ARMENIA’S VITIVINICULTURAL INDUSTRY
This small republic wedged between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Caucasus Mountains is considered the cradle of vine and wine. Although the country’s altitude is an impediment, its southerly location relative to Burgundy represents a balance and compensates for the cold winters.
The Kingdom of Armenia, during (10th and 12th centuries) included what is today eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, and large swaths of Georgia. (Southern Georgia is still disputed land between the two republics).
Researchers concluded that Vitis vinifera silvestris (ancestor of Vitis vinifera) was established here over a million years ago. Archaeological research uncovered irrigation canals, wine cellars, and processing facilities, including containers made of animal skins to transport wine on both Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, to what is today Iraq and beyond. Old manuscripts confirm Armenia’s high level of viticultural development, yet this art often suffered periods of decline due to incessant wars between Arabs, Persians, Turks and assorted other warrior hordes.
By the end of the 19th century, Armenia’s viticulture covered a little more than 9000 hectares with correspondingly small brandy and wine production. After World War II, the vineyards were decimated due to neglect and destitution of the population. In the 1920s private wineries were nationalized and amalgamated in a trust, which later established a network of processing plants in both Russia and Ukraine, two large markets specially for brandy. By 1940, the acreage had increased to 16,000 hectares and by 1990 to 29,000 with the help of funds from Moscow.
Armenia’s vineyards are located on altitudes between 400 – 17000 metres above sea level with average temperatures high enough to ripen grapes fully every year. The climate varies vertically; it is dry and continental to dry sub-tropical with annual precipitation of less than 500mm.
Armenia has five wine growing regions: the Ararat Plain (65 percent of the production), Foothills of the Ararat (18percent), Daralagez (3 percent), Zangezur (two percent); and northeast zone (12 percent). Irrigation is allowed and practiced.
Forty-eight grape varieties are recognized officially including: Voskeat, Garandmak, Mekhali, Rkatsiteli, Kakhet, Areni Cherny and Adisi. European grape varieties can be found only on research stations and Armenian growers display little interest in foreign verities. They are convinced that indigenous grapes yield the best possible fruit due to their long acclimatization. The population likes table grapes and 10 percent of the vineyards are devoted to that end.
Armenia’s brandy production is significant and centred mostly in Yerevan’s Brandy Factory now owned by Pernod-Ricard of France. The factory was established toward the end of the 19th century and has built a solid world wide reputation for its flavourful, light brandies aged from 3 – 21 years in Krasnodar oak barrels reputed to contribute to both spiciness and textural refinement. Armenian brandies display a distinct apricot aroma. Those aged 15 – 18 years are smooth, light, and balanced. Other manufacturers also produce fine blends for export. Armenian brandies are exported first and foremost to Russia, following eastern European countries, Korea, Lebanon and the USA.
Armenian wines in general lack fruit. They are barrel aged for too long, high in alcohol and poorly balanced. This is partially due to market exigencies as the population prefers this type of wine. Old and poorly maintained equipment also contributed to inferior quality.
Since the independence of the country in 1993, the industry is recovering gradually and adjusting to export market demands of fruity, acid-driven wines that are deeply coloured and vibrant.
In time, perfectly, regional, and natural wines will be exported from this small country, many consider the cradle of wine.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu. April 30, 2004