Deep in the southern heart of the Caucuses, on the crossroads between east and west, among dramatic canyons, lush forests, alpine lakes and powerful mountain vistas rising over 4000 meters, Armenia narrates its millenarian history and beckons those looking for an adventurous escape. Many are surprised to learn that here, in this remote land, wine culture has been embedded for more than 6000 years. In fact, outside a small, but increasing circle of admiring critics and wine professionals Armenia’s wine legacy is largely unknown and yet, its rich cultural wine heritage makes this an area worth discovering. Be warned however, this is no land of gently undulating hills covered with vine and olive groves, there are no picturesque terraces and no quaint towns with winding stone paved streets, but rather, this is a raw, tortured land reflecting its history and its people; this is a land which perhaps will leave you less charmed, but more awed.
Views over Vayotz Dzor Valley
Vayotz Dzor, “Valley of Woes,” is considered the countries prime wine making province with its ‘noble’ Areni grape. Travelling south east from the capital Yerevan, leaving behind the fertile Araratian plain, watched over by the omnipotent Mount Ararat, the landscape becomes increasingly mountainous. New roads have opened the region, but this wild, rugged, terrain has still managed to remain remote and unspoilt. The road climbs steadily, passed all evidence of civilization with wide views over deep, savage, gorges. There is a tangible sense of wilderness and it is hard to imagine how anything could grow successfully here, but with its specific terroir, the region proves excellent for the cultivation of its indigenous grape varieties which can produce some powerful and unique wines. All the ingredients are here, fantastic terroir with phylloxera defying soils, interesting blends, small growers, rediscovery and promotion of indigenous varieties and ancient traditions, to make this a new frontier of unexplored wine region.
Traditional amphorae-Harvest- Areni One Cave
The livelihood of the rural communities revolves around grape growing and wine making. Cultivated on small plots by local growers, using traditional farming methods, most of the regions vineyards are peppered across the villages around Yeghegnadzor (the capital of the province). Areni is the most famous of these villages and has given its name not only to the signature grape of the country, but also to the fascinating archaeological discovery nearby; the ‘world’s oldest winery’ dating back 6000 years: the “Areni One Cave”. It is also home to the beloved Areni wine festival celebrated in late October when visitors from across the country flock to this small village to taste local wines including the typical pomegranate and apricot ‘wines’.
Nowhere is the beating wine pulse of the area felt more than on the dusty, sun-baked road, which connects the province to the capital. Countless local roadside vendors line the expressway in improvised stalls, inviting visitors to try their home-made wines, some of which are stored meticulously in coca cola bottles. Dubbed ‘coca- wine’ these are sold to Iranian truck drivers who are heading home to their alcohol-free country with “soda”.
Local roadside vendors
There is a sense of the elemental and enduring here and balancing this is an element of unpredictability. These roadside wines and local wineries are a far cry from a few recent investments being made mainly by Armenians from the diaspora who are bringing in international expertise and propelling Armenia’s wine potential to international acclaim. Located high above the valley, in the village of Rind, the most famous of these is Zorah who’s founder Zorik Gharibian together with Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini were the first to acknowledge the country’s vast potential, and who after years of work, produced the first ever wine of international acclaim from Armenia paving the road for others.
The fortress of Smbatabert- Noravank Monastery-karahundge-Selim Caravansary.
And yet, there is much more to discover here then wine. The Silk Road passed through this region and Marco Polo is said to have travelled through these mountains. The ‘Selim Caravansary’, built in 1332 to accommodate weary travellers and their animals, is a splendid relic from the days when international trade routes connected Vayots Dzor to the Sevan basin and points north. The imposing ruins of Smbatabert fortress, dating back to the 9th century and still boasting an upper citadel, sit high on the crest of ridge between the villages of Yeghegis and Alayaz. Further east, suspended between dream and reality, karahundge “singing stones,” an astronomical observatory dating back 5500 BC is arguably one of the oldest known megalithic sites in the world. Then, in the most evocative of gorges, hidden and camouflaged against a rusty-red cliff, is the austere genius of Noravank Monastery, a UNESCO world heritage monument dating back to the 12th century. Vayotz Dzor offers a wealth of discoveries and for those willing to explore the list is endless.
Remote and raw, pure and authentic, Armenia’s wine country is a walk back in time. The severe grandeur of mountain peaks capped in snow, the crystalline air, piercing blue skies and starry nights seem almost unreal. The countries difficult history has defined both the landscape and the spirit of its people; resilient with great inner tenacity, they have somehow survived against all odds. As you drive through the rural villages high above the Arpa River old men, women and children pause in the streets to watch you go by embracing the idea of tourism. Wine tourism is at its infancy, the region needs decades of development, the appellation system is a work in progress, but the scenic and unadulterated beauty of this place is sure to strike a chord among venturesome visitors. Change rarely happens quickly here, but hopefully the years ahead will bring a growing number of wines with real personality and typicity and the valley will come alive with a new found sense of possibility.
ZORAH – 6000 years of history in every bottle