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Armenia looks back on thousands of years of wine history, yet for most wine lovers it is a blank spot on the map. Yet there are a number of young winemakers, autochthonous grape varieties and exciting wines to discover. Anna Burghardt immersed herself in Armenian wine culture.

300 days of sunshine per year, 80 percent mountains, about 17,000 hectares of vineyards and far more than 400 grape varieties: these are impressive figures that give a rough idea of Armenia's wine culture. Probably more important for the self-confidence of the small Caucasus state, which borders Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan, however, are the following facts: In 2007, archaeologists found evidence of an approximately 6,000-year-old wine culture in the Areni Cave, not far from the important Noravank Monastery in the Arpat Valley. A wine press, clay fermentation and drinking vessels as well as grape seeds were excavated here. Armenia is thus now considered one of the oldest wine countries in the world.

Spirit of optimism in the wine industry

In der Areni-Höhle wurden Zeugnisse der 6.100 Jahre alten armenischen Weinkultur gefunden. Evidence of the 6,100-year-old Armenian wine culture was found in the Areni Cave.

The wine industry there, on the other hand, an interplay of quality striving, sales and marketing, is conceivably young. During the Soviet regime, Georgia was considered the wine country par excellence - the country on the Black Sea was called "the Soviet Tuscany" - and Georgian wines have long since taken their place internationally. Armenia, however, had been assigned the role of brandy producer after the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922. The winegrowers were to concentrate on cultivating those varieties that were particularly suitable for the production of brandy, including Garan Dmak and Kangun. No attention was paid to ageing, storage and other categories.

In the meantime, Armenia is determined to attract international attention. The Vine and Wine Foundation, founded in 2016, sees itself as a driving force: it wants to make the most important autochthonous varieties such as Areni, Haghtanak, Tozot and Voskeat known abroad, work towards more ecological awareness among winemakers, place Armenian wines on the menus of top international restaurants and boost wine tourism in the country's five wine regions. Soon there will even be a German online shop exclusively for Armenian wines, the warehouse for which is located in Berlin.

Tailwind from abroad

Die Weinberge der Old Bridge Winery liegen auf rund 1.300 Metern Höhe.The vineyards of Old Bridge Winery are located at an altitude of around 1,300 metres.

What also gives the industry a tailwind are impulses from abroad. Many emigrants returned to their old homeland after successful decades in Europe and overseas and invested in new wineries. French barrel makers are tutoring their Armenian colleagues - jointly financed by some winegrowers who then use these Caucasian barrels. American Veronica Joy Rogov's involvement is also noteworthy: she was part of a sensational gastro pop-up at the Tsaghkunk restaurant in a rural investor-development region, where Danish Noma veteran Mads Refslund dove deep into Armenian cooking culture. Together with the director of the Armenian Food Lab, he explored the wilderness for ingredients and built a network of producers. Rogov, trained in several starred American restaurants, was tasked with gathering the best and most interesting wines of Armenia to accompany his temporary menu around duck foot kebab, dried flower crab soup and lavash ice cream. A difficult task, as Rogov recounts: "The networking of the winemakers is moderately developed, I had to laboriously shimmy my way forward via recommendations partly from foreign colleagues and the winemakers themselves."

In addition, natural wines, which are particularly important to the team of this restaurant, have not been a big issue in Armenia so far. The fixed starter on the list in the Tsaghkunk restaurant is therefore the neo-vintner Aaron Sedrick Rawlins, a former chef from the USA, who today produces high-class natural wines from autochthonous grape varieties in Armenia. According to Veronica Joy Rogov, the sparkling wines of Keush are also of international calibre - "exclusively from local grape varieties and from vineyards at an altitude of 1,750 metres". The Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut of the father-daughter team Keush, for example, consists of Voskeat and Khatouni, the Extra Brut Rosé of 100 percent Areni grapes.

