Tom Mullen Contributor – Forbes
Armenian wines—despite a checkered past—look toward a brilliant future.
In a land resembling a cross between rural Utah, inland California and South Pass, Wyoming, with a capital city (Yerevan) that is safe, attractive and progressive, modern Armenian winemakers are a diverse and hardy lot. Representative backgrounds include that of a Berkeley chef, a Milanese fashion guru, an Argentinian infrastructure billionaire, a Moscow MBA graduate and the family of a Bostonian victim of past Bolshevik repression.
This land—smaller than the country of Belgium or the size of the U.S. states of Delaware and Vermont combined—has in the past five years seen a grueling four-day war as well as a separate Velvet Revolution that toppled the government. This period also included a drinking revolution where wine bars in the capital of Yerevan blossomed tenfold, and 25 new wineries were founded in just 2018.
Armenian Wine In History
Beginning over a decade ago a series of archaeological ‘firsts’ were discovered in a cliffside cave near the mountain town of Areni. These included the earliest known shoe, the oldest known brain tissue from the Old World and a 6,100-year-old winery—the earliest ever discovered on earth. In what is now known as the Areni-1 Cave, the public can view clay cylindrical containers (each more than a yard/meter in diameter) where wine was produced for burial ceremonies.
Boris Gasparyan of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia spoke about this cave.
“When you map all the early sites regarding ancient winemaking, they are all religious. We hypothesize that wine appeared in the context of religion. It was not any everyday product until the Iron Age.” (In the region where Armenia is located, the Iron Age began about 1,200 BC.)
The truth is clear: whether for rituals or relaxation, Armenia’s descendants have been sipping fermented grape juice for millennia.
During Soviet rule between 1920 and 1991, winemaking in Armenia suffered from a heavy focus on quantity over quality. Brandy was then considered more important to produce than wine. In 1980, Armenia produced a quarter of all brandy consumed in the Soviet Union.
Aramis Mkrtchyan, a viticulture specialist at the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia, told of this past.
“During the time of the Soviet union, all wineries belonged to the government. They destroyed many vines and there was no interest in know-how. They produced high quantities of very sweet wines according to planned production. Just three years ago there was no organization to unify producers around the table to work together and strategize. Now Armenian wine producers are more unified after the wine sector was recognized by the government as key for the economy.”
A visit to a few Armenian wineries reveals how this nation’s winemakers form a proud group that is unusually replete with big thinking entrepreneurs.
Karina Baghdasaryan, PR/Marketing director for the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia, told of the country’s recent wine history.
“There’s a lot of new foreign investment, often by Armenians living overseas. In the next two years we expect millions of dollars in investment, mostly in vineyards. Annually, we produce 10 million liters [2.6 million gallons] and export three million liters [0.8 million gallons].”
Grapes grow in five viticultural regions in the country, and—according to the Vine & Wine Foundation of Armenia—the country has more than 400 indigenous grape varieties, or about half as many as Italy, which is geographically 10 times larger. Of that total number, 31 grapes are used to make wine. For whites, common grapes include Voskehat and Kangun. For reds, Areni rules. (Areni is sometimes referred to as Areni Noir.)
Wine made from the Areni grape is a bit of a chameleon—think Merlot blended with Pinot Noir, or Syrah merging with the swimming energy of an Ökügözü. Areni can lilt and seduce, or shout and command. Think cherries and spice: the kick of a Carménère with the confident ease and gentle structure of a Beaujolais cru. Here is both grit and velvet, zest and sweetness, versatility and confidence. Areni can be feminine as well as masculine, though more of the former. It’s more quietly seductive than overtly flirtatious. It’s Penny Lane by the Beatles rather than Rolling Stone’s Satisfaction, lamb chops more than grilled sirloin—but only slightly so. More right bank than left bank Bordeaux, more Rhône valley than Cahors.
But—only just so. Areni huddles close to the ridge line that divides roundness/assertive distinctions. Sometimes it crosses over, like a bold and curious cadet who dashes over a border for a quick peek before jogging back.
