As we have boasted on many an occasion, Armenia is considered to be the birthplace of vine and wine. It lies in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ where it is believed that thousands of years ago the first grape vines were domesticated. It is “the land of the beginning” and with its plethora of ancient indigenous grapes it is a multifaceted pallet of flavors – or rather it can be.
With five distinct viticultural zones and more than 200 different grape varieties, of which 30 or 40 notable wine varieties, most native to Armenia, the country has the potential to produce some stunning, weird and wonderful wines. Areni, which can yield some impressively fresh delicate reds, will always probably be Armenia’s anchor but, the region’s many other indigenous grapes can also offer exciting alternatives .Voskeat a white, literally translated as ‘drop of gold’ is capable of displaying intense fruit and mineral aromas while varieties such as Garan Dmak, Nazeli, Chillar, have been known to craft some fresh and vivacious wines of beautiful individuality.
Armenia is starting to take its first small steps in rebuilding its wine industry and in a world dominated by versatile, hardy varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay which deliver reliability, consistency and profitability, why should the country foster its lesser known, neglected and endangered grapes? After all these international varieties can craft some impressive wines of both personality and quality in Armenia and perhaps the French are right in their insistence that it’s not so much the grape variety that should take prominence, but rather the “terroir”.
For Zorik Gharibian, founder of ZORAH, however, preserving his countries native and rare grapes is not just a matter of variety on wine store shelves. He and his team remain fiercely loyal to the indigenous grapes of his country. He insists if Armenia is ever to rise as a wine making reality it has to make excellent wines with unmistakable identities; wines with the ability to thrill, surprise and challenge current establishments and this, he claims, can only be achieved through the diversity of the native grapes.
“It is important that these wonderful countries steeped in history, tradition and with a great potential for quality can one day have a central role in world wine culture, breaking the colonization of the Bordeaux model that has standardized all the wine regions with Cabernet-Merlot-Syrah …. Individuality and authenticity are vital.” says Alberto Antonini chief winemaker at ZORAH.
Despite the undying commitment to this treasure trove of ancient, rare, forgotten and orphaned grapes it’s all slow going at ZORAH. It takes time to develop great new wines because research depends on private initiative. “It can take years to propagate new vines from previous surviving cuttings and get them to the point where they can go into production” says agronomist Stefano Bartolomei who together with Zorik, scour the mountainous valleys in search of castaway varieties. A very basic vinification process better establishes the potential of one grape over the other ,with some deserving their fate but, among these castaways there are also grapes of great hardiness, purity and personal dignity whose only sin is that they were not cut out for modernity. It is these that ZORAH cherishes.
Zorik acknowledges that the challenges ahead are great. At home there is little or no attention being paid to rare and disappearing varieties, let alone much needed DNA research which is vital for learning more about the lineage and history of the grapes. “We’re risking losing a patrimony without even knowing what we’re losing,” he remarks and it is a herculean task to get much of the industry to look beyond this year’s profit. But he is optimistic and likes to believe that there will soon be other small projects that will be motivated and interested in seeking authenticity and typicity.
But more importantly ZORAH’s determination to champion these varieties goes far beyond preserving an identity in the face of globalization. It is about embracing the living heritage of a country, because it is this living heritage that binds and connects the past, the present and the future and tells the story about where we’ve come from, who we are and who we can be.
“No book, no research material can hold a candle to real, living history.” says Zorik “That is what these grapes are. They are our national heritage and we have to preserve them .We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future generations!”
ZORAH – 6000 years of history in every bottle