Photo by Karen Minasyan/AFP
Artillery Row

The birthplace of wine

Raise a toast to Armenian resilience

The Armenian capital of Yerevan has much of the trappings of a modern city such as craft beer, free wifi and ugly glass architecture going up everywhere, but what differentiates it from London or Edinburgh, is the distinct feeling that at any moment horsemen may come over the mountains and kill everyone.

The country’s beautiful churches are festooned with images of grapes

This isn’t just paranoia. Armenian history has proved time and time again that their neighbours really are out to get them. In 2020, the country fought and lost a 40 day war with the Azeris over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within Azerbaijan. Over 4,000 Armenians died during the conflict.

The country lost territory including vineyards in the disputed region. Zorik Gharibian from Zorah wines had been buying chilar grapes from vineyards that are now in Azeri hands. “Viticulturally, we have lost lots of heritage,” he told me. This is important in a country with such a rich wine-making history. The country’s many beautiful churches are festooned with images of grapes and vines, and everywhere outside hotels and houses, you’ll see karas, clay jars once used for winemaking.

Indeed, Armenia might be the birthplace of wine. Near Gharibian’s winery in Vayots Dzor (it means Valley of Woes, which is so Armenian), there is a cave where archeologists have excavated wine making equipment from 6,000 years ago. Armenia, and especially Vayots Dzor, is something of a viticultural paradise with a wealth of native grape varieties and no phylloxera. The high altitude means cold nights even in summer so the grapes preserve their freshness. Sadly, the country’s long years of Soviet rule cut it off from its wine drinking roots. The communists designated Armenia as a centre of brandy production, and much of the population moved to vodka.

When I visited the country in 2016, Zorah was one of the very few Armenian wines available in Britain. You can buy it in Waitrose. Russia was once the biggest market but wine is increasingly being exported to Europe and the US.

His wines have a haunting perfume unlike anything I’ve ever had

The home market is expanding, too. Wine bars and festivals are springing up around the country. According to Aimee Keushguerian, younger people are drinking wine instead of vodka. Like Gharabian, she’s a diaspora Armenian from Italy. Her father founded Keush making sparkling wines, and she now has her own label Zulal working with rare local grape varieties. The process of cataloging these riches, which has gone on in France for hundreds of years, is only just beginning in Armenia.

When in 2000, against all advice, Gharibian wanted to make a quality wine from a local grape, areni, he had to isolate the best clones himself. Plus everything for the winery had to be imported from Italy. The investment was worth it, because his wines aged in karas have a haunting perfume unlike anything I’ve ever had. For those looking to explore beyond Zorah, it’s worth visiting Storica Wines in the US or Armenian Wines in Britain.

Not everyone, however, is on board with native varieties. The country’s most lavishly-funded producer Karas makes wine in collaboration with French consultant Michel Rolland on French and Italian varieties. It was founded by Argentine-Armenian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, who also built Yerevan’s modern airport. You’ll notice that the name of the winery refers to the clay jars that are the symbol of Armenian wine. Yet Karas doesn’t age its wine in karas. Furthermore, Eurnekian has trademarked the term, meaning other wineries who do actually use karas cannot put the word on their bottles. It’s an ongoing legal battle, according to Gharibian.

While Karas upon trial was perfectly agreeable in a rather Argentine style, I’d say you’d be mad to ignore Armenia’s native treasures. As Aimee Keushguerian puts it, “they have thrived in our soil for thousands of years and lived through wars, cultural changes and the Soviet Union”. Open a bottle of areni or chilar, and raise a toast to Armenian resilience.

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