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No longer withering on the vine More than 30 years after independence, Armenia’s winemakers are still making up for lost time

Source: Meduza

Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Though perhaps best known for its brandy — often referred to as “cognac” and historically served up to the likes of Winston Churchill Armenia is slowly but surely gaining international recognition for its wines. The discovery of the world’s oldest known winery in the country’s southeast helped put Armenia’s ancient winemaking culture back on the map beginning in the 2010s, giving rise to festivals and boosting tourism to the country’s wine regions. But local winemakers often feel that even after more than 30 years of independence, Armenia is still trying to undo the damage to its wine industry wrought by the Soviet Union and its planned economy. For The Beet, Sona Hovsepyan reports on how Armenian vintners are making up for lost time. 

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

The narrow alleyways of Nork-Marash, one of the Armenian capital’s oldest districts, lead to wine cellars with handcrafted wooden doors. Located east of Yerevan’s bustling city center, this hilltop site feels reminiscent of the countryside. In the 19th century, every family in Nork-Marash was involved in making wine from grapes grown in their gardens. But only a few have managed to preserve this custom today.

The Derdzakyans transformed a 19th-century wine cellar inherited from their grandfather, Hovhannes Derdzakyan, into a boutique winery in 2019 to preserve their family history. They named their business Norqi Keghar, which means “wine cellar” in Western Armenian. Norqi Keghar handles the complete production chain and uses traditional methods, maturing their wine in large earthenware pots or Caucasian oak barrels.

Artsrun Petrosyan at the Norqi Keghar Winery. December 9, 2023.
Sona Hovsepyan

Artsrun Petrosyan, the Norqi Keghar Winery’s co-founder, smiled as he displayed the 150-year-old winepress. “Only men crushed the grapes in the winepress. Women weren’t allowed to come close to that work,” he explained, adding that this was a family tradition. He then proceeded to the room where the vats inherited from Hovhannes Derdzakyan are still used to age wine today. Petrosyan covers them with beeswax, giving the wine a mild taste.

‘We gave up our winemaking culture’

Even during the Soviet era, when the authorities expropriated the Derdzakyan family’s vineyards for the benefit of the state, Hovhannes Derdzakyan worked diligently to preserve the local tradition of viticulture and winemaking. “Initially, winemaking was not prohibited in the Soviet Union, but [production] volumes dropped dramatically,” Petrosyan told The Beet. “And Grandfather [Hovhannes] continued his wine sales in a not entirely legal way.”

Under the Soviet Union’s planned economy, other states, such as Georgia and Moldova, were designated for wine production, while Armenia was instructed to prioritize brandy (commonly referred to as “cognac”). Legend has it that Joseph Stalin plied Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt with Armenian brandy as they devised a plan for post-war Europe at the Yalta Conference in 1945. 

Armenia’s most famous brandy, ARARAT, on display at the Yerevan Brandy Company’s old factory
Umut Kaca / Alamy / Vida Press

According to Petrosyan, however, the overwhelming emphasis on brandy production dealt a blow to Armenia’s winemaking tradition. “We lost many varieties of grapes,” he lamented. “The Soviet Union caused a lot of damage, and we gave up [our] winemaking culture.”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign only made matters worse. In 1985, Soviet officials started destroying vineyards in Armenia, halving wine production. And even after Armenia gained independence in 1991, wine production, like other sectors of the economy, continued to suffer. The Armenian energy crisis of the 1990s, which locals refer to as the “dark and cold years,” compounded the damage from the First Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The winemaking industry slowly began to recover only in the late 1990s, thanks to investment in new technologies.

Thirty years on, Armenia is home to hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, but local winemakers are leading a renaissance with just a handful. The winemaking process officially begins in mid-August, after the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Blessing of the Grapes. 

Norqi Keghar’s wines are also produced using native grapes, focusing on quality over quantity. Petrosyan took special pride in their Karmrahyut wine, made from an Armenian red grape variety. “When people ask, ‘How could you surprise us?’ I immediately suggest Karmrahyut wine,” he said. “It has a rich, dark-red hue and a warm taste with a velvety tone.”

‘Armenia has always held its own’

The revival of Armenia’s ancient winemaking traditions dates back to 2007 when archeologists discovered the world’s earliest known winery in a cave in Areni, a village in the southeastern Vayots Dzor province. Archeologist Boris Gasparyan, who co-led the expedition to the Areni-1 cave (known among locals as the “Birds’ Cave”), told The Beet that the artifacts there reminded him of scenes from the 5th century B.C. described by the Greek historian Xenophon, who depicted Armenian winemaking in his most famous work, the Anabasis.

“There were three vats, and in one of them, when we opened the lid, we found reed straws,” Gasparyan recalled. “Upon seeing them, it immediately reminded me of Xenophon’s description. We realized we were dealing with the oldest known wine production facilities.”   

The joint Armenian-Irish archaeological team, which also uncovered the world’s oldest leather shoe in the Areni-1 cave, found human remains in earthenware pots, Gasparyan said, suggesting that the winery had a ritual purpose. “Wine was born in a ritual and then entered everyday life,” the archeologist explained.

