Landlocked between Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia’s fast-flowing rivers and high plateaus are framed by the rugged Caucasus Mountains. Early civilizations, ancient kingdoms and a communist state have all lived in what’s considered the cradle of wine.
Through triumphs and tumult, the country’s wine industry is again on the rebound. Here’s what you need to know about Armenia’s vinous renaissance.
Regardless of whether Noah truly planted Armenia’s first vineyard after his Ark washed up on Mount Ararat, the country’s wine history is ancient. The region of Vayots Dzor claims to be home to the oldest winery in the world, in operation some 6,100 years ago. Discovered in 2007, the Areni-1 cave complex held evidence of large-scale wine production and the likely domestication of vines.
Some think wine consumption reaches back even further. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of biomolecular archaeology project for cuisine, fermented beverages and health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, found traces of wine on an 8,000-year-old Stone Age shard of pottery retrieved on a modern-day Georgian site.
While exact details of ancient winemaking remain romantically murky, ancient texts authenticated by historians like McGovern offer a glimpse of Armenia’s ancestral glory. In his book Ancient Wine, McGovern details how 8th century B.C. Urartian monarchs, an Iron Age kingdom that ruled the Armenian Highlands, dubbed Armenia “the land of the vineyards.” The Assyrians and Greeks also referenced Armenian wine in various texts.
The progression of Armenian wine ended when the Soviet Red Army invaded in 1920. Two years later, the country was merged into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. In 1936, it became the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Soviet Armenia.
With the abolition of private enterprise, innovation came to a halt. The Soviets converted wineries into processing plants, and vineyards turned over fruit for brandy distillation or bulk wine production.
To increase volume, vineyards were planted in unfavorable locations, while others went neglected or abandoned. The wines once coveted by Assyrian rulers and traded with the Babylonian empire fell from grace.
In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia regained its sovereignty. Young Armenians and those with investment money began to embrace the region’s ancient techniques and storied wine culture. In other words, Armenia has the distinction of being the youngest oldest wine industry in the world.
The Grapes to Know
So far, researchers have catalogued 400 indigenous varieties from a cache of wild vines cultivated by early Armenians.
A few producers work with international grapes, largely for Russia and other former Soviet republics. This market will diminish over the coming years, says Ara Sarkissian, head of wine for Storica Wines, a U.S.-based Armenian wine import company.
Rather, new quality-driven wineries focus on local varieties. However, to commit to Armenia’s heritage grapes is not as easy as planting them.
“A lot was lost during the Soviet years, including knowledge of the traits of many indigenous varieties that were ignored during that era,” says Sarkissian. Determining characteristics like soil suitability, sun preference, vineyard aspect as well as how much maceration and aging the grapes can handle, takes year of experimentation, a process underway in earnest over the last decade.
“Unlike neighboring Georgia, where tradition looms over everything, Armenians are open to imported knowledge and technology,” says Sarkissian. “The break with the past of the Soviet era, as devastating as it is in terms of losing tradition, has also been an opportunity for a fundamental reset, which drives much of the renaissance that’s happening now.”
For example, Armenians have shown flexibility with grape names that outsiders find difficult to pronounce. “Khndoghni has been renamed Sireni by near unanimous consent,” says Sarkissian.
Areni Noir produces medium-bodied reds with fruits like cherry and strawberry laced with black pepper aromas. It compares in its freshness, silkiness and transparency to Pinot Noir.
Voskehat is Armenia’s signature white grape. Translating to “golden berry,” the wine has light to medium body. It brims with floral and stone fruit aromas marked by notes of herbs and citrus.
Khndoghni, or Sireni, is a red grape common to the South Caucasus that gives black fruit flavors, deep color, good tannins and the potential to age.
Key Wine Regions
Armenia’s viticultural strengths include volcanic soils, high-elevation sites and old vines. The absence of vineyard pest phylloxera permits growers to plant vines on their own roots, rather than be grafted.
“This means our grapes have been kept close to their original forms,” says Varuzhan Mouradian, founder/winemaker of Van Ardi Winery in the region of Ashtarak, just outside of capital city Yerevan.
“As someone who’s used to hearing ‘pre-phylloxera’ in conversation, it’s wild to listen to Armenian winemakers demarcate their vineyards as pre- or post-Soviet,” says Chris Poldoian, an American sommelier of Armenian descent, who also serves as an ambassador for Storica Wines.
There are four main wine regions. The best known is the south-central region of Vayots Dzor, a long, narrow plateau which stands out for its highest elevation vineyards, some which reach almost 6,000 feet above sea level. “To put things in perspective, high elevation in continental Spain and Northern Italy is maybe 2,300 to 2,900 feet,” says Poldoian.
Aragatsotn sits at slightly lower elevation. Other regions to note include Ararat, located on a sunny plateau; Armavir, a mountainous area in the southwest; and the mountainous landlocked areas where Sireni grows.
“Within the regions, villages and hillsides are being explored, and winemakers are learning the characteristics of single vineyards,” says Sarkissian.
The Modern Industry
It’s natural to be drawn to the history of Armenian viticulture because it’s the origin story of human wine consumption.
Poldoian, however, hesitates to focus on the ancestry of Armenia. He’d rather highlight the “amazing wines made by thoughtful producers right now.”
Armenians have driven much of the revival using a combination of modern technology and traditional techniques, like aging in terracotta jars called karasi.
The collective push for quality has helped winemakers find export partners. Vahe Keushguerian, founder/winemaker for Keush and Zulal, says as a landlocked country, “Armenia cannot produce low-cost wines. It has to carve a niche in a higher-priced segment.”
So far, the best-known winery is Zorah. Founder Zorik Gharibian, a successful businessman in the Italian fashion space, pivoted from breaking ground on a winery in Tuscany to Armenia after he visited his ancestral homeland in 1998. Zorah’s Areni, matured in karasi, fit neatly into the trending category of amphorae-aged wines, which helps turn the spotlight on Armenia.
Since Zorah’s founding, the list of imaginative wineries has grown. Storica imports four of them: Keush, for traditional-method sparklers; Zulal for vibrant Areni, Oshen for barrel-aged wines and a rosé from Shofer. Hin Areni and ArmAs Estate also export to the U.S.
International attention doesn’t hurt. Paul Hobbs, the California vintner who has spread his wings to Argentina, the Finger Lakes region of New York and Europe, developed a fervor for Armenia during a trip in 2005.
His latest project, now a partnership with Viken Yacoubian called Yacoubian-Hobbs, broke ground near Areni-1 in 2014. Its wines, a white blend and two Arenis, can be purchased online, making them more accessible for U.S consumers.
American sommeliers have taken notice.
“As the birthplace of viticulture, Armenian wines are liquid history,” says Kyla Cox, Atlanta-based wine consultant and founder of Cork Camp. “These wines reflect a sense of culture and place perhaps more than any other winemaking region.” She frequently showcases the wines in her events.
Small growers in remote regions, however, lack the money, infrastructure or logistics to capitalize on such enthusiasm. The Farm-to-Bottle project by ONEArmenia has worked to bring the consumer to the farmer. A crowdfunding campaign run in 2017 helped build the first “WineCube,” a cabin-like tasting room in Southern Armenia for Momik Wines.
Despite numerous challenges, the mood in Armenia remains optimistic.
“Armenia is small, landlocked and poor,” says Mouradian. “But what it has is resilience, an ability to adapt, and an eagerness to show the world its world-class wines. A bright future lies ahead for Armenian wine.”