On September 2010 Dr. Greogory Arashian and Boris Gasparyan discovered clay fermentation tanks at the archeological dig site Areni 1. Carbon dating revealed that a relatively well-equipped winery was operational approximately 4100 B.C, which corresponds to the Chalcolitic age of Copper age. This confirms beyond the shadow of a doubt that Armenia was the first jurisdiction to make and commercialize wine.
It was during this era that man tried to invent the wheel and plant seeds to grow life-sustaining crops. The settlements that have been unearthed in Khatunarkh and Engija were thriving wine centers in the fifth millennium B C. Both sites are located in the Ararat Valley, close to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
Ancient Armenian viticulture was so advanced by the eighth century B C that Urartian kings referred to the Ararat Valley as the “land of vineyards”.
Deep irrigation channels, still in use today, were dug through volcanic rock along the Razdan River to irrigate vineyards and other crops.
The 35-hectare site of Teishebani (modern Karmir-Blur) established by King Rusa II around 700 B C on the left bank of the Razdan River reveals the importance of wine in the royal household.
A total of 400 huge buried earthenware jars were found in the subterranean storeroom of the palace. The capacity of these jars is 35,000 liters. In Armavir and Davti Blur. Larger cellars with a capacity of 500,000 liters were also discovered.
Other Urartian sites in the fertile Ararat Valley provide proof positive that Armenia was a very important wine producer and exported to neighbouring kingdoms.
Archeologists determined that vitis vinifera silvestris (ancestor of the cultivated vinifera vine species) evolved in the Ararat Valley over a million years ago.
In antiquity, Armenia’s wine industry was much bigger than present day.
Today this mountainous country with an average altitude ranging from 400 – 1700 meters above sea level cultivates 29,000 hectares of poorly maintained vineyards. During Soviet time they were in better condition.
Armenia has six viticulture zones:
The Ararat Plain (50 kilometers east of Yerevan) produces 65 per cent of all grapes) the Daralagez (3 per cent); Zangezur (2 per cent); Tavush (12 per cent); Viotsdzor (120 kilometers southwest of Yerevan) (3 per cent) and Armavir (45 kilometers west of Yerevan) (15 per cent).
Although the 40-latitude north runs through the country, the altitude of the terrain makes it almost impossible to ripen grapes, except in exceptionally hot summers. The climate varies vertically. It changes from dry and continental to dry and subtropical, the annual rainfall being less than 500 mm with summer temperatures occasionally reaching above 30 C and rarely surpassing. The active heat unit summation is 2500 – 4000 C, which should, at least in theory be sufficient to fully ripen grapes.
There are 200 grape varieties of which 48 are officially recognized. For whites, mskhali, garan damak, banants, voskeshat, adisi, and rkatsiteli are preferred, and areni cherni, kakhet, areni, saperavi and cabernet arevik for red.
Some of the above originate in Georgia, north of Armenia. Russian viticultural experts planted others for experimental purposes.
Today 35 commercial wineries exist, but equipment is old and in dire need of replacement. Barrels are particularly old.
White wines are highly acid, and red lack colour and extract; all the result of inadequate pruning and huge yields with predictably substandard results.
Armenia’s wine industry specializes in the production of brandy. The YBF
(Yerevan Brandy Factory), the oldest and largest distillery in the country, located in Yerevan, is famous for its brandy. During Soviet times the nomenclatura (party aparatchicks) and government agencies used Armenian brandy exclusively for banquets and private consumption. Even today the best market for Armenian brandy is Russia, although small quantities are exported to a number of countries including the United Kingdom, the U SA and South Korea, to name a few.
After independence in 1991, the government of the day, in dire need of funds, sold YBF to Pernod Ricard, a French alcohol conglomerate. Since then the plant has been upgraded, packaging improved and quality standards refined. Yet a lot still needs to be accomplished.
Now several other manufacturers are in the market offering their brandies in attractive packages.
Armenian brandy has superior flavour because of the high acidity of the grapes used to make the base wine. Climatic conditions, and barrels made from Krasnodar oak in Russia help age the distillate. Today, some manufacturers use barrels made of Nagorno Karabagh oak, which some claim to be more suitable for bandy ageing than those from Russia.
In general, Armenian white wines are acid driven, and red wines pale and lacking depth.
In time, improvements will be made, I am sure, but this will take a few years.