Armenia is not the first country to spring to mind in terms of wine.
But this is one of the most ancient winemaking cultures in the world. The broader Caucusus region – including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, is where the winemaking vine is believed to have first been domesticated.
By way of proof, a 6,000-year-old winery was unearthed in the Areni-1 cave complex in the Vayots-Dzor region of Armenia. And the country may have anything up to 1,000 different species of vitis vinifera winemaking vines – testament to its longevity in wine terms (the vine tends to mutate naturally over time).
And yet…what do we know of Armenian wine?
Relatively little, if you’re anything like us.
And that has to do with geopolitics as much as anything else – from the Armenian genocide to the Soviet occupation, the 20th century was hard on Armenia and its people. Its historic winemaking culture suffered, and it was shut off from the world.
Now, however, a new generation of Armenians are daring to revitalise this somnolent wine history. We talk to two of them – Aimee Keushguerian of Keush, WineWorks and Zulal. Also Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian of Karas.
They’re brave because the region remains imperilled. The ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan has seen vineyards and farmers caught between warring factions. This is life or death stuff.
But, from the little we’ve dipped our toes in these particular waters, it’s clear to us that there is huge potential in Armenian wine. In wine terms, Armenia is most certainly one to watch.
‘When war broke out in 2020 our farmers had to harvest at night, one by one.’ Aimee Keushguerian
‘Making wines in Armenia is not just about making wine. It’s also about my history, my family, getting people to know Armenia. Why am I an Armenian who lives in Argentina? Because my great-grandparents had to flee from Armenia because of genocide. So there’s a lot of things to tell about Armenia and about what’s going on there through wine. We’re trying to make a better world with these wines.’ Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian
‘We have quite a few indigenous grape varieties that no one has made single varietal before. In many cases they’re very rare and in many cases they’re almost lost.’ Aimee Keushguerian
In the episode, we mention Peter’s filming in Georgia and Lebanon. This was for The Wild Side of Wine, a new wine and travel series coming to the screen soon. In the meantime, you can catch it on WineMasters.TV [paywall]. And here’s the trailer:
These were the scenes we discuss in the pod:
Here’s also the link to Susie’s Wine Masters Class episode on ‘The Old Old World’ [paywall].
Susie Barrie MW: Can you set the scene for us in terms of Armenia and its wines?
Aimee Keushguerian: Yes, so Armenia has this dichotomy of sitting between having an ancient tradition of winemaking but still is a very young winemaking nation. When we talk about the Armenian terroir we talk about four things. One is that we have a historic culture of viticulture. And we have 2 stories we tell when we talk about the history and ancient tradition.
One is that, in 2011, National Geographic and UCLA uncovered this cave which now sits in the Vayots Dzor region. This cave is important because it dates winemaking in the region 6,000 years ago.
So humans were making wine in the Neolithic era probably from what we now call vitis vinifera species. So when people talk about the birthplace and origins of winemaking, they refer to the vitis vinifera species originating in this area that is in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, this whole area.
And that cave where humans were making wine is a stone’s throw from most of the vineyards where we make wine from today.
The second story we talk about is in a history which is a book written by Herodotus, where he recounts Armenians as being ancient wine merchants. At the time of Babylonians and Sumerians, Armenians were winemakers.
And what we did is we packaged wine in oak barrels, we loaded them on a boat called a kur, and we floated down the Euphrates River. Where we proceeded to sell our barrels to the Babylonians, we sold our wine, we sold our boat, we sold the animal hide that held the boat together, and we walked back to Armenia on horses and donkeys. And we repeated that loop and we started to become wine merchants.
Of course, through geopolitics and war and genocide, Armenia didn’t quite enter the wine industry until recently. Especially during the Soviet Union when we were somewhat cut off from the rest of the world.
We did have winemaking during Soviet time but it was somewhat oriented towards brandy production. So during Soviet times they created two grapes: one that’s a cross between Chardonnay and Rkatsiteli. And one that’s a cross between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Saperavi for brandy production. So they did lots of Soviet style plantings, to produce high volume of grapes for brandy.
There were pockets that were somewhat preserved, specifically in the Vayots Dzor region, where a lot of the brands and wineries today are being built, and projects started, where the grapes, because of the elevation, because of the land and the way it’s situated, was preserved and maintained to making homemade wine, so farmers continued to make wine and harvested their grapes, but for small batch wine.
