If You Want to Drink History, Discover Armenia

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Armenia is a mountainous country in the South Caucasus highlands surrounding biblical Mount Ararat. The country is bordered by Turkey, Georgia, and Iran, amongst others. It boasts a rich cultural heritage and significant natural treasures. Less well known is the fact that Armenia is arguably the cradle of grape growing and winemaking.

Ararat Mountain

Armenia faces high-profile, ongoing political and economic stability challenges. There are concerns that violence will break out (again) over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave inside Azerbaijan that is controlled by ethnic Armenians. The previous war waged in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s killed more than 25,000 people. Relations with neighboring Turkey are tenuous because the government there refuses to recognize the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I as genocide. Violence marred the 2008 presidential election, when clashes broke out between opposition protesters and police, killing 10 people . The 2008-2009 global financial crisis didn’t help matters.

But where these is strife, there is often hope for change, and a handful of individuals willing to take the risks necessary to enact that change.

In 2011, the world’s oldest known winery was found in a cave in Armenia, near its border with Iran. It dates back more than 6,000 years (between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C.) to the Late Chalcolithic Period, also known as the Copper Age. Astonishingly, it is a robust production facility, complete with a rudimentary wine press, fermentation vats, a cup and drinking bowl, and storage jars. When discovered, the winemaking equipment was surrounded by grape seeds, withered grape vines, and the remains of pressed grapes. 

The wine press was uncovered in the same area where the world’s oldest shoe – a perfectly preserved moccasin dating back 5,500 years – was found in June 2010. The press and the jugs were found near gravesites, leading scientists and researchers to believe that the wine produced was used for ceremonial purposes. I was disappointed that the shoe and wine press were dated 500 years apart. I had developed an elaborate play in my mind that involved a vintner losing his or her moccasin in a wine vat, like an ancient Armenian version of I Love Lucy.

I digress. Prior to the discovery of the Armenian winemaking cave, the earliest known wine press had dated back to 1650 B.C., and was excavated in the West Bank in 1963. As far as I can tell, the wine press discovered on the West Bank was not discovered near any shoes.

Khor Virap

Grape vines are an indigenous plant in Armenia. The wild vinifera silvestris (ancestor of cultivated vinifera) was established in the region over a million years ago. Historically, grapes were an important crop, but the country’s  deep-rooted wine culture all but disappeared after years of Soviet rule.

Today, the Armenian wine industry is making fits and starts.  According to Hayk Mirzoyan, head of an economy department overseeing industrial policy, Armenia’s wine production has been growing by 20 percent annually over the last five years and Armenia has over 20 wineries. The government hopes to triple wine production and its export by 2020. According to official data, Armenia produced 1.5 million gallons of wine in 2011. 12.5 percent was exported. 

The winemaker setting the bar for contemporary Armenian winemaking is Zorik Gharibian. When he was an Armenian living in Italy, Gharibian conceived Zorah after several visits to his home country gave him an increasingly deep emotional connection to Armenia’s rich winemaking history.

Gharibian’s 2010 Zorah Karasi Areni Noir, made just steps away from the cave where the world’s oldest known winery was discovered, was ranked in Bloomberg’s Top 10 Wines of 2012. The Bloomberg list is compiled after its staff samples 4,000 wines over the course of the year.

Areni Noir is an indigenous grape unique to the region. The Zorah vineyards themselves are 1,400 meters above sea level. Adapted to the local climate and resistant to disease, the varietal has a thick skin that helps the grape maintain a fresh characteristic. A vine-friendly micro-climate and rocky, limestone rich soil yields healthy fruit. Long, dry summers and cool nights encourage a lengthy growing season.The thick skin protects the grape from the drastic day/night temperature variations present during the summer months at such a high altitude.

Gharibian uses vines derived from the abandoned vineyards of a nearby 13th century monastic complex and grown on original, ungrafted root. Geographic and climatic forces have allowed the highlands to remain one of the few grape growing regions in the world where original rootstock has survived, unaffected by phylloxera. The grapes are harvested at the end of October. The wine is aged in French oak and much denser Armenian oak. Gharibian also carefully observes the ancient local tradition of aging the wine in clay amphorae known as karas, which are sealed with wax and buried deep in the earth.  The process is intended to conserve the flavor and purity of the wine.

I hope that Gharibian’s vision of creating honest wine by using indigenous grapes and historic winemaking methods helps propel Armenia’s wine industry forward.  The entire region will benefit, as will our palates. For more information, I highly recommend the Zorah blog: http://www.zorahwines.com/blog/.

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