Vineyards of Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province (Photo credit: Kristin Cass)
Despite its relatively small geographic size, Armenia is a country that brings together an impressive history and an inspiring union of food and wine. Bordered by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, this small country calls itself the “birthplace of wine” and according to the bible it is the “Cradle of Viticulture and Winemaking.” The Bible also states that Noah planted a vine at the foot of Mount Ararat after the Flood and so began the traditional history of winemaking on the territory of modern Armenia. Although I would love to travel to this diverse and beautiful country someday, for now I am exploring the region at home with another Wine Tour at Home.
The earliest known winery, discovered in a cave located in Armenia’s mountainous Yeghegnadzor region. (Photo Credit: Kiwiodysee)
One of the cornerstones of Armenian people and their culture is this impressive history of viticulture and winemaking. During an excavation between 2007-2011, in the Areni Complex in Armenia, the world’s oldest winery dating back 6,100 years, was discovered. This site pre-dates previous neighboring locations in the bordering country of Georgia, which was originally thought to be home to the world’s oldest wine production. Archaeologists believe that the people who produced wine in this Cave Winery used it for ceremonial purposes. This discovery confirms that even back in 4,000 BC people had mastered the horticultural skills needed to maintain the vines and the viticultural knowledge to produce the wine.
Getting to know modern Armenian is a journey through historical milestones and a better understanding of the heart wrenching struggles the country and it’s people faced during the criminal Armenian Genocide that happened there in the early 20th Century. Today war and escalations continue in Armenia, it is a country that has seen more than its far share of upheaval and hardship, yet it strives to move forward and build its self back up, forging ahead to a better future.
Despite the struggles of the past, the last few years has brought momentous steps toward a brilliant future for Armenia. In November of 2017, a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) broadened the scope of relations between Armenia and the European Union. In June of 2018, a provision based on CEPA was applied requiring all Geographic Indicators registered in the EU will be protected in Armenia.
Positive momentum in the CEPA agreement with Armenia continued in October of 2019 when “Both Parties underlined the positive dynamics of the Armenian economy and the importance of the bilateral trade relations between the EU and Armenia, with the EU continuing to be Armenia’s second trading partner, its main export market and its second most important source of imports.” (Quote Source) Building a sturdy platform on the EU relations, the Armenian Wine Industry is diligently working to demonstrate its much deserved place in the world wine markets.
On March 01, 2021 the Armenian-EU CEPA took effect. This agreement has led to successfully addressing the trade barriers that existed within the wine producing industry.
Photo Credit: Armenian Tour Information
During the Soviet period (from the 1930s through the early 90s) , Armenia’s wine grapes were designated primarily for brandy production, many vineyards and businesses were destroyed during this time as the Armenian wine industry fell into the shadows. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that winemakers started to breathe life back into the industry and since 2015 Armenian wines have seen a steady increase in the percentage of wines exported. In 2019 21% of wine produced in Armenia was exported to markets in 37 countries, which indicates a successful diversification of the country’s export markets. It is exciting to witness this Armenian wine culture rebirth after it was stifled for so many years.
Armenian wines, in part, are distinguished by the countries exceptional terroir along with a collection of environmental elements that impact grape growing in the region. A compilation of high elevations and flat landscapes combined with diverse microclimates lend to an array of indigenous grape varietals being grown in Armenia. Add in the rich volcanic soils found in the area and it is no surprise that these local grapes along with some International varieties develop distinct flavors that are showcased in the wines.
Having cultivated grapes for thousands of years, the wines of Armenia are today an intricate merging of youthful and old grapes and styles. Within the five vinicultural regions in the country 400 indigenous grapes varieties are grown, yet only about 31 of these are used in wine making. Red wines are lead by Areni, often referred to as Areni Noir while common white grape varieties include Voskehat and Kangun.
Armenian free standing grape vines. Photo Credit: Zenith Photo Studio / Vine & Wine Association of Armenia.
Armenia’s top wines today include a selection of expressive whites, memorable reds, lovely rosés and stellar bubbly. In the last few years the government has begun a serious push to aid winemakers to market this ‘Sacred Land of Wine’ and this has helped with the somewhat challenging task of finding Armenian wines in stores or online. Storica Wines which is an Armenian wine import company in the U.S. is also working on making wines from Armenia more accessible and to “celebrate the soul, the history, and the song of Armenia.” One of the labels that Storica carries is Zulal, and I had the pleasure of trying three of their wines.
Meaning “pure” in Armenian, Zulal was founded by Aimee Keushguerian in 2017, daughter of Vahe Keushguerian who founded Keush in 2013 and who produces traditional method sparkling wines made with indigenous grape varieties. Zulal’s focus is on old own-rooted Armenia’s indigenous grape varieties to express the wines of the past but made with modern practices and techniques to blend the old world with the new world. Sourced from grape growers in the villages from numerous grape growing regions in Armenia Areni and Voskehat are the main grape varieties used in Zulal’s wines.
