I tried a wine last month that stopped me in my tracks. It was a red aged in amphorae, traditional clay jars, from Armenia. I know what you're thinking: a wine from a former Soviet republic made using ancient technology? It's going to be pretty funky. Not a bit of it, however; this was a wine with absolute purity of fruit; the tannins were prominent but smooth, and the perfume was magical. The bottle, a 2014 Zorah Karasi (meaning amphora in Armenian), had more than a hint of Barolo about it, with its mixture of fragrance and power but with a heady, spicy quality that makes it unique.
The Italian comparison is apt because the man behind the wine, Zorik Gharibian, was brought up in Italy. He described himself to me as "100% Italian and 100% Armenian." He went into the fashion business in Milan and married Yeraz Tovmasyan, a Swedish-Armenian raised in London. "Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Armenians will grow anywhere," he said. Gharibian and Tovmasyan both loved the wines of Tuscany and dreamed of buying an estate in Chianti.
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In 1998, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gharibian visited his homeland for the first time. He remembers feeling at once like he had come home. One thing he remembers not so fondly, however, are the awful headaches he got from the rough local wine. Yet all around him, Gharibian saw evidence that Armenia was once a great winemaking nation. The monasteries were festooned with vinous decorations. Abandoned vineyards spotted the landscape. And in many domestic cellars, he saw clay amphorae, previously used for fermentation, sitting unused. Armenian wine is probably the oldest in the world. There's evidence that grapes were fermented there more than 6,000 years ago. The wine tradition was continued in monasteries throughout the Middle Ages and, despite invasions from Russians, Persians, Arabs and Turks, right up to the 20th century.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 spelled disaster for Armenia. During this conflict, the Turks killed more than a million Armenians who were living within the Ottoman Empire. This was followed by the collapse of the Empire and the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920, when the new national state of Turkey annexed half of the historic homeland of the Armenians. The rest of the country fell under Soviet rule. Viticulture was subsequently collectivized, and grapes were used to make brandy (actually very good brandy, Churchill was a fan) and cheap wine for Russian consumption. Armenians scattered across the world, and those who remained deserted wine for vodka.
Despite his unpromising initial experience with the local wine, Gharibian was fascinated by Armenia's rich history with it. He had no experience of viticulture, but in 2000 he bought some land in Vayots Dzor (meaning Valley of Woes) with a view of planting a vineyard. The region was a "very masculine country, mountainous, not rolling hills," he said. The locals thought he was mad. Nevertheless, he sent off soil samples and climatic measurements to the University of Milan—who pronounced it excellent for vine growing.
Gharibian spoke with various oenologists, all of who advised him to plant international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and mature the wine in barriques. The Gharibians were adamant, however, that they would use local varieties. They met a kindred spirit in Tuscan oenologist Alberto Antonini, who understood immediately what they were trying to do. "I want to express the terroir," Gharibian said. He and his wife discovered that a local grape, Areni Noir, was perfectly adapted to high altitude with hot days and cold nights. They took cuttings from a nearby abandoned monastery vineyard and planted it in their vineyard. (The region is so remote that it didn't suffer from phylloxera, the wine-eating louse that ravaged much of the world's vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)
Their philosophy was one of "nothing except quality," in Gharibian's words. Many Armenians still have a somewhat Soviet attitude towards enterprise, so it isn't the easiest place to do business—but the mayor of the town understood their approach. Now when the locals go to work at the vineyard they joke that they are "going to Italy." 2010 was the first vintage. Initially the couple used stainless steel and some wood for aging, but they quickly found they got better results when the wines were fermented in concrete and then aged in amphora. The problem is that nobody has the skills to make proper Armenian amphora anymore—so Gharibian has been digging unwanted ones out of cellars. They are very fragile. While I was with him, he was sent a photo message showing that one had been broken that day at the winery.
But the wine is worth the trouble. The quality speaks for itself, and the wines are now exported to 20 countries, including America and Britain. They're even sold in Barolo—which makes Gharibian particularly proud. Now, however, he's doing something a bit different, too. In conjunction with an American company, World's First Wines, he is crowdfunding a program to promote Armenian wine in America. Donors can buy in at various levels, but the best for my money is $400 plus shipping for 12 bottles of Zorah Karasi 2013. Not only do you get one of the world's finest wines for around $33 a bottle, but your money goes toward developing viticulture in Armenia and supporting sustainable reforestation via the Armenia Tree Project.
Zach Bogoshian from World's First Wines, who is another diaspora Armenian, told me that the Gharibians' wines are "at the forefront of a budding revolution in Armenian winemaking." In fact, one can see the estate as doing for Armenia what Baron di Ricasoli did for Chianti, or Biondi-Santi for Montalcino—setting the standard for others to follow. An Italian comparison that would I'm sure delight the Gharibians.
To find out more, click here: https://www.cruzu.com/campaign/156/world-s-first-wines#Campaign