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It’s been over a year since we made our first trip to Armenia for Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. In 2015, we spent one month in the country tasting wines and meeting with producers. In 2016, we returned for a second visit and had the entire plan scheduled around the harvest festival in Areni. After the festival, we decided to set aside another six weeks in Armenia to promote our book, taste the new vintages of wines, and check out the up-and-comers that have popped up between the two trips. Before we commenced the heavy lifting, two of our friends from Hong Kong came to Armenia to meet us. Four of us rented a 4×4 and drove through what seemed like every last inch of Armenia. The journey took us into the deep southeast including the disputed territory of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, and finally up to the highlands of the Lake Sevan region before we returned to Yerevan. After a week of roving through the country for leisure, it was back to work.
We've been on a road trip all around Armenia. Here's a quick capture of some highlights. As it is with any form of tourism, wine travel doesn't concern merely the quality of the wine; the food, culture, nature, festivals, and intrinsic stories all form parts of the experience. To us, we truly believe that Armenia and the Caucasus at large offer many compelling reasons for wine enthusiasts, history buffs, adventurers, and the intellectually curious to visit. #UncorkingTheCaucasus
10 Developments in the Armenia’s Wine Industry
1. A concerted effort to develop Vayots Dzor as an enotourism hotspot. On our first week in Armenia, we attended a few harvest events held in the Vayots Dzor region. For the seventh year, these events were organized by the Areni Wine Festival Foundation. It seemed as if all the people from the area had turned up at the event. Children were singing and young adults were dancing. The colors of the stalls and traditional costumes painted the village in technicolor. The aromas of barbecued meat filled the air. The sound of traditional instruments such as the dhol, duduk, oud, and qanon magnified the festivities.
The Areni Harvest Festival offers an ideal platform to promote Armenia’s history and culture, showcase the local wines, and stimulate the development of rural tourism. While the festival is billed as a wine event, not only will visitors have the opportunity to taste the commercial wines, they will also enjoy other choices such as homemade wine (okay… you won’t really enjoy this), fruit vodka, local produce, and traditional dishes.
Most of the festivities are held in the Rind and Areni villages. Both villages are located at around 1,000 meters in elevation and set amid a backdrop of higher mountains. Two historical landmarks, the Noravank Monastery and Arpa River, are within a short driving distance from the villages.
Vayots Dzor is the most famous wine region in Armenia and a place steeped in wine history and tradition. Just a few kilometers from the village of Areni is the Areni Cave Complex, which dates back to 4100 BC and is touted to be the oldest winery in the world. This region also contains some of the oldest vineyards in Armenia and is home to the cultivar Areni, which is named after the village.
With all these unique selling propositions, several groups are capitalizing on Vayots Dzor to stimulate tourism. A long-term development plan is currently in place and the initiatives include the creation of a wine route, stakeholder coordination, destination branding, and capacity building of providers.
2. Aligning enotourism with ecotourism. The terms “enotourism” and wine tourism” may be used interchangeably. Enotourism can also be considered a component of gastronomy tourism and ecotourism. And Armenia is the perfect candidate to develop these different facets of tourism.
Located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Armenia is home to beautiful landscapes and rich biodiversity. Many organizations—from governmental, to non-profit, and private—are cognizant of Armenia’s potential as a travel destination and aim to develop the various tourism touchpoints with economical sustainability and cultural vitality in mind.
The most significant project happening right now is My Armenia. Funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution, according to its website:
“My Armenia harnesses the power of storytelling to strengthen cultural heritage sustainability through community-based tourism development. This collaborative project between the people of Armenia, the Smithsonian, and USAID will unfold over the next four years.”
Wine tourism is a key product under My Armenia’s project and the project team is spearheading the development of Vayots Dzor as an enotourism hotspot. Other notable initiatives related to enotourism, gastronomy tourism, and ecotourism include:
– The Ministry of Agriculture has set up the Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia to help with the development of Armenia’s wine industry.
