Noah the arkwright was a pioneering vigneron – and a cool-climate specialist. When the floods receded, he planted vines on the slopes of Mt Ararat, made wine and fell down drunk, sprawled and naked. So began more than 6,000 years of winemaking in what is now known as Armenia and eastern Turkey. One small (mis-)step, one giant leap.
More recently, legend has collided with archaeology. In 2007, in a cave near Mt Ararat, traces of grape juice, seeds and stems were found in a large vat that held clay jars (karas). Analysis revealed the malvidin compound that gives red wine its colour. This is the earliest known winery in the world. The grape strain there – named ‘areni’ after the region in which it was found – is a native variety with no known ancestors: it’s grape zero for the area.
And now a few trailblazers are bringing those Armenian strains back to life. Unlike the uninterrupted history of neighbouring Georgia, Armenia’s winemaking has waxed and waned over the millennia. It’s only in the 30 years or so since freedom from Soviet rule that it has truly reclaimed its ancient traditions.
Vahe Keushguerian is the latter-day Noah of Armenian vignerons. Over the past decade or so, he has identified numerous ancient indigenous varieties, and set up multiple nurseries to revive and propagate them throughout the country’s fledgling wine industry. He has also co-founded the country’s first wine academy, consulting with start-up wineries. In fact, there aren’t many wine projects in Armenia that don’t bear his hand.
Keushguerian makes his own wines, too, experimenting successfully with his beloved local varieties: Areni (a thick-skinned purple-black red grape from the south Vayots Dzor region in the elevated volcanic soils of the Mt Ararat surrounds); Koghbeni (a moderately tannic red grape from the north-eastern Tavush region, on the border with Azerbaijan and scene of recent conflict); Voskehat (an intense, aromatic “golden” grape); and chilar (a sunny-coloured, juicy aromatic grape). Both these white varieties are indigenous to the western Aragatsotn region.
Despite the fact many varieties may be lost forever, there are still more varieties to rediscover. As Keushguerian’s daughter Aimee notes (she has recently taken over as wine manager): “We are sitting on a gem that we have not yet fully discovered … we represent the ‘historic world’. Which still needs to be defined.”
It’s a definition the locals are also keen to refine. A number of resident vignerons are planting hectares of new indigenous species, with a focus on higher density rows and selected clonal varieties. These grapes include kakhet (an indigo-coloured, late-ripening grape, rich in tannins), garandmak (a hardy, green-yellow grape – and curiously meaning “fat lamb tail”), karmir koteni (meaning “red foot”, an intense black-red grape) and tozot (“dusty”, a rare black tannic grape).
These varieties are the ancestral links to the classic Old-World grapes we know today. And they are revealing exceptional potential to make quality wines that are true to their location.
Keushguerian views this vinous purism as what the discerning wine market is seeking more and more – “wines true to their locale”. This is why he and Aimee founded the Zulal (“pure”) label (
facebook.com/zulalwines); it’s a way to “research and micro-vinify grape varieties that no one has done before”. The duo selects those varieties that they regard as exceptional, going “through rows and rows of abandoned vineyards, genetically identifying and picking out enough grapes to fill a tank”.
One of those is the Koghbeni red grape. It heralds from the Koghb village and surrounds in the north-eastern Tavush border region with Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the border village of Koghb no longer makes wine – the vineyards were a casualty of the conflict in 2020. Other villages are attempting to keep the tradition alive, although not without hardships. Last year following the latest fighting with Azeri military, more vineyards, harvests and even varieties were lost – including the Sereni grape, which was indigenous to this border region. The wineries and vineyards in which it grew are now on newly claimed Azerbaijan land. Keushguerian’s nursery of local varieties sits precariously in this area, yet he and his daughter have continued on, supporting local varieties and projects, bringing renewed vigour to this historic winemaking region.
Their 2018 Zulal Areni is testament to their enterprise and perseverance in the face of extreme growing conditions. Made from the indigenous areni grape, on opening, the wine reveals delicate floral and red berry aromas. Light, spicy pepper-berry mouthfeel, with a refreshing dry finish. Cork closure. Alc: 13.5%. Drink: 2020-2025. Take it along on a lazy Sunday afternoon picnic. It’s also good with spiced lamb kebabs, Armenia-style kyufta (kofta) or ishkhan (trout) au vin.
Zulal is experimenting with Caucasian oak in their winery. While it is very different to French and American oak, they have found it pairs well with local varieties. In Armenia, Caucasian (or Persian) oak trees only grow in the Artsakh region – again, on the border and affected by the war, but the risks are well worth it. The mild growing temperatures at elevation produce an oak that when lightly toasted, manifests in lifted elegance, notably in the versatile Voskehat variety.
The 2018 Zulal Voskehat has a clean, light amber colour from skin maceration with light tannins from barrel fermentation. Delicate, white flower aromas, it offers peach-melon, light oaky mouthfeel and a crisp acid finish. Cork closure. Alc: 13.5%. Drink: 2020-2023. Try partnering this one with oyster platter entrée or baked coconut-lime salmon parcels.
