it has been over propagated to meet the high demand, mostly from Russia.
As a result the quality of the grape has diminished. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Armenian grape varietals that were historically used for winemaking have been lost or are in danger of dying out.
Now the country is undergoing a winemaking renaissance. Armenia’s sacred, time-honored winemaking traditions and legacy have cast their spell on some of the industry’s powerhouse winemakers.
Areni recently found worldwide acclaim thanks to Zorah, a winery that produces a wine called Karasi that was featured on Bloomberg’s ‘Top Wines of 2012’ list. The resurgence of the winemaking industry is envisioned as part of the Armenian government’s Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development Policy.
Vahe Keushguerian is leading the charge. Keushguerian, who runs a winery solutions company called Semina Consulting, is crafting new wines from historic varietals indigenous to the region using modern methods.
Keushguerian’s substantial winery is packed from wall to wall with winemaking equipment from Italy. There are dozens of steel fermentation tanks lined up in rows. And dozens of French oak barrels, the lofty piles of which resemble honeycomb patterns.
Plenty of cabernet glasses are on hand arranged on a couple of stainless steel service carts. On another cart a few label-free wine bottles are marked with special tags with code names written on them. These are the hush-hush experimental wines.
When I first visited the state-of-the-art winery, which is situated in a former Soviet-era storage facility in Yerevan’s northwestern Ajapnyak district, I sampled the Hin Areni, a blend that was released in early 2015. The premium wine has gartered high praise and features hints of Campari, cranberry, extra dark chocolate and moss.
Keushguerian has been in the wine business since the mid-1990s, and he made his start in one of the centers of old-world winemaking: Tuscany. Keushguerian, who was born in Aleppo, Syria, first went to Armenia as a tourist in 1997. Like many Armenians who were born and raised in the diaspora, he instantly fell in love with the mountainous landscapes, ancient stone monasteries, and rustic hospitality.
Then a professor he knew in Tuscany had told him that Armenia was believed to be the birthplace of winemaking, a fact that intrigued him. In 2009, after a 15-year stint producing Chiantis for export in Italy, he set his sights on Armenia.
Shortly after his arrival he found out about a businessman who had just planted 500 hectares of grapes in the Armavir region of the country, to supply local brandy production companies. Keushguerian offered to conduct a winemaking experiment with the grapes: with one ton each of Chardonnay, Syrah and Tanat. The results were so good the experiment launched Armavir Vineyards, which produces a popular wine called Karas.
“It’s important that we make wines outside the limits of everything, we push the limits,” says Keushguerian. “Ninety percent of Armenian grapes are used for brandy. Armenia has nearly 17,000 hectares of vineyards, and about 1,500 hectares are for wine.”
Boutique winemaker Varuzhan Mouradian, the founder of Van Ardi winery, is doing similar work. Much of his wine is now being exported to Russia as well as the south of France. This year Van Ardi released by far one of the best Arenis I have ever tasted. The color is dark and bold, while the bouquet features hints of blueberry and a faintness of fennel.
The wine explodes on the palate, with pronounced nuances of bing cherry, rose hip, grapefruit and, especially, bastegh, the smoothed-out tangy delicacy often made from grape juice that inspired fruit roll-ups. “It’s a shame that there is such a focus on Areni,” Mouradian says. “There are so many other Armenian grape varieties that need preserving.”
Keushguerian certainly agrees. His vine nursery is dedicated to bringing these lesser-known varietals back to life. Proper Areni wine is made not only from Areni grapes but also other varieties commonly planted in the region—Moghuz, Tozot and Seyrak, all indigenous to Armenia.
Armenia is where some of the oldest varietals ever known are preserved. The vitis vinifera grape is believed to have emerged from this country in the heart of the South Caucasus.
But one of the biggest obstacles in producing the wine has been the availability of quality grapes. Since Areni is in such high demand, many grape producers tend to overwater the vineyards and harvest early.
Before propagation can begin at Keushguerian’s nursery, cuttings are sent to Mercier in France for analysis so that plants containing viruses can be weeded out. It’s a huge investment, he says, but he’s starting small. And no one else is doing this imperative work. “I’m passionate about Armenian wine 24/7,” says Keushguerian. “It’s not the wine per se, but it’s developing an industry that interests me, changing the narrative.”