So in that sense we started the modern wine industry with vineyards. So most of these vines are 20-30-40 years. And in some cases we have 100-120 year old vines that pre-date the Soviet Union.
And we have 30-40 indigenous grape varieties. Historically we have around 500-1000. And it’s always been a toss up to understand how many vitis vinifera varieties we have in the region. But we have grape geneticist Kristina Margarian who recently released a research paper where she found 500 singular plants with different DNAs. She took them to Geisenheim University in Germany and she uncovered 500 indigenous vitis vinifera varieties.
So the combination between our ancient tradition and our indigenous grapes sets us apart in the winemaking world and gives us a very unique terroir. Combined with our high elevation vineyards, we have the valley floor around 1,000m and we go all the way out to 1,700m so we have a lot of elevation changes, which gives us phenolic ripeness in the grapes. And we have very extreme temperature changes. So we have very cold, snowy winters and very hot dry 100-degree summers. So we experience all four seasons very seasonally.
Susie Barrie MW: So, taking all that into account, what would you say are the current trends in Armenian wine, what’s particularly exciting? Why should we all try Armenian wines?
Aimee Keushguerian: Armenia is a very different wine culture than other wine countries. We used to be a brandy drinking, vodka drinking, cigar-smoking culture and now we’ve turned into a wine drinking culture.
We don’t follow the path of any other wine region. Our neighbours of Georgia have a very distinct way of making wine and we have our own way of making wine.
Most of our projects use stainless steel tanks and modern technology and Caucasian oak barrels and indigenous grape varieties. And a trend is to continue to make single varietal wines from our flagship grapes: Areni for red and Voskehat for white. And some trends are quite a few small growers who are starting to make their own wine and produce small batch wineries.
In general the industry is growing very quickly. So we have quite a few international projects and international winemakers that are coming and investing and planting new vineyards.
And the trends are going to continue to go towards making quality. I’d say right now we’re making very good wine. And we’re making very good wine with vineyards that were planted during the Soviet Union. So now that we have all these new vineyards being planted with high density farming, drip irrigation, modern viticultural practises, we’re going to make great wine in the future.
So right now we’re talking about the potential.
Susie Barrie MW: And just thinking about the international consultants versus the history and the indigenous varieties – how do those two marry? Because obviously you presumably want wines to taste of Armenia. Where they come from. How does that work with international consultants?
Aimee Keushguerian: It’s more of a philosophical question. Are you going to plant European varieties to show the world we have great terroir to grow Cabernet or Chardonnay?
Or are you going to plant indigenous grapes and work on elevating our clones and varieties and continue that culture of farming indigenous grapes?
Most international winemakers who come to Armenia choose to work with native grapes, although there are projects that have planted European varieties as well. So it’s a philosophical question. In general our grape varieties tend to lend themselves very well to our climate, soil, growing conditions.
For me personally it’s more interesting to work with our indigenous grape varieties and start working on discovering the clones and perhaps propagating them in a way that changes them slightly to produce a higher quality wine.
Susie Barrie MW: Let’s talk about you. You started your winemaking career with your father Vahe’s Armenian sparkling wine brand, Keush. But since 2017 you’ve made your own wines under the Zulal label and focusing on indigenous varieties. You’ve said, ‘Making wine in Armenia is unlike anywhere else, we’re on a journey to rediscover our indigenous grape varieties and realise the true potential of our terroir.’ Can you elaborate a bit more about the indigenous varieties and your own experiences of them so far?
Aimee Keushguerian: I grew up in Italy, my family had a winery in Tuscany and Puglia, this was the early 1990s. Then I went to high school and college in the US. Then I moved to Armenia – I’ve been living in Armenia for 6 years.
My father invited me to participate in my first harvest for Keush in 2015, I never thought I’d work in wine and then when he invited me I thought it would be really fun. And I moved to Armenia that winter and I started managing our Keush brand, which is our traditional method sparkling wine company.
And then I slowly started working at WineWorks, my father’s custom crush winery incubator. And I think I was building other people’s brands and looking at the industry as a whole. And so I decided I wanted to have my own brand and my own project. I was 23 at the time and I was really excited about exploring our indigenous grape varieties.
We have quite a few indigenous grape varieties that no one has made single varietal before. And no one has micro-vinified to really understand the expression of these grapes. And so that really got me excited in terms of doing more research and experimentation.