Named for its home village in Vayots Dzor where evidence of the world’s oldest known winery facility was discovered, Areni is said to be Armenia’s signature grape variety. These grapes come from vines at 1400-1750 meters elevation (wow!) were they grow in tight bunches. This dark thick-skinned varietal produces full bodied wines that are heady with red and dark brambly fruit aroma and intriguing herbal notes.
The Areni Reserve from Zulal has a structure similar to a Côte-Rôtie Syrah or a Burgenland Blaufrankisch with lovely velvety tannins and a delightfully prolonged finish. On the nose this reserve has hints of cassis with splashes of red and black fruits that intertwine with a dusting of spices. On the palate cherry flavors take the lead with a peppery plum note following closely behind.
With soft smoky notes and whispers of vanilla I knew this would be the perfect wine to pair with Lahmahjoon, a savory Armenian pizza that is bathed in a tomato and lamb topping. As noted in the recipe below it is best to make the topping and let it set overnight so that the flavors has a chance to blend.
50 year old un-grafted vines grown in volcanic rock at 5,000 feet above sea level is how this 100% Voskehat gets its start. This rare Armenian variety whose name translates to “golden berry” is late ripening which leads to more time maturing under the sun. Changes in the year to year growing conditions produce a wide range of aromatic profiles in this extremely vintage driven variety.
Hand sorted and fermented in stainless steel there is a distinct textural quality to this 2018 Zulal Voskehat that adds to its unique character. The interesting finish of this Voskehat is certainly an attention grabber, crisp and elegant. I really enjoyed the rich tropical, stone fruit and floral notes in this vibrant gold colored wine. A touch of herbs on the palate and a light sprinkling of minerality had me completely infatuated with this Armenian gem.
*In doing research, I learned the grape variety Sireni, which is indigenous to Armenia is a late harvest selection that is hand sorted to ensure the elegance, depth and complexity of this varietal. Noted for it’s ripe red fruit intensity and silkiness I give Sireni the much deserved credit for this wines long sensational finish.
A blend of 70% Areni from Vayots Dzor, 20% Syrah from Armivir, 10% Sireni from Artsakh grown on volcanic rock, 3,000 to 4,300 feet above sea level this wine will have you secretly stashing the bottle to ensure that you get to enjoy the last glass.
Silky with velvety tannins I loved how the aromas of black and red fruits were softened by a subtle earthy stone fruit character. On the palate dark cherry and currant lingered with a touch of spice on the finish. I kept envisioning pairing this delightful wine with a roasted chicken dinner.
These Zulal wines were a fantastic introduction to the Armenian wine renaissance and I know that these first tastes are just the beginning. A wonderful way to remotely enjoy the flavors of Armenian wines at home.
Have you tried wines from Armenia? I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.
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I first discovered author Barbara Kingsolver in the early 90’s when I came across a paperback in a used book store called The Bean Tree. I was instantly drawn in by this story about friendship and love, about abandonment and finding your place, and about discovering surprises in unexpected places. Honestly, the book touched me and I became an avid reader of Kingsolver. In her novels and works of non-fiction including Animal Dreams, High Tide in Tucson, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Small Wonders Kingsolver leads her readers into moments of transcendence. Kingsolver’s keen ability to be a storyteller/scientist/teacher in her architecturally designed fiction and her engagingly informative non-fiction forces the reader to never look at specific aspects of the world in quite the same way.
To this day one of my prized autographed books is The Bean Tree by Kingsolver who I met in Denver during a Book Conference in 1995.
Kingsolver’s fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, published in 2000, embraces the elements of wilderness and celebrates going to back to nature. If you have a spot in your heart reserved for the wonder of nature you can’t help but love this novel. Set in Appalachia Prodigal Summer paints in vivid detail Kingsolver’s appreciation for all living things. A former biologist and journalist, Kingsolver has a rare ability to communicate effortlessly what she knows as a scientist. Kingsolver’s words, paired with her impeccable knowledge of the biological behaviors of individual organisms, elevate this story into a fascinating read that delivers a valuable message about humans and nature to the reader.
Photo Credit: Barbara Kingsolver Website
Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction has achieved bestselling status in the US and as a celebrated author, there has been a lot written about Kingsolver and her life, instead of retelling her story I want to share a link to her website that highlights her background and more.
“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.”
-Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Set in rural Virginia, Prodigal Summer details the life events of three central characters during the course of a summer. Each of the narratives has one central theme that can be identified through the chapter titles.
Over the course of one Appalachian summer, these three characters find a connection of love to the shared natural world that surrounds them, and to one another. This title is a sensuous observation of the natural world and how it reveals to us the unexpected beauty of life, both around us and inside ourselves. This story reminds us that as a community we have a relationship with our local environment and that there is a world of connections out there just waiting to be made with others and with nature.
While Prodigal Summer makes you realize the fragility of each and every inhabitant on earth, and the role we all play in this dance called life, her non-fiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle shares how each of us can work toward food sustainability in our every days lives.
Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, chronicles her family’s transition to complete consumption of only locally grown food (the only thing given a pass was coffee). This book completely transformed my thinking about food, cooking, where our food comes from and the things we bond over with our family. This title teaches you how to be thoughtful and mindful about agriculture and sustainability, for this reason and because it is one of my all time favorite books, I wanted to add it as a suggested supplemental title to this months book club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this book!
“April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot wrote, by which I think he meant (among other things) that springtime makes people crazy. We expect too much, the world burgeons with promises it can’t keep, all passion is really a setup, and we’re doomed to get our hearts broken yet again. I agree, and would further add: Who cares? Every spring I go out there anyway, around the bend, unconditionally. … Come the end of the dark days, I am more than joyful. I’m nuts. ”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
If you ask most people what they think Appalachian cuisine is, their answer (if they have any idea at all) will most likely be pinto beans and corn. Yet, there is so much more to this regions culinary offerings which becomes increasingly apparent when you realize that Appalachia is a 200,000 square mile region. This area follows the spine of the Appalachian mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. Included in this expansive region is all of West Virginia and a part of twelve other states including Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and New York.
Like many other regions in the United States, Appalachia is a melting pot of local and international cuisines. The Southern Appalachians was originally inhabited by the Cherokee more than a thousand years ago and they are noted as being the original cultivators of corn in this region. When settlers began to arrive they brought with them the food cultures of their countries, the earliest arrivals included the English, Germans, Scotch-Irish, Hungarians and Italians. This part of the country was also one of the few places that freed slaves were permitted to live and as they settled into this area their heritage and food cultures blended with the other foodways in the Appalachians.
Derived as much from the culture of the mountains as from its ingredients, Appalachian cuisine not only combines the large number of heirloom varieties, like apples, pears and corn from the region but includes foraged ingredients as well. Appalachian locals are able to cultivate the bounty from the land and woods around them since there is plenty available to be foraged like wild mushrooms, ramps, sumac and wild ginger. Food preservation is also an important part of Appalachian cuisine, in the mountains the growing season can be short so a focus is put on preservation. Putting up the harvest means having an ample supply of smoked meats, pickled vegetables, fruits, as well as jams and jellies available for the cold winter months.
Taking all of this heritage and food traditions into account Jill and I have come up with some recipes that we feel compliment both Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. We hope that these recipes paired with the Organic wines from Badger Mountain Organic Winery inspire you to recreate them for your own book club or to enjoy when you have finished reading the books.
“I created this unique breakfast salad recipe to expand the thinking of what breakfast is or should be. Eating this nutrient packed “killed” salad as the Appalachian natives called it, gives the body time to break down and absorb the much-needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber for health and energy. This is so important at the beginning of each day, whether working hard physically in our busy lives, or tending to the many needs of the sprawling pastures of the Appalachia.” -Jill Sonlin
Recipes and Photos by Jill Sonlin of Jill’s Gourmet Dreams. Badger Mountain Organic Chardonnay sponsored wine.
Homemade Cinnamon Whipped Cream
1 cup cold Heavy Cream
2 Tbsp Powdered Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
1/8 tsp organic ground Cinnamon
Recipe and Photo by Jill Sonlin, Jill’s Gourmet Dreams
Whip the cream, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon in a chilled bowl using a hand mixer or a standing mixer fitted with a wire whisk attachment.
Beat on low at first, then gradually increase the speed to high until soft peaks form. DO NOT OVER WHIP! Keep a close eye on it. Whip time varies, but generally a few minutes from start to finish. Use cinnamon whipped cream immediately or store in refrigerator for up to one week.
This month’s collection of recipes from my friend Chef Jill Sonlin of Jill’s Gourmet Dreams is a true example of her culinary talents. Thank you Jill for collaborating with me and sharing some of your amazing original recipes.
Food preservation is a valuable skill, after all that hard work planning, planting, tending and harvesting, the last thing you want is for your bounty to go to waste. Canning is a big part of my summer routine, although we eat fresh from the garden as the fruits and produce ripen I also strive to ‘put up’ some of the harvest for the winter and early spring months. My Recipe for the Kingsolver books includes refrigerated Merlot Pickled Beets and an appetizer that incorporates them on a herby goat cheese bruschetta. A nod to my love of gardening, preserving and Appalachian cuisine. -Elaine
Jill and I hope that we have inspired you to make some of these recipes to enjoy while you read The Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. We would love to hear your thoughts on these recipes and the book. Cheers everyone and we hope to see you soon at the next Virtual Drink In Life Book Club discussion.
Remember to join the Book Club Video Chat on Sunday July 25th at 1:00 pm PST/4:00 EST make sure that you are signed up to receive email notifications from Drink In Life (Email Subscription on right hand of the page) and Comment on this story post or comment on the @drinkinlifebookclub Instagram post that you would like to join in. You will receive an email invite to join the discussion.
“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Images, content and recipes © of Drink In Nature Photography/Drink In Life Blog and/or Jill’s Gourmet Dreams.