The quality of Armenia’s top wines today—whether white or red, rosé or bubbling—is frequently stellar. One key reason is that several Armenians who left the country are returning, armed with ample cash, business and marketing savvy and networks of wine consulting contacts to aid their efforts. Another factor is that during the last three years the government has begun a serious push to aid winemakers market this ‘Sacred Land of Wine.’
Climate can be challenging. Subzero temperatures in the province of Armavir, for example, result in some wineries needing to bury the base of their vines during winter to protect them. Non-indigenous grape varieties can suffer in adverse conditions. Yet winemakers are rapid to adapt. One explained how when their Chardonnay and Colombard grapes were damaged by frost, local Rkatsiteli grapes (typically used in Georgia for wine and in Armenia for brandy) were used instead to produce their extra brut sparkling wine. Conversely, aridity from blistering summer heat requires irrigation in most vineyards.
Many wineries use Armenian oak (also known as Caucasian oak because much originates in the Caucasus mountains) which can be up to 250 years old. The cost of these oak barrels is about a quarter the cost of imported French oak. This wood originates from forests in the Artsakh region (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh) which is disputed territory—self-proclaimed as autonomous but internationally recognized otherwise. This oak provides strong flavors including sweet tones such as vanilla, as well as spiciness and aromas of eucalyptus.
Ararat Mkrtchyan of Voskeni Wines studied mathematics in Moscow, then worked with Deloitte before returning to work with his family’s Armenian winery. He spoke about this oak.
“Armenian oak is considered more intense than French oak because the humidity is lower. So, it requires less contact time with wine. It is a different and darker species of oak with tighter porosity and has spicy potential for wines. But it must be well prepared and dried for at least three years to avoid the taste of green tannins.”
The last stipulation—requisite aging—was neglected by many wineries in the past.
A cross section of modern Armenian winemakers, listed below, verbally highlight recent trends and changes in the country. Some showcase gargantuan efforts to transform biblical desert lands into fertile vineyards.
The Armavir Province is largest in terms of quantity of wine production in Armenia. It is also a center for producing brandy. Views to the south include the twin peaks of Mount Ararat in Turkey (Noah’s ark territory). Much of this arid, rocky, hardscrabble terrain is irrigated by concrete channels and divided by stone walls.
Within Armavir, Karas Wines is owned and managed by Armenian-Argentinian uncle and niece Eduardo Eurnekian and Juliana Del Aguila Eurnekian, who purchased almost nine square miles of land (2,300 hectares) fifteen years ago, and eventually transformed 1,000 acres (400 hectares) into vineyards after spending three years ameliorating the land (basically, removing rocks). They plant various international whites—including Chardonnay, Colombard and Viognier—as well as international and local reds such as Syrah, Areni and Khndoghni. Two large reservoirs irrigate not only 32 varieties of grapes (not all used to make wine), but also peaches, apricots, plums and walnuts. Syrah grows especially well here. Michel Rolland consults for the property.
Astghik Derdzyan of Karas spoke about producing wine in Armavir.
“From July to August the temperature here is 45 to 48 degrees Celsius (113 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit) without rain, so we utilize drip irrigation systems from Israel. But volcanic soils between Aragats and Ararat mountains give good structure to wines, even though the vines are young.”
Portions of Armevir, with patches of watermelons and views of dry, distant peaks, resemble scenes from the U.S. state of New Mexico. Here, 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of the Turkish border, Voskeni Wines sits on elevated chaparral off a dirt road. Dogs lie sunning on crunchy volcanic soils, cooled by refreshing winds. This is tough, though tranquil terrain.
This Mkrtchyan family owned business is increasingly run by the owner’s son Ararat and his sister Alina. Both returned from working in Moscow, where one consulted on finance and the other ran a fashion magazine. They explained that their forefather moved to Armenia from Boston in the 1920’s to set up a winery, but was suspected of being a spy and consequently had his land confiscated. In 2008, a family member provided documents showing they owned the property. But because going to court would be lengthy and cumbersome, the family instead purchased their own land back. Ararat’s father built a house and winery and each year guests visit their outdoor classical music concert. Their wines are made from indigenous grapes, many from vines up to 70 years old. Red grapes include Areni, Khndogni and Kakhet, while whites include Voskehat, Kangun, Khatun and Qrditchakat.
