For a listing of articles and videos on wines and wine travel in the Caucasus, check out our page Uncorking the Caucasus. To learn more about the wine grape varieties from the birthplace of wine, check out this article we wrote for Wine Folly.
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The Caucasus region is a geographical area that surrounds the mountain range of the same name. The region consists of the countries Georgia, Armenia, eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia and Iran. It is a mountainous region with most of its land situated on the Anatolian and Armenian plateaus. The northern border of the region is the Greater Caucasus range, which are the highest mountains in Europe. The Black Sea and Caspian Sea serve as the western and eastern borders of the region respectively. The southern reaches of the region are made up of southeastern Turkey and northern Iran.
The borders of all these countries, especially Armenia, have shifted throughout human history; but somewhere in what is present-day Armenia, Georgia, eastern Turkey, and northern Iran, mankind planted a new chapter in history.
The History of Wine
Many people think of the classic Vitis vinifera wine grape varieties as Western European, but Vitis vinifera’s origin lies in the Caucasus, where Europe and Asia intersect and where ancient trade routes traversed the mountains between the Black Sea and Persia. Within the Caucasus region, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Georgia all have archaeological evidence that supports their claims of being the birthplace of wine.
Referencing Karen MacNeil’s magnum opus The Wine Bible, Dr Jose Vouillamoz and Dr Patrick McGovern published a research in 2012 stating that the people in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) grew and harvested grapes as far back as 8000 B.C. This evidence goes hand in hand with the Bible, which says that Noah landed his ark somewhere in what is believed to be modern eastern Turkey. It was there that Noah allegedly planted the first vine and passed out from intoxication. It is possible that all the species of Vitis vinifera can trace their roots back to that area.
Archaeology, the publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, printed an article in the late 1990s stating that clay pots with traces of wine residue that date back to about 5000 B.C. were found in the Zagros Mountain range in Iran. Those shards of pottery were discovered in a Neolithic mountain village named Hajji Firuz Tepe. Today, this area of northwestern Iran borders southeastern Turkey and southern Armenia.
Just north of Hajji Firuz Tepe, at the Areni-1 cave complex in the Vayots Dzor region of Armenia, the oldest large-scale wine production in the world was unearthed. It was also at the same site that the world’s oldest leather shoe was found. Scientists believe that the cave complex is around 6,100 years old, putting its functional existence between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C. When we traveled through Vayots Dzor, the Areni-1 cave complex was closed to the public. We were lucky to have a glimpse into the complex with the help of a local winemaker. More on this in the Armenia chapter of our book Uncorking The Caucasus.
In our opinion, the Georgians are the most adamant about their country being the birthplace of wine. A source supports the claim with the discovery of wine residue found inside clay jars, in Shulaveri, Georgia. Dr Patrick McGovern (the same professor from the Anatolia’s finding) believes that those jars date back to 6000 B.C.
Based on these findings: on a map, if we draw a line from Shulaveri in the Kartli region of Georgia southeast to Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran, it would be approximately 500 kilometers and the line would pass by Vayots Dzor and Areni-1 in Armenia. We can then draw a straight line almost 600 kilometers northwest from Iran to the eastern part of Anatolia—around Elaziğ, Turkey—where some scientists believe wine grapes could have originated. From there, draw another line nearly 600 kilometers northeast back to Kartli, Georgia. This would make an almost equilateral triangle connecting the four places where the earliest remnants of winemaking have been discovered thus far, with Mount Ararat*—the speculated resting place of Noah’s ark—sitting somewhere near the middle.
(*Some scholars argue that the biblical “mountains of Ararat” does not specifically refer to Mount Ararat.)
Within this triangle lie three modern-day countries. However, the controversy that comes with making a claim of being the first country to produce wine is that the countries’ borders have been fluid between antiquity and now. Not to mention the tenuous relationships between the countries, especially Turkey and Armenia, are likely to conceal the fact further. This volatile relationship was palpable when we traveled through the Caucasus. Add that to the humorous rivalry between Georgia and Armenia and it’d lead to some heated discussions about wine. To complicate things further, wine goes so far back that its roots lie in prerecorded human history; recorded human history begins between 4000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. which falls after the evidence of early winemaking of 8000 B.C. to 4100 B.C.
Wine production started before the bureaucracy of international borders; therefore, the interpretation of the birthplace of wine is debatable but not winnable. What is indisputable is that based on archeological findings to date, the Caucasus is considered the cradle of wine. The people from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia are sure to let us know that. Each country has its own tale that has been passed down from generation to generation. Each story is being told with so much passion and conviction. Perhaps there’s no need to assume that wine has a singular and an exclusive origin.
The countries in the Caucasus all boast a mountainous climate with breathtaking vistas. Unfortunately, they are shrouded in the shadows of historical enemies that still, in the modern times, sporadically create barriers to trade. This geopolitical strife continues to undermine the developments of commerce and innovation, including that of wine.
The wine regions of the Caucasus may not have the international reputation of the likes of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Tuscany. In this part of the world, you won’t find many nice cellars, sophisticated tasting rooms, and elegant chateaus, but what it offers is something more profound and educational—the ancient history and culture of wine from the perspective of each country, intertwined with modern society, politics, and human aspiration. This collection of unique perspectives is a legacy that must not be ignored or eclipsed by fancy, fine wines.
Some of the wines mentioned in Uncorking The Caucasus can be challenging to assess. It is surprisingly difficult to decide how much we like something when the experience is so different from what we normally encounter. But whether we, or you, end up liking the wines from the Caucasus or not, the pertinent point is that the world of wine would be poorer without them and their intrinsic stories. The wines of the Caucasus bring diversity to the world stage. The wines are inspired by a sense of place, history, culture, and philosophy. We truly respect the winemakers from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, who are willing to venture into the unchartered zones and risk their effort by bringing us something that hasn’t been approved by the mainstream.