Armenia may be the birthplace of wine, but everything old is new again: the country is experiencing a long-overdue winemaking renaissance, The Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw says in a fresh article.
The greater region of the Caucasus, the area between the Black and Caspian seas, is the cradle of vitis vinifera, the grape species used in winemaking. According to Vahe Keushguerian, referred to by some as the godfather of modern Armenian wine, genetic markers show that all vinifera is from this region.
In 2007, an archeological site was discovered in Armenia that is known as the Areni-1 winery. It is considered the world’s oldest, dating back to before 4000 BC. While older clay pots have been found in the region, this was a functioning winery with winemaking tools including clay amphoras. Genetic dating of fossilized plant material identified one of the grapes used as areni, present-day Armenia’s most important red grape variety.
Armenians have an immense pride in the role their ancestors played in the early history of wine. Throughout the region’s history, they have grown grapes and made wine, though not without challenges.
According to Frunz Harutyunyan, deputy director of the Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia, the golden age of Armenian winemaking was 500 BC to AD 500. After the 13th century, things became tougher, as Armenians lived under different, mostly Muslim empires. Winemaking returned in 1828 when the region was taken over by the Russian Empire. “In many ways,” said Harutyunyan, “this saved Armenia’s winemaking.”
Aside from wine, brandy-making developed, as did fortified wines. In 1918, following the Russian Revolution, Armenia became an independent state, though by 1922 it was incorporated into the U.S.S.R. In the planned economies of the Soviet Union, Armenia was designated a brandy producer, while its northern neighbour, Georgia, was to produce the wine.
Over that time, much of Armenia’s 300 or so indigenous grapes were put aside, largely in favour of new grape crossings designed by the Soviets for growing in big quantities, to make wine for distillation. With this came a decline in local wine consumption.
Things did not improve as the Soviet Union crumbled. Armenia declared independence in 1991, but was at war with neighbouring Azerbaijan — a conflict that still rumbles today. The next 10 to 15 years were tough, as the country climbed out of poverty.
"So if you have never heard of Armenian wine, it’s because arguably the world’s oldest wine culture is also one of today’s youngest. I spent a week touring the country’s vineyards and drinking in wine bars and restaurants in the capital of Yerevan. Most Armenians I talked with describe the present period as a renaissance for Armenian wine — and, after 700 years, one that is long overdue," the author says.
"What Armenia has going for it, unlike many new countries, is a wealth of indigenous grape varieties, volcanic and limestone soils, and many high-altitude vineyards, which allow for growing high-quality wine grapes. The country has the potential to carve out even more of a unique niche for itself in the wine world. What are these wines, and what challenges lie ahead? Those are unique as well, and I’ll write about them next week."