So I do work with grape geneticists in the vineyards and we go and hand pick and select grapes. I’ve experimented with grapes like Chilar, Tozot, Nazeli, Karmir Kot, all these really beautiful grape varieties that maybe we can only find a couple tons of, enough to make 600 bottles or 1000 bottles, and it’s the first time people have selected these grapes and made them single varietal.
And I think that’s one of the most exciting things we have: we have a very diverse array of varieties and indigenous grapes and really just uncovering what we have. In many cases they’re very rare and in many cases they’re almost lost.
So the mission with Zulal is to revitalise some of these grape varieties and really understand what we have in terms of grapes.
Susie Barrie NW: Now I know that Areni is the best known red grape variety in Armenia. How would you describe it to us?
Aimee Keushguerian: Areni is a beautiful grape. It’s thick skinned, tight clustered. It’s very versatile in that it can make red, rosé and sparkling wine as well.
I would say you get a lot of red fruit, cherries, then ground pepper and spicy notes as well. It tends to be medium bodied but it has some structure and a little bit of nice unexpected tannic structure. It does well in oak and it’s a really beautiful grape variety.
As a grape it’s currently the name of the grape variety, the name of a village, the name of what the locals call the region, and it’s also what the archaeological cave is named after and the oldest shoe that was discovered in the world, called the Areni 1 shoe.
‘Right now we’re making good wine with vineyards planted during the Soviet Union. With our new vineyards, we’re going to make great wine.’ Aimee Keusguerian
Susie Barrie MW: I would love to see that! Amazing. Didn’t you also help create a Riedel glass that would suit Areni?
Aimee Keushguerian: I would say that the creation of the Areni glass with Riedel was one of the watershed moments in Armenian wine industry. It really proved we have great wines and they have different characteristics and expressions from other grapes.
There was a group of 7 Armenian winemakers that went to taste with Georg Riedel. There was a line-up of 8 different glasses. The one that was selected was tulip shaped. And after that tasting now a lot of the cases for the Pinot Noir glasses – it’s somewhat similar in shape to a Pinot Noir glass – have Areni written on the box.
Which is a lovely recognition of a really noble grape variety that we have.
Susie Barrie MW: Changing the subject slightly, I wonder how you view the geopolitics of your region and how they affect the winemaking. It can’t be easy running a winery in a conflict zone, which you have to do…
Aimee Keushguerian: Geopolitics are tricky to navigate.
There are a couple of things that affect the wine industry. One is transportation is a little bit difficult, to get the wines exported out of the country. You have added costs because we have two closed borders.
In terms of safety in the vineyard, sometimes we do have issues up north in Tavush. We’ve had issues recently over the last coupe of years specifically with Keush. For Keush we harvest grapes from Khachik village, and this village sits 1,700m in elevation – the highest elevation vineyards in the northern hemisphere.
And these vineyards just happen to be situated between the Armenian military base and the Azeri military base. So you can imagine that sometimes it’s a little bit tricky. Sometimes we have to get special clearance to work with our farmers.
But we’ve been working in these vineyards since the inception of Keush and they’re just a beautiful piece of vineyard that just happen to be in a somewhat precarious situation.
The vines are 100-120 years old so they pre-date the Soviet Union, pre-date some of the borders that were drawn during the dissolution.
Especially: we had a war that broke out in 2020 and that was difficult: we had farmers that had to harvest at night, one by one, so that took a little longer than expected. Although we are situated higher up than the Azeri military base, so it is a disadvantage for them to have any action on that side of the border, it still is an area we have to maintain safety measures and be very cognisant of.
Susie Barrie MW: And in terms of the border with Azerbaijan, I read somewhere Armenia had lost quite a lot of the land, some of the wineries, some of the forests to Azerbaijan. How has that affected things, and how can you protect that in the future?
Aimee Keushguerian: So that region you’re referring to is called Artsakh or Ngornoh Karabagh. It’s a beautiful wine growing region, known for a grape called Sireni. It’s clay soil and rolling mountains and also very rich in vitis vinifera varieties. We’ve recently uncovered around 100 different indigenous grapes in that small piece of land.
And it was growing quite a bit as a region until the war broke out in 2020. And we lost 3 wineries, we lost 60% of our oak forest that we use to make Caucasian oak, and we lost 2 of our coopers. So that region has a lot of challenges it faces in terms of making wine.