– An NGO called Development and Preservation of Armenian Culinary Traditions is organizing three gastronomy festivals in 2017.
– A few social enterprises and private companies are in the infancy stage of creating tours, treks, and facilities in the rural areas of Armenia. The Ministry of Nature Protection has also recently assembled a team to work on ecotourism.
3. The intention to make wine into a democratic product. We believe that the baseline of Armenian wine is relatively high. With over 30 wineries, it is surprisingly easy to find a satisfying wine in Armenia, which is not something we can say about many other countries. As for fine wine, a few may stand a good chance to win at international competitions, but the range of Armenian fine wine still needs work.
What’s impressive about the current selection of Armenian wines is that there’s a good mix of big producers who have the resources and scalability to make affordable wine, and there are the artisanal producers who are single-mindedly experimenting with native grapes and terroir. Even among the bigger producers, there are the entry-level bottling and the premium bottling to suit different palates, expectations, and budgets. Armenia Wine Company, Karas, and Voskevaz are some of the biggest wineries in the country. All three offer high-level wine and also, serviceable wine that can cost as little as USD5 at cellar price.
The caveat is that in terms of the quality of the entry-level wine, a few producers admit that much improvement is required to achieve a fail-proof quality-price ratio, and we agree. There needs to be a segment of well-made, affordable wines to attract the general public. Bear in mind that Armenia’s GDP per capita is USD3,500. As a reference point: in Croatia, a country with a GDP per capita of USD11,537, the premium wines are priced up to around €150/.75-litre bottle, while a decent bag-in-a-box can be found at under €3/liter.
The wine culture of Armenia was lost during the Soviet period and much work is needed now to reacquire it. The idea of “bringing wine to people” (having wine events in the city) instead of “people going to wine” (having people to travel to wineries) is a practical approach to catapult wine education. As it seems, some wineries agree with this way of promoting their own wines and nurturing wine- drinking and appreciation behaviors too. Both Voskevaz and Maran wineries have set up wine bars in town, called Voskevaz Wine Time and Enoteca EVN respectively.
4. The potential for growth in wine exports. During the Soviet times, Armenia, unlike Georgia, was perceived as a brandy-producing country instead of wine. The legacy of the Soviet continued to be felt in Armenia today. As reported by several local new agencies, Armenian wine exports saw 20 to 30 percent increment in 2016. However, to put things in perspective: Armenia exports about 2 million bottles of wine per year, while the neighboring Georgia exports close to 50 million bottles.
The challenge is that up until now, Armenia does not have the resources for the production of cheap wines (CIF: <$2 per bottle), which are in the greatest demand in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. However, the country is looking beyond the Eurasian Economic Union and good-quality Armenian wines can now be found in several European countries including Belgium, France, Italy, and Netherlands, and also lucrative wine markets, such as China and USA.
We believe that there’s no strategy in or urgency for Armenia to go into the low-price and high-volume red ocean; instead, opt for brand building and sustainable development through the export of wine that adequately represents Armenia’s unique terroir and background story. A quick search on the internet shows the delicious and polished Karas Red Wine is going at USD$13 in the United States, and the prime example of the native Areni grape Zorah Karasi can be found at under £20 in the United Kingdom.
5. International press and awareness. In the past year, Armenian wine has been garnering significant attention from the international press, thanks to a few individuals and organizations. Julia Harding of JancisRobinson.com wrote a tasting article after visiting Zorah Winery in September 2016. Miquel Hudin, who runs a wine blog called Wine on VI, wrote a concise introduction to Armenian wines. The magazine Saveur published a multi-page spread dedicated to wine and travel in Armenia. And most recently, The Vine & Wine Foundation sponsored a group of international bloggers on a tasting visit. Most of those who were invited have already blogged about their experiences with Armenian wines.