Ararat respects the history of their land.
“This is the site of a 1918 Turkish/Armenian battle, the day after Armenia declared independence. All the church bells in the region rang to rally the locals to fight.”
Further south and slightly east of Armevir, the Vayots Dzor Province includes the greatest quantity of Armenian wineries. This is where the Areni-1 cave complex is located, and historically was ground zero for planting Areni grapes. This is a land of errant cows, capped shepherds, trucks piled high with hay bales, concrete block restaurants and roadside stall vendors selling apples. Here rise tall peaks with toothy ridges abutted by sandy colored rock outcrops. This land has a sense of both wild desolation and humming peace within small valley villages, where rivers maintain lushness. The riverside road leading to Areni resembles portions of Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon—where rich riparian tamarisk grows below stone cliffs that hug roadsides.
Old Bridge Wine Cellar is named after a nearby 13th century bridge, and is located in the valley through which Marco Polo traveled. The owner Armen Khalatyan worked as a Soviet trained electronic engineer before he began growing vines two decades ago. Khalatyan uses only Caucasian oak and irrigates vines with open channel water flows. The biggest markets for his 16,000-bottle production (mostly red) are the U.S. and Switzerland. He spoke about wines in the region.
“It’s been about two years since our government started paying attention to winemakers, in comparison with Georgia—when 20 years ago winemaking was recognized as very important for the economy. We have good support from colleagues in France, Argentina, USA and Italy for presenting many master classes and workshops. The Areni grape does well in this region because of the soil composition—volcanic with rich minerality. We have three or four different clones and grow it from about 1,000 up to 1,800 meters (3,200 to 6,000 feet) elevation, at the village of Khachik.”
Zork Gharibian, owner of Zorah Wines, worked in the fashion industry in Milan, Italy, before deciding to make wine in Armenia. His two red wines are aged in amphorae and have been internationally pivotal in gaining the country renown for quality production.
“I’m not a quantity guy. We’re a boutique winery. Zorah is a passion, but I also have to think in a business way. The beginning was the year 2000 and the goal to make wine with native grapes, aged in amphorae, with international credentials. We’re now in 25 restaurants in Italy.
“This is the quintessential wine region—high and windy—and we never cover our grapes during winter. There’s a mixture of volcanic and sedimentary rock. Sand covers big stones covered by limestone—excellent drainage. Frost cuts our quantity, but helps provide quality. Areni is the king of red varieties in Armenia, and we don’t have phylloxera here, so there is no grafting. This country has a lot to stay, and we are just starting.”
Located within the hillside town of Areni and bought by the current owners in 2013, 80% of the 120,000-bottle production is made from Areni, with the balance made from white Voskehat grapes. All wines age for a minimum of 18 months in both Caucasian and Hungarian oak. Winemaker Vahe Harutyunyan told of specific factors impacting wine production, including 3,000 hours of sunlight a year, volcanic soils, elevations between about 4,300 and 4,600 feet (1,300 and 1,400 meters) and diurnal temperature variations of about 35 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).
On a wall inside this facility on the outskirts of Yerevan, a huge map identifies where different indigenous grapes grow. To create this map, Vahe Keushguerian—founder and CEO of Wine Works—immersed himself in the local wine culture. Born in Beirut and schooled in Armenia, he ran a restaurant in Berkeley, California, in 1985. Today he is aided by his daughter Aimee in running a consulting and winemaking business in Armenia. He is essentially a practical man.
“I’m not romantic. I don’t ever look back. I started in California 30 years ago, importing Italian and international wines, then moved to Tuscany and made wine. In 2009 I came back to Armenia with my wife and twins Aimee and Luca. Nobody in Armenia drank dry wines. Ladies drank sweet wine and guys chugged down vodka. And suddenly, in six months—interest increased, and all the dry wine was gone. I got this space and began experimenting with indigenous varieties. This region was making wine at least 2000 years before Western Europe.