But one thing I’d say is all of us winemakers who work in that region are committed to maintaining that land under Armenia.
So we see it as some sort of a commitment that we continue to replant, to regrow and maintain that land for vineyards and winemaking. Because like most places in conflict zones, we’ll stay and we’ll use that as a way to protect our borders.
‘We’ll stay and we’ll use [wine] as a way to protect our borders.’
Susie Barrie MW: Now you, Aimee, are very much part of the younger generation. Not even thirty yet..?
Aimee Keushguerian: Correct, I’m 28 turning 29 in July.
Susie Barrie MW: As we’ve discussed before, you do many things: you make your own wine, you work as a brand ambassador for Riedel, you’re in charge of WineWorks, you’re even launching your own wine magazine. Given all this, how do you see the future for Armenian wine?
Aimee Keushguerian: Armenian wine has a very bright future. We’re sitting at a point where our quality has changed drastically over the last 10 years and our culture has become a wine-drinking culture in Armenia.
Right now we have an interesting situation where the demand of our wines is growing but the supply of our grapes is not matched.
So we’re going to see a lot of large-scale vineyard planting in the future, we’re going to see increase of quality of the wine. We’re going to see more growth within our exports, and a lot of different smaller and grower projects really digging into our indigenous grape varieties.
And we’re going to start defining a little bit more what our wine industry looks at: we don’t have appellations or vineyard designations yet, it’s really just we have these vineyards and land and farmers that work on it.
So that gives us a lot of room to innovate right now and experiment. Which is very exciting. So it’s a little open ended but it’s gonna look very bright.
Susie Barrie MW: We’ll look forward to seeing more Armenian wines in the UK – but Aimee – thank you for your time.
Aimee Keushguerian: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
Susie Barrie MW: Can you tell us more about Armenia’s indigenous grape varieties?
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: Well in particular for Karas, we started at a time when we didn’t have much information about wine in Armenia, and we didn’t know at that time the indigenous varieties that we know today.
Our story started less than 20 years ago so it’s very short. And the last 10 years we’ve discovered so many new varieties and so many ways of working with these varieties and we got to know intimately how to deal with Areni, for example. It’s the most important grape that we have in Armenia.
So it took us a lot of time, not so much in terms of wine time, but quite a lot in terms of our short history, to get to know how to make the best wine with these grapes that we didn’t know so far.
And when we talk about for example Areni, which now I’m in love with, I think it’s amazing and it has a lot of different faces to discover, we get a sort of wine that’s like between like a Nebbiolo and a Pinot Noir, if we try to compare it with something we already know.
And it’s very interesting because the flavours and the textures that we can find in Areni is not something we have tasted before.
I think that’s something that’s very exciting to see that we still have so many new things and new flavours to discover, in a moment when I think we thought in the wine world everything was already known.
And this is just like the tip of the iceberg because with Areni we’ve experienced a little bit more than with the rest of the varieties that we are still getting to know.
We have more than 130 indigenous varieties in Armenia, in Karas we are only working with 5 so we still have so much to do.
We have an experimental vineyard in the winery and we are trying to bring new varieties into our vineyard in order to really investigate deeply what we can do with these varieties which are really amazing.
Susie Barrie MW: You talk about Areni as like a combination of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, I mean we have in a short space of time, peter and I have tasted wines that go from sparkling to full-bodied reds, all made from Areni so it obviously does have that capability to do many different things…
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: In terms of tasting it reminds me of these two, but also when we make wine from these grapes it reminds me particularly of Pinot Noir, which is the one I know the best as we make Pinot Noir in Patagonia.
I see, just like Pinot Noir, Areni needs a mature vine to make better wine, so I see that when the years go by the grapes are even better than the previous one. And I see that same phenomenon with Pinot Noir, and it’s not just the same with every grape or vine. For example, with Malbec you can make a great wine with very young vines, but it doesn’t happen with Pinot Noir and it doesn’t happen with Areni.
It’s great that we could find in Armenia some really ancient plants of Areni which are very interesting to see the wines that comes from those vines. In our winery we planted a new vineyard so we are still discovering what type of wines and what we can do with that, but I see now that the vines are much more mature, that the wine is even more balanced, it’s more expressive and we are just now discovering what we can do with it.
Susie Barrie MW: Now one thing I wanted to ask about, talking of innovation, experiments, you’ve got a range of experimental wines, I think you have an orange ‘Kangun’ wine and then a couple of micro-terroir Syrahs – how did those come about? And what’s different about them?
