Armenian Wine: Terroir of Past, Present, and Future
“My main inspiration was the 2,500-year-old accounts written by non-Armenian sources that people in Armenia (or Urartu), on these same lands, were producing beautiful wine and exporting to all the neighboring kingdoms. The centuries have passed, but the soil, sun, and the terroir are still the same,” says Varuzhan Maroudian, the Armenian-American winemaker of Van Ardi wines in Aragatsotn. Inspired by Armenia’s ancient archaeological history and its intrinsic connection with vinification, Maroudian headed back to this region to explore winemaking in the country present-day. And romantic stories of uncovering ancient wineries 6,100 years old under mountainous caverns have undoubtedly enamored wine professionals worldwide.
The discovery certainly was tremendous. Wisps of winemaking evidence in the Caucasus region have emerged over the years. In 2010, archaeologists uncovered a cavernous winery near the village of Areni in the southeastern part of the country. But this was the first time tools were discovered alongside byproducts of winemaking, such as petrified pips and residue on karas or clay pots. Before Armenia adopted Christianity in 301 AD (the first to do so), fermentation and drunkenness were ritual in nature. But by the Iron Age, the theory was that wine aided in simple pleasures.
Now affectionately known as the Areni-1 cave, the Smithsonian observed that “beneath a layer of sheep manure inside a cave, the remains of crushed grapes and vessels for collecting and fermenting grape juice dating to 6,100 years ago were recovered, proving that humans produced wine systematically one thousand years earlier than thought. Additionally, traces of a grape used in red wine production today were found on pot shards at the excavation site.”
From writings and other historical data gathered, the ancient stories of wine didn’t start there. Karas were buried under the ground, and in some instances, marked with year and quality. In Herodotus’s ancient writings, wine was traded from Armenia to regions throughout the area by raft. The Smithsonian describes its discovery by claiming it as a “new link between ancient and modern wine production.”
Speaking of Armenia in these ancient terms has become one its major selling points. As most wine history begins within the last 1,000 years or so, Armenia and its surrounding regions in the Caucasus have understandably been dubbed as the “cradle of winemaking.” Grouping these regions and comparing them as counterparts does not provide any justice in their individuality. With its own distinct history and place within the region, Armenia cannot be compared to the nearby recent interest in the orange wines in qvevri of Georgia. Just as the Loire cannot be compared to the Rhône. Just the same, Armenia shouldn’t bring visuals to your head of ancient stone and winemaking techniques being used to cultivate thousand-year-old vines. What’s happening there now is the arrival of innovative changemakers who find pride in their past and know they must adapt to the modern world’s innovations. In Armenia, they must also work within the confines of a unique political system while still discovering their new identity in sovereignty.
Borders All Its Own
Armenia is a landlocked country roughly the size of the state of Maryland. It politically views itself as part of the European Union but is located in the Caucasus region on the Armenian Highlands. Georgia borders it to the north, Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south. Jancis Robinson, in her Oxford Companion to Wine, notes that, “what [Armenia] lacks in latitude, it makes up for elevation.” The country is incredibly mountainous, with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 1,600 meters (3,280 to 5,249 feet). The summers are hot and the winters cold, but there are regulating fast-flowing rivers that allow fertile soil in the valleys. Its soil is vital to the character of wine as three volcanoes deposit different types of volcanic stones in the soil. Limestone and clay intersperse toward the southern regions. Its confluence of conditions has proven ripe for grape growing for thousands of years. Maroudian explains that, “95 percent of the vineyards have wines with their own roots; two main wine regions, Aragatsotn and Vayots Dzor, are free of phylloxera.” But still, this region can be considered emerging. Over half of the country’s wineries registered only within the last decade.
Throughout the 16th and 19th centuries, rule of Armenia was punted between the Persian and Ottoman Empires until Eastern Armenia came under Russia’s rule. After some more back and forth and a deadly genocide, Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Under this rule, private wineries were commodified into processing plants for Russia and Ukraine, and state farms became collectives. Grapes planted post-World War I were planted on infertile land, and these grapes ultimately became the drink of choice at the time—fortified wine and brandy. Other vineyards were left unmaintained. Production of these required almost 80 percent of the already small amount of vineyards left. Armenia only became sovereign at the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Those willing to revive and nurture investments in modern winemaking technology only arrived in the early 2000s, meaning this new era is a mere ten years old.
Since independence, Armenia has since switched back to smaller forms of agriculture from a larger industrial model; and ultimately, specific politics resulted in conflict over land rights with Azerbaijan sealing off the border. Turkey sealed off their border in solidarity with Azerbaijan.
So those who wanted to revive the cradle of winemaking and import it globally had a daunting task in front of them. But the vision of a few passionate and adventurous thrill-seekers made a plan to do just that.