Cult variety with star potential

Bei Trinity Canyon Vineyards setzt man auf naturnahe Weinproduktion. Links Besitzer Hovakim Saghatelian, rechts der verantwortliche Winzer Artem Parsegian.At Trinity Canyon Vineyards, wine production is close to nature. On the left, owner Hovakim Saghatelian, on the right, the responsible winemaker Artem Parsegian.

Incidentally, there is no getting around the keyword Areni when it comes to Armenian wine. It is considered the star among the grape varieties. "Comparable to Pinot Noir, only more colourful," is how Varuzhan Mouradian, owner of the Van Ardi winery in the province of Aragazotn in western Armenia, not far from the capital Yerevan, describes it. Areni deserves to be listed as one of the noble grape varieties (cépages nobles), he says. Mouradian is one of those entrepreneurs who made money abroad and returned to Armenia, in his case with his wife and four children. His vineyards are located at an altitude of over 1,000 metres and were planted on fallow volcanic soil. Due to the location, they enjoy warm days and cool nights and are farmed organically. From a specially built bell tower, one has a view of Ararat, the cult mountain of the Armenians, even though it is now on Turkish soil. The vines listen to jazz here and spiritual songs on Sundays, and the production hall is flooded with quiet music every day. "Music has an effect on water movements, and water is abundant in the grapes," Mouradian says with conviction. Not far from Van Ardi, another winery with an attached museum presents itself more as a tourist destination: at Armenia Wine, they have built a monument to the vines with terracotta-coloured monumental architecture that is visible from afar.

Amphora wines and sweet sausages

Ein Weingut mit monumentaler Architektur als Ausflugsziel: Armenia Wines.A winery with monumental architecture as an excursion destination: Armenia Wines.

Quite different is the idiosyncratic winery Trinity Canyon Vineyards in the province of Wajoz Dsor in the south of the country. Here, work is partly biodynamic and Orange Wines are produced. The white grape variety Voskeat, which is typical for the region, is used for maceration, which is not so common in Armenia as in Georgia. The grapes for the "Voskeat Ancestors" lie on the mash for five months in karas, the Armenian amphorae. Besides animal aromas, incense notes are clearly discernible. The "Areni Ancestors" 2018 is vinified from Areni grapes from hundred-year-old vines growing at an altitude of 1,450 metres.

This wine was also fermented in caras buried in the soil. Its aroma profile with black berries and peppery notes is similar to a good Gamay, says the oenologist in charge, Artem Parsegian, who studied in Montpellier and Geisenheim. What makes a visit to Trinity Canyon Vineyards so special, apart from the eccentric personality of the owner Hovakim Saghatelian and the expressive wines, is the quality of the food served for the tasting: the sweet sausages made from walnuts and thickened grape juice, which are ubiquitous in Armenia, are made here themselves without additives such as preserving sugar. The dark, pumpernickel-like bread comes from their own oven, and the beef preserved in clarified butter is also homemade. The winery also owns the wine bar In Vino in Yerevan, which claims to be the only wine bar in the country that stocks a large selection of Armenian wines in addition to Italian, Austrian and other bottles.

A new wine culture is emerging

Varuzhan Mouradian hat nach Jahrzehnten in Kalifornien das Weingut Van Ardi gegründet.Varuzhan Mouradian founded the Van Ardi winery after decades in California.

Part of Armenia's identity today is not least the reclamation of land on which wine has never grown before.

Van Ardi is not the only one who can sing a song about this, but also the family winery Old Bridge Vinery in Jeghegnadzor, also in the southern province of Vayoz Dzor.

Since 1998, they have been growing wine there on the right bank of the Arpa River at an altitude of around 1,300 metres, mainly the grape varieties Areni, Voskeat and Kakhet. The soil: sandy, stony, desert-like. Like Armenian wine culture, it has been literally revived.

Anna Burghardt is a food journalist in Vienna. She is deputy editor-in-chief of the "Schaufenster" magazine of the daily newspaper "Die Presse" and also writes for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" and "A la Carte".
All photos © David Egui

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