Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains and surrounded by neighbors Georgia, Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, Armenia is considered the cradle of wine—where wine production, as we know it, was born. The country is home to the oldest winery discovered, thought to be over 6,100 years old. Although there is a long tradition of winemaking in Armenia, throughout much of the 20th century, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, its wine industry moved toward mass distillation. The vast bulk of Armenia’s 17,000 hectares of vineyards are still used for brandy; wine production accounts for only about 6 million liters—in comparison, the U.S. produces around 3 billion liters. Since Armenian independence in 1991, however, and with the return of the Armenian diaspora, the wine industry is being revived, and the improvements in quality over the last decade have been making Armenia a rising star in the Caucasus.
“Armenian wine [is part of] a trend within the wine industry where wines from the oldest wine-producing countries in the world are being reimagined and rediscovered as sommeliers and consumers look for something different,” says Vanessa Goldenson, the president of Kimberly Jones Selections, a fine-wine broker in Los Angeles. “When the owner of my company told me we would soon be selling Armenian wines in California, I thought she was joking. However, once we tasted the Keush Brut sparkling, I was completely blown away. We sold over 200 cases within three months.”
In the last decade, some of the world’s best-known “flying winemakers” have become involved with projects in Armenia. Michel Rolland has a hand in Karas in Armavir; in Vayots Dzor, Paul Hobbs is a partner in Yacoubian, and Alberto Antonini is a consultant at Zorah.
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Adventurous flying winemakers as well as adventurous wine tourists are finding their way to Armenia. “Armenian wine has an edge,” says Charine Tan, the coauthor of Uncorking the Caucasus, “because [the country’s] story of being the birthplace of wine is backed by a tangible asset: a place where people can visit, explore, learn, and experience. Armenia is home to one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world and approximately 400 historic wine grape varieties.”
Key Wine Regions in Armenia
Armenia is a landlocked country spread over 29,700 square kilometers—similar in size to the area of the Hawaiian Islands—with a dry, continental climate and volcanic soils. Altitudes ranging between 1,600 and 5,900 feet are major influences of vineyard microclimates, as is aspect on hillsides and in valleys.
Vayots Dzor is a south-central region that’s a heartland for native varieties, including Voskehat and Areni—and it’s home to the Areni Wine Festival.
Most vineyards are on the Ararat plain, one of the largest plateaus in Armenia. One of the sunniest regions, Ararat is a key producer of white grapes and a major contributor to the brandy industry.
On the southwestern border of Armenia, Armavir has high altitudes and an extreme continental climate. Karas is the major estate here, with 400 hectares of international and native varieties.
Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh)
This disputed territory, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, asserts its independence. It has lower altitudes and is home to the Khndoghni grape variety; the region is also a major supplier of oak.
Three Key Grape Varieties in Armenia
Because Armenia is a recently independent country, the modernization of its wine industry is also quite recent. This means there is a mix of old technology and new, and an influx of international varieties alongside the exciting rediscovery and reinterpretation of native varieties. Some modern producers are also rediscovering traditional winemaking techniques, such as using clay jars called karasi.
Areni (Areni Noir)
This indigenous red grape variety is widely considered to have huge potential because it’s hardy in the vineyard yet elegant in the glass. “Never grafted and always on its own roots, Areni has a unique DNA proﬁle that doesn’t match any other [variety],” says Zorik Gharibian, who left a successful fashion career in Italy to return to Armenia and found Zorah Wines in 1998. Zorah’s highly acclaimed wines—like the Karasi Areni Noir, which retails for around $35—have driven international recognition of Armenian wine. Gharibian points out that Areni is “thick-skinned and extremely resistant to disease, and it has the unique capacity to adapt perfectly to the extreme climate of Vayots Dzor.” Areni is frequently called the Pinot Noir of Armenia because of its red fruit aromas, fresh acidity, and silky tannins.
This aromatic white grape is considered one of the finest native grapes in Armenia. “There are more indigenous white grapes in Armenia than red—and Voskehat leads the pack,” says Matthew Horkey, the other coauthor of Uncorking the Caucasus. “It produces rich, medium- to full-bodied whites, typically with floral, pear, melon, and savory notes. Producers are only beginning to unveil its potential.”
This red variety, traditionally found in the region of Artsakh, is capable of making premium red wines with black fruit aromas, deep color, and firm tannins. It’s typically aged in barrel and bottle, and is considered to cellar well. Khndoghni is typically served with meat dishes.
Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay and writes the South America Wine Guide. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.