Media coverage aside, Armenian wine companies are also making great strides in gaining industry recognition. Just last month, 19 Armenian wine producers participated in the 2017 Mundus Vini Grand International Wine Awards. Among the 58 wines presented, 23 of them received a medal. This outstanding result was reported on the Mundus Vini’s website:
“At the 20th anniversary event of MUNDUS VINI, which is regarded all over the world as one of the leading competitions for sparkling, still and liqueur wines, wines from abroad also received 275 medals, while those of less well-known origins such as Armenia, Mexico, Russia or China appealed for their excellent qualities.”
6. Going organic, going karas. Armenia is located at the intersection of the European and Arabian tectonic plates. As a result, the country experiences frequent seismic activities, which bring along volcanic soil that is great for viticulture. Armenia’s high altitude and extreme continental climate make for a truly special environment for grape cultivation. The intensely hot summers and biting cold winters give the grapes bold characteristics and high acidity. The highlands produce a range of microclimates. This high elevation also breeds a high concentration of polyphenols in the grapes, which may help to prevent degenerative diseases. With these climatic, geographical, geological uniqueness from nature, many wine producers are already creating wine through sustainable farming and minimal intervention in the winery. And now with additional governmental support, some of these wineries are on the way to becoming certified-organic in the coming years, with Trinity Canyon Vineyards currently in the lead.
The usage of clay vessels is another movement in wine production that we’ve observed. In 2015, when we first visited Armenia, only Zorah winery was working with karas (Armenian clay vessels). By 2016, Voskevaz had launched its first vintage of premium bottling called Karasi Collection. There are currently two other producers who are experimenting with karas and concrete vats.
7. An influx of winemaking talent. Armenia is home to one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world. Add that to the unique grape-growing conditions, it is easy to understand why many winemakers aspire to make wine here. Assisted by the outreach efforts of Vahe Keushguerian from Semina Consulting, an influx of winemaking talent has gone hand in hand with the country’s new chapter in wine. Vahe is currently working with French oenologist, Michelle Rolland, on the Karas wines. Another superstar winemaker Paul Hobbs—who was previously with Robert Mondavi, Opus One, and Simi—has also started a project in Armenia. Other foreign talents that are working with the Armenian grapes include:
– Alberto Antonini (Zorah winery)
– Emilio del Medico (ArmAs winery)
– Jean-Baptiste Soula (Armenia Wine Company)
– Jean-Luc Isnard (Trinity Canyon Vineyards)
Last year, we were also thrilled to discover a new winery created by a French-Armenian partnership. The winery is called Qotot (translates to “little bear”) and is making a white wine from the Voskehat grapes, and a rosé and red from the Areni grapes. The winemaker Didier Cornillon used to make wine in France, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
8. The grape Voskehat continues to scale new heights. In Armenia, the flagship red wine grape is Areni and flagship white is Voskehat. Voskehat is also blended with Kangoun and several other grapes to make the famous Armenian brandy that Winston Churchill loved dearly. The grape Voskehat was favored during Soviet times because of its resistance to the cold and fungus. It was used to make “sherry-type” wines that were beloved by the old USSR.
When we did our preliminary research trip through Armenia in 2015, almost every winery was already making a white wine with Voskehat. However, there were less than a handful that we liked. At that time, many of the Voskehat-based wines were overpowered by earthy flavors, with little fruit characteristic, and has low acidity/high ph.
What a difference one year of experience makes! The newest vintage of Voskehat wines is impressive, with mineral and stone fruit flavors, held together by higher acidity. The abundance of volcanic soil throughout the country adds a certain minerality to many Armenian wines but this shines through in the whites made from Voskehat. Last year, we were ready to dismiss the variety but this vintage has given us a surge of confidence that Voskehat can make great white wine.
9. Indigenous grapes continue to show up. In addition to Voskehat, there are efforts underway to revive other indigenous varieties as well. During our last trip, we saw many new, monovarietal wines made from the red wine grapes Tigrani, Tozot, and Haghtanak. Of the three grapes, Haghtanak, which translates to “victory”, was the most impressive. Based on the small sample size we tried, Haghtanak wine tends to be rich, dense, and beautifully structured. In a few years, we believe that Haghtanak may make Armenian wines that can be just as impressive as those made from Areni. Keep a lookout for the varietal Haghtanak wines made by Zara winery and Voskevaz winery.
