The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote “The significance of the past only has meaning or value for people who find in themselves a passion for the future”.
Looking out across Zorah’s winery, which is slowly taking shape, you can sense that while the winery tells a story of a different time it also provides a passionate glimpse into vistas of a possible future.
Undoubtedly the protagonist in Zorah’s winery is the “karas”. Ever since local wines were first fermented in the highlands of Armenia distinctive clay pots known as “Karas” were used, a tradition that celebrated its beginnings here more than 6000 years ago and eventually spread around the entire reaches of the Mediterranean.
“While the grand stories of our Armenian national identity have a chance of surviving through time” says Zorik Gharibian founder of Zorah “our local stories and our local traditions are all but disappearing, creating nothing short of a cultural catastrophe. The Karas are inherently part of our local tradition, ingrained in the country’s viticultural history, and yet, in the modern dawn of Armenia’s wine industry no effort is being made to claim this as part of our country’s rightful heritage.”
Indeed the Armenian landscape is strewn with reminders of this tradition. Constructions like those found in the Areni cave dating back 6000 BC, with its large clay vats, tell the captivating story of a different glorious era. Large collections of karas occupy a significant place in Yerevan’s national Museum. In the archeological excavations of Karmir blur and Arin Berd (6th century BC) seven wine cellars with more than 480 large karasses used for wine and stamped with year of production were unearthed. In the cellars of the royal quarters in the fortress of Garni (3rdcentury BC) over a dozen Karas were found. Karas were also used in medieval times with classic examples being found in excavations of the medieval complex of Zvartnots, in the cellars of Edjmiazin and in the monastic complex of Haghbat (10thcentury) where 20 karasses, holding 300 to 400 liters each, lined the perimeter of the cellar under the tiled floor. The list is endless…
There was also a time not so long ago when entire villages were dedicated to the production of these amphorae which were used for fermenting and aging wines in almost every household. The art was passed from generation to generation. Today this age old craft has almost completely disappeared from Armenia’s landscape. The young are not interested and the few old men who profess to know the craft do not have the means to make these large vessels and worse yet have no successors.
“I’m not saying that everybody should be making wines in Karas,” continues Gharibian “but there has to be a collective awareness of the immense value of what we have. We not only have the terroir and the grapes to make wines on par with any in the world, but also we have an enviably rich history and traditions which are undeniably ours and real. We must defend these before they are taken away from us.” For the visionary the challenge is to reinforce a new, far sighted way of thinking to shape and influence the evolution of the country’s wine industry, even though he is aware that this may be very much in the vein of Waiting for Godot.
Zorah has invested much time and energy in the revival of this age old craft. This rebirth can be seen as a tribute to the winery’s next door neighbor, The Areni 1 cave, a source of inspiration visible from the vineyards and a constant reminder of the unique patrimony of the country. The Karasses used in the winery are mainly found by roaming the villages. In the early years much experimentation was done to optimize results. Different sizes were used, some were kept underground others above ground and age old techniques of sealing these amphorae with wax were perfected. Plans are also underway to create a small center on the estate in an attempt to preserve this dying craft.
While this revival reflects the winery’s ongoing battle to preserve ancient local traditions, it also embodies the desire to make wines in a natural idiom. In the ancient times Karas were the natural vessel of choice, now it is a conscious, philosophical and even poetic decision, the intangible sense of using something molded out of earth, a living, breathing vessel to cradle and nurture the living liquid. Just as the soil shapes the vine, the clay shapes the wine.
Naming the winery’s first wine Karasì “from amphorae” seemed the natural choice. It is an ode to these ancient vessels which have written the history of Armenia’s millennial wine culture and which make the wines of Zorah intrinsically Armenian with an undeniable sense of place.
ZORAH – 6000 years of history in every bottle
Photo credits Narek Aleksanyan /Tigran Hayrapetyan