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.
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