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.