Drinking wine is a wonderful way of traveling. In a single sip, you can taste the soil, air and water of a foreign land — all without having to get on a plane (or even get out of your pajamas). Most palettes have already visited the world’s most famed winemaking regions like France, Italy, Argentina or Chile. But they likely haven’t sampled vino from Armenia.
Thanks to its generous soil and 300 days of sunshine a year, this small ex-Soviet nation is an unexpected treasure trove of fine wine. Nestled in the Southern Caucasus, Armenia is smaller than California but has an impressive geographical diversity: lush valleys, high plateaus and fast-flowing rivers. Which allows it to produce a stunning variety of wines — from the freshest of whites to the woodiest of reds, with plenty of unique flavors between them.
So why had you never heard of Armenian wine? Blame Stalin.
Armenia is actually one of the oldest wine-producing regions on the planet. In 2010, researchers with the University of California and the Armenian Institute of Archeology and Ethnography unearthed the oldest known winery on earth, dating back 6,100 years. Within a cave outside a village called Areni, they found crushed grapes and clay vessels for collection and fermentation — proving humans were producing wine a thousand years earlier than previously thought.
So why had you never heard of Armenian wine? Blame Stalin. The USSR government decided the region should give up on its bourgeois winemaking ways and produce brandy exclusively. So for its 70-year run as part of the Soviet Union, Armenia used all of its grapes to distill a boozy beverage so alcoholic it was used by polar explorers to fight hypothermia.
Since its independence in 1991, however, Armenia has been gradually making its way back onto the global wine scene. A new generation of local entrepreneurs has begun to reclaim the country’s winemaking heritage by producing modern tastes with centuries-old grape varieties.
The flavor of Armenian wine is hard to pinpoint — there are so many regions and grape types. The most famous indigenous variety is called Areni, which grows in a harsh, isolated climate and delivers a rich spice and cherry aftertaste. If you want to sound smart when you serve it, say that it combines the body of a pinot noir with the spice of a shiraz. My favorite is khndoghni, a popular full-bodied red with strong tannins and surprising plum — even cotton candy — notes. For lovers of white, voskehat (golden seed) delights with a non-sweet, floral taste.
Granted, much work is needed to get the word out. The biggest challenge is that Armenia’s wine community is still quite fragmented, and the best wineries don’t produce enough for international export, according to Mariam Saghatelyan, co-founder of Yerevan’s first wine bar, In Vino. “Armenia definitely has the necessary quality to be on the international stage,” she explains. “It will just take some time.”
Indeed, Armenian wine is already gaining some international recognition. The country won 23 medals at last year’s prestigious Mundus Vini 20th Grand International Wine Awards in Germany. So if you’re looking to spice up your wine rack or one-up a snobby friend, consider Armenian wines.
But beware: Once you’ve expanded your wine horizons, it may be hard to stop. And we hear Georgia has been making some fine reds for a while now too …
- When to visit: Spring is the best time to take a guided tour of Armenia’s wineries.
- What not to buy: Avoid the wine sold in airports. They are often overpriced and way too sweet. Shop local or online instead. Karas is Armenia’s most well known brand.
- How to say it in Armenian: “Wine” is gini. “Please” is khentrem. “Thank you” is mersi. “Cheers” is Kenatsy.
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