A Winemaking Revolution
Vahe Keushguerian is Armenian-born but spent time in both Italy and California honing his winemaking and distribution skills. His name is well-known in the Armenian wine community. His daughter, Aimee, also produces wine under her label, Zulal, and helps to explain the importance of her father’s influence on the community, “His background and winemaking knowledge are very rare globally, let alone in Armenia. He is one of the few Armenians in the world with his level of wine experience, and he’s been a huge asset to the industry.” Vahe’s label Keush produces traditional method sparkling wines based in Vayots Dzor—the leading region in both quality and prestige. Vayots Dzor is one of several emerging winegrowing regions in Armenia along with Ararat Valley, Armavir, Aragatsotn, the Northeast Zone, and Zanzegur; they are not legally designated or have any regulations for quality control. Aimee describes it as a bit “wild,” but it leaves much more to uncover with its vastly different and undiscovered micro-regions of varying soil types, clones, elevation levels. The country is also home to more than 400 different grape varieties.
Aimee has forged a path with her label, Zulal. She discovers older vineyards and experiments with indigenous varieties from those once-neglected vineyards. She explains, “We started the rebirth of the industry with 40 to 50-year-old Soviet-planted vines, and in some cases, 120 to 150-year-old pre-Soviet planted. The fact that we are making this level of quality with these vines is a testament to how naturally our grapes have adapted over time in our soils.”
With these vines, she makes single-varietal wines to better understand the grape varieties planted before her time. “Every year we aim to uncover rare and almost lost indigenous grape varieties to micro-vinify them and understand them. We’ve made wine from Tozot, Chilar, Jjrjruk, Koghbeni, Karmir Kot, Nazeli to name a few. It’s the first time anyone has made wines from these grapes, as they are incredibly difficult to find. What’s most intriguing is these Vitis vinifera varieties have survived with little human intervention; they have thrived in our soil for thousands of years and lived through wars, cultural changes, and the Soviet Union.” Along with these lesser-known varieties, the two that have stood out are the white Voskehat and the red Areni.
Historical Vines to Future Classics
Areni is one of those grapes that has emerged as a star from the region—the very one found in the Areni-1 cave. Chris Poldoian, National Brand Ambassador for Storica Wines, implies that Areni from Vayots Dzor could serve as a unique and classic expression of Armenian wine. One of the first to re-plant this variety—and successfully—in the region of Aragatsotn where he is based, was Varuzhan Maroudian. He founded Van Ardi in 2008—his options being to stay in California as a CPA or explore this revival in his ancestral homeland. He chose the latter. He explains, “I had a feeling that the continuation of wine culture in Armenia interrupted during the Soviet times would be revived, and I was eager to be at the roots of this renaissance.”
His vineyards of Areni were undoubtedly a labor of love, taking six to seven years to harvest properly at the behest of other local farmers. They thought he was crazy for doing so after they had re-planted the grape with more suitable varieties. “I planted 1.2 hectares of Areni. It is a delicate variety and needs separate attention and love to open up in the vineyard. It took us [a while] to understand proper pruning and trellis systems and specific viticulture approaches suitable to [the grape variety]. The results are wines that are rich in structure yet fresh with acidity. Flavors of cherry and floral aromatics are rich yet elegant markers of this grape when it’s well made.
Commodity to Community
The vineyards weren’t the only thing needing an overhaul. With two out of four open borders, Armenia can be a difficult place to obtain equipment; it’s also an expensive endeavor to fund an estate winery. Enter WineWorks, established in 2011 by Vahe Keushguerian. Started as a consulting agency, it now serves as a custom-crush facility located in the capital city of Yerevan. It enables up-and-coming winemakers a place to vinify and age their wines. Aimee, who works closely with the project, explains, “The project came about rather naturally. The industry was just beginning, there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure setup or wine knowledge available, so my father started providing winemaking, bottling services, marketing support, and vineyard management to help start and build brands.” Today, they work with 13 to 15 brands and are involved in initiatives such as representing top equipment suppliers and providing indigenous plants from their two nurseries. They have also founded the EVN Wine Academy that teaches oenology and wine business to aspiring, young Armenian students.
In the oldest winemaking region in the world, the modern industry is still in its infancy. With talented growers and winemakers rediscovering their roots, they are working toward producing wine with a terroir—full of ancient past and revolutionary future. Along with Keushguerian and Mouradian, Zorik Gharibian has entered the global stage with his brand Zorah by reintroducing karas and clay. Famed California winemaker Paul Hobbs has helped get the word out by partnering with the Yacoubian family in Armenia. And there’s much more to look forward to—with discoveries of new techniques with indigenous varieties. The language will change with the championing of a new “historical world” designation—not Old or New—but from the oldest-known regions of the world, which includes Iran and Georgia. Van Ardi’s vineyards are working towards certification and biodynamics while experimenting with other indigenous grape varieties and some promising results from international varieties like Syrah.
Aimee finishes, “We have bush vines that sit outside of the designated safe zones of Armenia, between the Armenian and Azerbaijani military bases. They act almost like a protecting wall for our soldiers. Our ancestors planted them before the Soviet Union and have remained almost untouched. I wouldn’t give these up to plant new vineyards; their history and connection to the land stand for something more.” But there’s also room to plant more modern vineyards, and she calls them the future of the Armenian wine industry. It truly is a marriage of holding dear the past while being open to a new future. Armenians are just warming up to wine as part of their unique identity. Maroudian adds, “In fact, our goal is to cultivate such a wine culture lifestyle that can be inherited from generation to generation.”