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: Kangun is very interesting, it’s a white grape that’s used also in distillation, to make the Armenian cognac, or brandy. And we make wine also from it.
We have this wine called Kraki Ktor, in Armenian the translation would be ‘piece of fire’ it’s like a spark, it’s unique, one spark is not the same as another. And the idea behind this wine, it’s actually like Karas’s alter ego, in Kraki Ktor we try to play and we find new faces of our terroir, outside of what we do for our wines we have in our portfolio.
And this orange wine was like an experiment at first, trying to see what other things we could do with Kangun. With Kangun we also make a still white wine, we put it in blends, we also try to make sparkling wines from it, so we were just trying to see what we could do. And we came by this orange wine and I love it.
We ferment it in Karas, in amphora, and then we put it in stainless steel tanks with the skins for 9 months, and we just keep it there. And the wine is very interesting because it’s an orange wine in its flavours but in its colour it’s quite like a white wine, it’s not very orange. It’s very delicate but also very interesting and it’s a wine that you can drink by it’s own and you can also pair it with food and it’s really nice.
‘When I started working in Karas seven years ago I was like: well I have a winery in Armenia and another in Patagonia. And everyone was like: well tell me about Patagonia. Now it’s the other way round!’
Susie Barrie MW: Now I know you work with Michel Rolland, who’s an international consultant and there are various international consultants working across Armenia, people like Alberto Antonini. Is there a risk that the wines might lose their sense of identity, their uniqueness, their heritage, if the winemaking becomes more international, for want of a better term?
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: That’s a great question and I think about that myself. But when it comes to Michel and the way of working that we have, I think that for me he’s sort of a mentor, I learned everything that I know about wine from him. I’ve been working with him since I started in this amazing world.
And he helped me discover what I wanted to show, or how to make the best wine possible from this place.
So it’s not that he’s making the wine in a way that he likes, but he’s helping me discover and the team at Karas discover with another point of view what we can do or what’s the best way for example of making Areni.
With his advice we planted Areni in different places of our vineyard to understand which was the best type of soil for this grape.
We try different ways of pruning, we try different way of winemaking, so he’s like an advisor, he’s not the person making all the final decisions but he’s helping us understand or helping us answer some questions when we are working.
In Armenia now there’s a winemaker that lives there all year round, and his name is Gabriel Rogel. He’s really talented, he’s also Argentinian, but he has been living there for 9 years so he’s almost Armenian now.
But there’s a wonderful team of people and together we learned how to work in Armenia because this was a place that had a lot of interesting things and a very ancient history but we didn’t really know what to do.
So it was a lot of trial and error and the advice of Michel for me, it was fundamental.
But it’s not that we are making wines for his palate. We are making wines to understand and to show Armenia how it is, in its most pure way or most honest way.
Susie Barrie MW: I just wonder as a final question, how do you see the future of Armenian wine?
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: I’m very excited for the future and I think that I’m very privileged to be a part of this transformation, of this re-birth of the Armenian viticulture. And I see the huge changes that we have made since we started.
When I started working in Karas seven years ago I was like: well I have a winery in Armenia and another in Patagonia. And everyone was like: well tell me about Patagonia.
Now it’s the other way round! People are really excited and I think that’s part of the work we have done to put Armenia on the map. And people are getting excited and are very curious to know what’s going on, what’s happening in Armenia, what’s about this ancient place that’s now making wines that are modern, or have like an orange wine, what’s going on?!
And I think it’s important that as winemakers we get involved in this process and we really try to work for a better future.
So it’s not a matter of only making great wines and putting those wines in the world, but also about being responsible, for example with the bottles, with sustainability, with turning organic if that’s a possibility, or trying to make a better world with these wines.
For example, for me making wines in Armenia is not just about making wine. It’s also about my history, my family, getting people to know Armenia.
And why am I an Armenian who lives in Argentina? Well that’s because my great-grandparents had to flee from Armenia because of genocide.
So there’s a lot of things to tell about Armenia and about what’s going on there through wine.
And I think that’s part of the future also, to try to keep on building Armenia with this great opportunity that we have that is wine that people are curious about. So I think that’s an opportunity.
Susie Barrie: Juliana, thank you so much.
Juliana del Aguila Eurnekian: Thank you so much for having me.