Throughout the world, there’s a growing demand for obscure varieties that offer different flavor profiles and challenge the palate. While there’s no promise of commercial success for all the Armenian grape varieties, only trials and tribulations will show us the right path.
10. New wine bars and restaurants. The capital city Yerevan is the best place to explore wine in Armenia. Outside of Yerevan and the wineries, it’s a challenge to find an exciting bottle and have it served in a civilized manner. A different challenge remains in Yerevan as it is difficult to find non-smoking establishments—just like in Tbilisi, Georgia. We saw at least five new wine bars this year and unfortunately, many of them allowed smoking so we didn’t patronize them. But hooray, a good news: we were told that a developer is working on a mobile app that identifies non-smoking places in Yerevan.
Our three favorite places to enjoy wine are In Vino EVN, Wine Republic, and Anoush Restaurant. These three places offer similar wine lists but vastly different experiences.
In Vino is a quintessential wine bar for day drinking with lots of natural light, cafe-like interior, and compact selection of cold cuts and cheeses. Of course, not limited to the day, this place is open till late and ready for your long wine-out with friends. In Vino boasts the biggest selection of Armenian and international wines out of the three.
Wine Republic is a place to spend an evening over wine and dinner (open for lunch too). It is an in-between of a bar and restaurant with a good selection of local and international wines, a full course menu, and a casual-chic ambiance. Many winemakers frequent this place. Our food recommendations: bruschetta, mushroom cream soup, french onion soup, foie gras, and beef bourguignon. The management of Wine Republic has recently opened a Pan-Asian restaurant called Thai Wine Republic and it’s located right next to Wine Republic.
Finding a restaurant to enjoy local food and wine without smoke is like wondering when to open the last bottle of your priced Barolo. Agonizing, and the outcome is just never quite right. This is why Anoush really shines. It is located in the Republica Hotel and makes a great alternative to the reputable, high-end Dolmama restaurant. Anoush’s menu is exciting and offers many Armenian dishes that can’t be found anywhere else. Do try the grilled eggplants, salt-crusted fish, as well as the traditional dessert made from pistachios and mascarpone cheese. The wine list here is humble but enough to show you a good time.
We liked all three places so much that we did one book launch at each venue.
Conclusion: Creating A Narrative for the Future
Vahe Keushguerian, founder of Semina Consulting, is a dear friend of ours. He was instrumental in helping us put together the “Armenia” chapter of our book. As we were chatting one evening, Vahe shared that he believes Armenia would be able to produce three world-class wines within the next 10 years. By world-class, we mean a wine that we can enjoy every night over dinner, but would rather take it out of the cellar once a year after a period of aging. By world-class, we mean a wine that will no doubt do well at competitions. A wine with balance, structure, depth, length, and aging potential. Looking at the rate of improvement between 2015 and now, we agree with him.
Armenia’s winemaking culture has endured the test of time for good reasons. It has the right climate and soil characteristics that suit wine grape production. The modern Armenian wine industry is weaved by modern accessibility, historic connection, craftsmanship, practicality, and business acumen. But it will be the spirit and vision of the Armenian people that will ultimately drive its industry forward.
Our Interview in Armenia
In November, we were invited to join news anchor Roubina Margossian for a segment on CivilNet TV Armenia. In this interview, we shared the many background stories of our book including its genesis, our travel experience in Armenia, and anecdotes about the history of wine. CivilNet TV is headquartered in Yerevan, Armenia and is dedicated to bringing relevant, credible news to the region. When we enquire about the positioning of CivilNet, a staff said,”Like CNN, but more credible.” The news channel also models after a new movement of journalism—with livestreaming and on-demand coverage about Armenia and the Caucasus. We’ve enjoyed many of the videos on their website and are humbled to be featured.