“Areni wine was valued because it could survive transport to Sumeria. Today, Areni is ungrafted and unaffected by phylloxera. Limestone and volcanic soils are best for it because for phylloxera to spread you need clay, which cracks and lets the creatures travel underground. There are advantages to rootstock used in grafting—it adds consistency to yields. But ungrafted vines are cheaper and can grow for 120 years. Finding vines that old in Europe is difficult. The beauty is that these old vines just keep going down.
“Today, we’re carrying the torch of 6000 years that was almost extinguished during the Soviet era. We’re spreading the gospel.”
ArmAs Winery is located within the western Aragatsotn wine region. Victoria Aslanian is in her 30’s and spent 18 years living in the U.S. She received her MA in art history in Berkeley, her MBA in Moscow and studied a distance course on viticulture from the University of California, Davis. For a decade she has been CEO of this family owned winery which includes 440 acres (180 hectares) of land surrounded by a 10-mile (17 kilometer) stone wall. To avoid hail, the winery utilizes a Soviet developed gun that shoots propane gas into clouds to disperse them. Water and electricity outages pushed the winery to dig their own reservoirs and purchase generators.
“There was only rocks and snakes when my father first arrived here. No roads or electricity. We’re at the 45th parallel, which is good for growing grapes. We’ve planted 400,000 vines on 120 hectares (290 acres). It took 15,000 truckloads of 10 tonnes each to move the rocks we cleared. Herodotus spoke of the wine trade here, which is why we’re calling this a wine ‘renaissance.’ But fighting nature is like fighting god; he or she will always win.”
Frunzik Harutyunyan studied winemaking at a university in Yerevan and worked in France as an assistant winemaker at Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux as well as in Côte-Rôtie in the Rhone Valley and at Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy. His family winery utilizes indigenous Armenian grapes, as well as varieties such as Malbec.
“My father studied wine technology in Crimea. He and my mother were making wine in small glass containers in the basement. Today we produce 40,000 bottles and export to France, Russia and the Czech Republic. Our vines include one hectare (2.5 acres) with 200-year-old vines, which is high on a mountain and difficult to cultivate.”
Tasting Armenian Wines
Tasting notes for various Armenian wines are provided below.
The listed wines from the first eight wineries scored (subjectively) between 92 and 97 points on a 100-point scale.
Many wines below are evaluated for value as ‘good ♫,’ ‘excellent ♫♫,’ or ‘superlative ♫♫♫’ based on a proprietary Vino Value Algorithm. Prices are local retail equivalents in US dollars.
Karas Wines. Areni & Khndoghni. 2018. $15.00 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
First produced from the 2016 vintage and made without oak, this red is a real steak beggar—with acidic juiciness—and also well balanced and silky. On the nose—plums, licorice, blueberries. Outstanding.
Karas Wines. Reserve (red). 2014. $24.00 Local Price [Good Value ♫]
This low maceration wine was aged in French oak for 14 months and is a 40/25/25/10 blend of Syrah, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Brandy on the nose, as well as clover, tar and eucalyptus. In the mouth, this includes tastes of chocolate wafers, mint and oranges.
Voskeni Wines. Areni Dry Red. 2016. $8.50 Local Price [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Plenty going on here that exhibits the versatility of old vine Areni grapes—the nose includes aromas of plums, cherries, licorice, lime and blueberries. In the mouth—cumin meets cherries. Deeply rich and slightly peppery. Think Syrah meets vibrant Ökügözü wine from Turkey (which grapes—according to Voskeni winemaker Ghevond Petrosyan—also once grew in the Armenian highlands).
Voskeni Wines. Sardarapati Reserve. 2016. [Local Price and Value Scoring Unavailable]
Made from old vine Areni grapes growing behind the home of the owners in the Ararat Valley. This is aged two years in Caucasian oak and includes Burgundian, peppery, luscious aromas. This is a tightrope walker—light but still bold and full bodied. Pull out this bottle before a roaring fire after dinner with close friends at the base of mountains. A truly excellent and memorable wine.
