Wine on the Silk Road
Azerbaijan, an unlikely producer, is presenting deliciously drinkable wines.
A look inside the vaults at Vinago.
In the late 1980s, one of the last acts of Mikhail Gorbachev, supreme and last leader of the Soviet Union, was to declare war on drunkenness in the USSR. Azerbaijan’s wine industry almost fell victim to this purge but survived.
Azerbaijan is one of the key wine producers in the Caspian Sea region despite these serious attempts to wipe out production. Though the USSR might more closely be thought of as a vodka and spirit drinking culture, much Azeri wine was consumed in Russia before the Gorbachev purge. Many vines were grubbed up, but the untidy end of the Soviet regime meant that these plans were abandoned. What was saved was an industry whose roots go back to the arrival of German émigrés in the region in the early 19th century.
There are around ten wineries and vineyards currently producing wine in Azerbaijan. One of the largest is Baku-based Vinagro, created in 2006—a drinks company with interests in wine and spirit production. The group’s wine division is Goygol Wine Plant and uses a plant founded in 1860 by German wine growers.With 537 hectares of vines, the company produces from 1.5 to 2 million liters a year. Exports continue to Russia as well as Ukraine. According to Firuza Baylarova, Vinagro export manager, no production is currently exported to the United States. "We do not export our products to USA yet, but we are planning to start export," she says, adding, "We have had some problems and are working on resolving them.” In the vineyards, Vinagro cultivates Matrasa, Bayanshirey, Rkasiteli, Kaberne Sovinion, Shiraz, Merlo, Saperavi, Uni-Blan, Sovinion, Muscat, Gabursg Muscat and Shardone. The compnay does not buy in any other grapes.
While traditionally Azerbaijan is considered as a Muslim country (which could produce issues for producers), Baylarova points out that “Azerbaijan is democratic and a worldly country,” and is not a difficult environment. Of greater worry, perhaps, is the population’s thirst for imported French and Italian wines.
A tasting of two Azerbaijani wines in London this month found they were both quite satisfactory in terms of palette and quality. A 2004 James Sandeh Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like Cabernet Sauvignon should; it was a lively wine that could hold its own with very good Californian versions and could pass as Old or New World production. A medium-sweet red dessert wine branded Sevgilim would pair well with a variety of desserts.