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The team also found grape seeds, the remains of pressed grapes, and dozens of dried vines at the site. Archaeologist Gregory Areshian co-directed the project with Gasparyan and told National Geographic that the prehistoric winery offered “a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years.”

“The current territory of Armenia and, historically, the entire Armenian Highlands mark the beginning of wine-producing societies in the ancient world,” Gasparyan said. “Armenia has always held its own place in the field of winemaking.” Even in the ancient world, wine was among Armenia’s calling cards, he added. “It is not a coincidence that in the sculptures of Persepolis, when the subjugated nations sent gifts to King Darius, there are Armenians depicted bringing Darius wine and a horse.”

Today, the Areni-1 cave, a two-hour drive from Yerevan, has gained world fame, leading to a noticeable increase in local and foreign visitors. The village of Areni is renowned for its wines, and the discoveries made in the cave gave birth to the Areni Wine Festival, where local vintners present their wares to visitors from around the world. Wine tasting is accompanied by music and dance, with attendees crushing grapes with their feet in the traditional way, just like in ancient times.

Making up for lost time

Not to be outdone, the Armenian capital also has its own annual wine festival. Yerevan Wine Days began in 2017 and usually takes place during the first weekend in June. Saryan Street, a quaint, tree-covered thoroughfare, is blocked to traffic for three days, and local wineries set up stands to showcase their goods. Tourists and locals mingle as they enjoy the wine paired with food and live music. According to the festival’s organizers, it drew more than 60,000 visitors in 2022. 

Meanwhile, near the Cascade Complex in the heart of Yerevan, Wine Republic has created its own “ancient country,” where guests order their drinks not from a menu but from a well-stocked wine cabinet. The restaurant’s narrow wooden tables create an intimate, friendly setting for wine tasting that attracts locals and tourists alike. 

The restaurant Wine Republic in Yerevan. December 7, 2023.
Sona Hovsepyan

A framed map of this imaginary country hangs on one wall. “[It’s] a ‘republic’ inspired by European culture and the atmosphere of Yerevan,” explains Wine Republic marketing director Elina Sahakyan. “Everything in this city is about enjoying wine and combining it with dinner. Wine is [really] about ‘wine and dine.’”

Wine Republic has upheld this concept since it opened in 2015, offering primarily seafood, meat platters, and cheeses paired with quality domestic and imported wines — and serving up abundant knowledge with every glass. 

“We have customers who try different wines every time and take the corks to remember the ones they tested,” said the manager of Wine Republic, Lusine Kirakosyan.

The Armenian government declared winemaking a priority branch of the economy back in 2016. Officials have also labored to bolster the country’s reputation as a “wine republic.” In the words of former Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, the ultimate goal is to solidify Armenia’s “place on the global wine map.” 

Winemaker Zaruhi Muradyan, the executive director of the Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia and the owner of the boutique winery Zara Wines, says Armenian wines are indeed starting to turn heads and gain an international reputation. But the industry is still trying to make up for lost time.

“We have a strong history; we have evidence that proves that we produced wine centuries ago. But we have lost that [reputation] over time,” said Muradyan. “If we want to be competitive and recognized today, we must demonstrate our uniqueness.”

Standing out

While the government’s current development plan for Armenia’s wine sector aims to increase the size of vineyards, raise production volumes, and boost sales at home and abroad, Muradyan argues that focusing on quality over quantity would be better. “We do not have a lot of farmland where we can establish vineyards. We should use our resources to produce only the best wine,” she told the Beet.

An Armenian woman in her vineyard in Malishka, a village in the southeastern Vayots Dzor province. October 9, 2023.
Sona Hovsepyan

According to the country’s Customs Service, Armenia exported around 4.8 million liters of wine in the first half of 2022, valued at $18.8 million. While these wines were destined for more than 50 countries, Russia remains the primary export market due to strong trade ties and membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. 

“Eighty percent of our products [Armenian wine exports] are consumed in the Russian market, and it will remain an important market, but it is politicized and depends on [current] events,” Muradyan noted.

Armenian exports to Russia have boomed against the backdrop of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions against Russia. During a recent visit to Yerevan, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Overchuk said that trade turnover between Armenia and Russia increased by 43.5 percent during the first nine months of 2023. However, this growth is largely attributed to re-exports of Western goods — and the fluctuations of the Russian ruble have directly impacted Armenian exporters. 

At the same time, diplomatic spats between Moscow and Yerevan have occasionally spilled over into the realm of trade. In November 2023, for example, Russia refused to allow thousands of Armenian trucks to pass through the Lars checkpoint — the only land road connecting Armenia to Russia via Georgia. (Russia’s agricultural authority claimed that there had been a “sharp increase” of Armenian agricultural imports that violated sanitary standards.) 

“Considering these problems, we understand that we need to diversify into other markets,” Muradyan said. In her opinion, Armenia has what it takes to succeed, with its unique terroir and technical grape varieties, and its vintners, who deftly combine traditional production methods with new technologies. “Our creative winemakers spare no effort in representing our country in the best way, which makes us stand out.”


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Story by Sona Hovsepyan for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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