Hin Areni Wine Factory. Voskehat Reserve Dry White. 2016. $23.00 Local Price [Value Scoring Unavailable]
A generous and open dose of glycerol aromas that include spearmint. This is gorgeously drinkable wine with tastes of mint and grapefruit. Impressive. 5,000 bottles produced per year.
Hin Areni Wine Factory. Areni Reserve Dry Red. 2016. $17.00 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
Violets, mocha and tar on the nose and a full swirling mouthful of sun-drenched fruit that will make you want to keep on drinking. A luscious wine that swims in the mouth. 10,000 bottles produced annually. Impressive.
Old Bridge Winery. Voskehat Dry White. 2018. $12.00 Local Price [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Aged in 350 liter Armenian barrels for 18 months, this includes beautiful delicate florals on the nose and aromas of honey, grapefruit and quince. In the mouth—shortbread and lime, toast and salt and gingerbread. Fresh and zesty with great structure and presence. This is a hefty, glorious wine. Outstanding value for this quality.
Old Bridge Winery. Areni Noir Reserve. 2017. $14.50 Local Price [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Black cherries, black currants, licorice, smoke, tar and dark raisins on the nose. In the mouth this is a cherry and spice delight—walnuts, hazelnuts, green apple skins, nutmeg and oranges. Aged for 18 months in Caucasian oak, this wine includes a spicy cherry energy that zips and buckles and satisfies.
Zorah. Voskì (white). 2017. [Local Price and Value Scoring Unavailable.]
Made from 100% Voskehat (which means, in Armenian, ‘golden drop’) this wine is aged one year in a concrete tank and has aromas of crushed gooseberries, flint, apple peel and lime. It tastes clean, lean and nutty and has ample minerality. The dominant quality of subtle tropical fruits is underlain by a quiet, almost smoky, nuttiness. A silky beauty.
Zorah. Yerez Old Vines (red). 2014. [Local Price and Value Scoring Unavailable.]
Made from old bush vines growing about a mile above sea level (1,600 meters), this is aged for two years in amphorae and large casks made from non-toasted French oak from the Allier forest. It includes aromas of cherries, black pepper and fresh chocolate brownies and tastes of a dash of Cayenne pepper blended with cherry liqueur chocolates. Silky acidity. This has the lightness of a Pinot Noir and is a creamy, velvety delight. A gorgeous wine.
WineWorks. Oshin Voskehat. 2017. $25.00 Local Price [Good Value ♫]
This 3-month barrel fermented wine includes aromas of vanilla and candy and butter and tastes creamy in the mouth. 3,000 bottles produced per year.
WineWorks. Zulal Areni/Syrah/Sireni. 2017. $14.99 Local Price [Superlative Value♫♫♫]
This 70/20/10 blend of Areni, Syrah and Sireni grown on volcanic soils includes aromas of black peppers and cranberries and in the mouth has a creamy taste of cherries. Delicious.
ArmAs. Karmahyut Reserve (red). 2014. $24.65 Local Price [Good Value ♫]
Made from the Karmahyut grape, which means ‘red juice’ and aged 24 months in both French and Caucasian oak. Aromas similar to that of a Barolo, with dried raisins and cedar. After five minutes in the glass this is as juicy as a watermelon, and includes tastes of oranges and brownies. This is a layer cake and a rodeo of flavor. Use a huge Burgundian glass for this one. Think Barolo merges with Brunello. Beautiful.
ArmAs. Kangun. 2013. $13.65 Local Price [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Aromas of juicy molasses and zested oranges as well as crushed mint leaves, pounded cloves, aniseed and ginger in this complex white from winemaker Emilio Del Medico. This is a holiday spice cake, a viscous river of complex end of year seasonal flavors. Beautiful.
Maran Winery. Noravank Areni Noir. 2018. $8.00 Local Price [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
This 100% Areni wine is made from estate grapes growing on high altitude volcanic soils and includes aromas of orange rind, dried figs, blackberries and cherries. It’s as silky as a well-made right bank Bordeaux blend and includes tastes of licorice and plums. Will remind drinkers of both Merlot and Pinot Noir. 14% alcohol. 15,000 bottles produced.