Under their family label Keush (
keush.com), the Keushguerians have also produced the first traditional method blanc de blancs sparkling crafted from indigenous Armenian grapes. Sourced from high-elevation vineyards, at 1,750m above sea level, these are not only the highest vineyards in Armenia, but also among the highest in the Northern Hemisphere. What’s more, the vineyards are made up of 100-year-old ungrafted vines that lie between Armenian and Azeri military bases. Talk about a nervy tension in their sparkling wines.
This year Keush is releasing the world’s first ever blanc de (areni) noirs sparkling. Vahe Keushguerian says the areni grape has great character and finesse – and great export potential. “If nothing else, it’s so easy to pronounce!” That’s also why, he admits, he didn’t pursue the tongue-twisting family name on his label, opting instead for just the first five letters.
Although he doesn’t yet sell into Australia, he says he is very keen to; he has an affinity with the country, having spent some time in the Adelaide Hills during a riesling vintage.
The areni grape – Noah’s grape – has put Armenia on the world stage when it comes to wine. It’s one of the world’s oldest grapes, with a unique genetic make-up and an increasing global profile. Riedel’s wine glass range now includes the ‘Areni’ glass in its catalogue. The grape’s fame was kick-started by Zorah Wines (
zorahwines.com). Their acclaimed 2010 Zorah Karasì Areni Noir ranked in the top 10 (out of 4,000 entries) in
Bloomberg’s Top Wines of 2012, alongside the illustrious 2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti and 1989 Château Haut-Brion.
Zorah’s owner-winemaker Zorik Gharibian was searching Tuscany for a small vineyard near where he lived. At the time, he worked in the world of fashion. But on a trip to his homeland following Armenia’s release from Soviet rule, he saw endless possibilities. Gharibian says he had wanted just a small plot, but his one-time hobby has now “seriously got out of hand”.
It took nearly a decade of toil for his first vintage; he now produces a small range of world-renowned wines, including Zorah’s Yeraz (‘dream’), a natural field blend of a vibrant and diverse mosaic of ancient areni strains.
His vessel of choice is a clay karas, which allows the wine to slowly breathe, and develop complexity and elegance. “Just as the soil shapes the vine, the clay shapes the wine,” he says.
The 2018 Zorah Karasì Areni Noir is a faithful and refined expression of the areni variety, the Vayots Dzor terroir and the karas tradition: a quintessential celebration of Armenian winemaking. It is fermented in concrete vats using local native yeasts and aged for around 12 months in buried clay amphorae. Dark plum colour, black cherry, spiced aromas, light body and acid, with earthy, white-peppery forest fruit flavour. Cork closure. Alc: 13.5%. Drink: 2020-2025. It’s a good match with roast duck, roasted eggplant or local manti (baked dumplings).
Recently Gharibian has launched the Zorah Heritage Project, salvaging rare, native grape varieties from extinction. Some are at extreme risk, through lost territory to hostile neighbours and the dreaded phylloxera. With his team of local villagers, Gharibian is experimenting with about eight varieties – the first one due for release is ‘Heritage Chilar’, an aromatic white grape.
Zorah’s wines are distributed across the globe, including to Australia; the winery is re-establishing Armenia’s wine exporting history as the first wine exporting merchants in the world. Back then, those early exporters shipped their wine in palm tree barrels down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Babylonians, Assyrians and beyond.
Schuler St JakobsKellerei, the Swiss owners of NOA (Noah of Areni) Winery came to the region in search of unique grapes. Jakob Schuler, the affable current patriarch of a winemaking dynasty that stretches back 11 generations, was restless after almost 50 years in the trade.
A few years back, he set off “in search of new, new things, the origin of all wines”. Starting in Georgia, he kept heading south and fell for Armenia. Taken by the “open and friendly” people, it was the areni grape – “its most interesting aromatic character” – that won him over.
He purchased 50ha of vineyards and settled in the Areni region. NOA has recently produced three wines using the red areni grape (NOA Areni Limited Edition, NOA Areni Red and NOA Rosé) as well as the NOA Classic White, containing the rare indigenous white varieties Voskehat (80%) and Khatoun (20%).
The Vayots Dzor region where NOA vineyards are located is phylloxera-free, unlike other regions in Armenia. Its soils seem particularly unfriendly to the little pests and, significantly, there have never been any international grapes planted in this part of Armenia. Schuler is keen that this remains the case. Forever.
The 2017 NOA Noah of Areni Red is a premium expression of the Vayots Dzor terroir. Strikingly presented in a black opaque bottle, dark plum-berry fruit aromas abound as the cork is pulled. Earthy, peppery palate with a light, tannic finish. A really good food wine. “We have extended hang time in the vineyard for maximum concentrated aromas and flavours”, notes Arpine Manukyan, NOA’s head of marketing. Grapes are picked late, in November through December, where the marked 15oC diurnal temperature difference is a “flavour enhancer”. NOA’s Reserve wines are also touched with lightly toasted oak. Cork closure. Alc: 14.5%. Drink: 2020-2025. It will match well with spinach and feta boreg or a spicy dolma/tolma (minced meat in vine leaf).
A key challenge for the Armenian industry is to free itself from its dependence on Russia as its major wine consumer: wine is just a small part of the bigger picture here, given the remnant unstable political climate in these former Soviet regions. As the floods of Armenia’s recent turmoils begin to subside, we are seeing the emergence of its long-lost vigneron history – let’s drink an Areni Noir to that, but best we stay upright and clothed.