Maran Winery. Malahi (red). 2018. $10.50 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
The Areni grape was also called ‘Black Malahi’ until the name was changed in 1947. This 50/25/25 blend of Areni, Khndoghni and Malbec is made predominantly from old vines (only the Malbec vines are new) and includes aromas of truffles and black fruit while the taste is of gritty black licorice and dark plums. This has power and heft and is ready to pair with grilled steak. Think more Cahors than Bordeaux.
NOA Winery. Reserve (red). 2018. (90+ points) $30.00 Local Price [Value Scoring Unavailable]
Well made, energetic wine with a creamy cherry tasting smoothness.
Tus Wines. Lalvari Reserve (white). 2017. (90+ points) $26.25 Local Price [Good Value ♫]
This white, made from the indigenous Lalvari grape from the Tavush province of Armenia spends 18 months in new Caucasian oak and is beautifully smooth with a green spearmint nose and a brittle taste.
Yerevan Champagne Factory. Sparkling Pomegranate Wine. Non-Vintage. (90+ points) $4.20 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
This includes a dusty cedar aroma and a light and bright flush of fruit in the mouth.
Noya Tapan. White Wine (Rkatsiteli grape). 2018. (90+ points) $8.40 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
Stone fruit and lime on the nose and a mouthful that swims with peaches, pears, quince and hazelnuts.
Rikars. Davit Areni. 2017. (90+ points) $8.40 [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Co-founder Riccardo Gagliardi and assisting oenologist Silva Atoyan created this wine that aged for 14 months in Caucasian oak. The aromas include buckets of blackberries and juniper and the taste shouts of cherries.
B.H. Brandy Company. Berdashen Khindoghni red wine. 2017. (90+ points) $9.45 Local Price [Good Value ♫]
This spends six months in oak and has light cherry aromas and a taste of red currants and bright fruit.
Ijevan Wine and Brandy Factory. Sargon (red). (90+ points) $7.75 Local Price [Excellent Value ♫♫]
Made from Tigrani and Karmrahyut grapes, this includes a buckling fresh young nose and tastes that include oranges, nutmeg and cloves.
GN Winery. Van Cat Areni. 2018. (90+ points) [Local Price and Value Scoring unavailable]
Big Burgundian style aromas from this Areni red wine that include lavender and rose petals.
Agro Management—Alluria. The Special Red Natural Wine. 2018. (90+ points) $16.80 [Excellent Value ♫♫]
Made from the Khndoghni grape, this includes aromas of brick, mandarins and oxtail soup as well as butterscotch, chocolate and shortbread. In the mouth, a royal flush of Oreo cookies, aniseed and mandarins. As the winemaker says, it’s ‘wild and shiny.’
Jraghatspanyan Winery. Kangun White. 2018. (90+ points) $8.40 [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Jraghatspanyan means ‘miller’ in Armenian. This white wine is made from grapes that grow at 2,800 feet (850 meters) elevation by producers who have plied their craft since 2000. Serious floral aromas marching out here as well as a light aroma of mandarins. This is as light and intense as a Viognier. In the mouth—the taste of strawberry shortbread and lemon meringue. Wow!
Vayk Group Wines. Kars City Dry White. 2017. (90+ points) $10.50 [Good Value ♫]
This 100% Voskehat grape wine has wafting aromas, as though you were passing through a kitchen while both a cheese soufflé and a lemon meringue pie were in the oven cooking. Brandy and wildflower aromas also. In the mouth, an explosion of fresh white peaches and aniseed. Slightly tart, but unique.
Kataro by Domain. Siren Dry Red. 2015. (90+ points) $12.60 [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]
Made from the Sireni (Khndoghdni) grape, this has a whispy, alluring soft nose with brick and blackberries. This is a plush and rolling and easy to drink wine with tastes of orange rinds and star aniseed. This family production winery has operated since 1990 and now sells to the U.S. as well as to Europe and Russia.
Matevosyan Wine. Areni Dry Red. 2017. (90+ points) $5.25 [Excellent Value ♫♫]
Aromas of lime and rose petals. In the mouth the gentle taste of a light Pinot Noir and orange rinds.