An introduction to wines from the cradle of civilization
The Valais Wine Museum in Sierre held a very special conference with wine-tasting 27 May, “L’Orient des vins”, that focused on Armenian and Turkish wines. José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes, talked about grape domestication – where, how, why, and Jean-Luc Etievent of the Wine Mosaic project, which promotes “original Mediterranean grapes”, ran us through the history of wine commerce in what is now Turkey and Armenia, from the early days of the Ottoman Empire to today.
Personally, I was unprepared for my positive reaction to the 7 wines I tasted, and so were a number of people around me, judging by the murmurs of surprise. I expected odd. The wines were all exceptionally good and not so foreign to our Western European wine experiences that we had to get over a hurdle of oddness, the case for me with some wines from Georgia, for example.
Highlights from Sunday follow, and brief notes on the wines.
Wine history notes
We will probably always be seeking the definitive moment and place where grape and man came together for that first intoxicating sip of wine – but we know far more than we knew a few years ago. We know that the grapes from which we make most wine today, Vitis vinifera, were developed from wild grapes, of which only 2-3% have hermaphrodite flowers, which allowed the leap to cultivation: the male and the female are both present and pollination is not required. Vouillamoz notes that since the food value in grapes is low, the vines were most likely cultivated for the high people found they could get from fermented grapes. He also points out that European cultivated grapes do not come from European wild grapes, but most likely from Western Asian wild grapes. The cultivated ones and their wines would then have headed west, we can surmise.
It seems clear that the larger area around the cradle of civilization, as we call Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their sources in Armenia and Turkey, were most likely the home of the first wine, although artefacts showing ancient winemaking are showing up in other areas and there is evidence of wine-like beverages in China from 7000 BC. Researchers are now able to show that goats and then sheep were being raised some 11,000 years ago in the Taurus mountains, cattle later and traces of wine dating to 6,000 BC have been found in Georgia. The world’s oldest known winery, a remarkable cave with buried jars (and, more macabre, a child’s skull, indicating a likely sacrificial area) was discovered in 2007 in Areni, Armenia.
Making a leap of several centuries, we come to the start of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 and trace the wine business until the end of the Empire in 1929. Briefly, it is a history of pendulum swings, “back and forth between tolerance and repression under different sultans,” Etievent tells us, given the Islamic strict Sunnite ban on alcohol. Jews and Christians were at times allowed to grow grapes, make wine, sell and consume it. Suleiman the Magnificent, considered to have ruled when the Empire was at its height, appears to have enjoyed alcohol, although this is a point of some contention, but he is also known as the sultan who banned alcohol. Etievent tells us that in the 17th century the tax on wine was 20%.
Modern Turkey is the world’s sixth largest producer of grapes, an important crop, but from 1924 to 2002 Tekel had a near-monopoly on wine production with only a handful of other producers. In 2013 the laws were eased and by 2018 the country had 150 wine grape domains. This does not mean life is simple for wineries, which are greatly limited in their advertising, to the point where they cannot show their wines on their own websites. For new wineries, seeking international recognition and trying to use labels to stand out, it can be a very complicated business indeed!
Learning to give the right love to old grape varieties
Etievent notes that in many countries in the region, and Lebanon is a case that comes to mind, wineries have often used oenologist-consultants from elsewhere who tend to recommend the grapes they know – which tend to be international grapes, rather than native ones. Thus the slowness of old native grapes to be revived with an eye on the international market. In addition to the limitations on marketing wine in Muslim countries, in former Soviet areas such as Armenia the communist period came close to destroying a once-thriving and very old wine business.
Zeynep Arca, who with her father set up Arcadia Vineyards in the mountainous Thrace region of Turkey at the start of the 21st century says there has been little research into their native grapes, in part because winemaking has been seen as mainly women’s work and relatively unimportant. The winery grows 9 varieties of grapes, 2 of which are native rather than international: Öküzgözü and Narince. The region holds a special place in wine history; when French vineyards were devastated by phylloxera in the 19th century, the disease-free region of Thrace kept thirsty French wine-lovers happy by exporting an estimated 70 million litres of wine to France, say the Arcas.
Zorik Gharibian, one of the producers who shared his wines with us for the conference, agrees that to revive old grapes you have to be willing to strike out on your own and take risks. José Vouillamoz calls Gharibian a true pioneer and his tale is nothing short of remarkable. He left Armenia as a child, taken to Iran by his father, but when Khomeini took over there he was sent off to boarding school elsewhere, and he eventually landed in Milan where he has had a successful career in the fashion business. He is a passionate member of the Armenian diaspora whose dream became recreating the glory that was once Armenian wines.
He and his wife Yeraz spent 10 years and a considerable sum of money buying a semi-abandoned vineyard and setting up a cellar high in the mountains near Areni, where the cave with the world’s oldest wine cellar was found. Their winery, Zorah, sits at 1400 metres altitude and the vines, 150 years old, are at 1600 metres. The vines “have never seen phylloxera, so the grapes could really express the terroir,” he says, but it was a “10-year trial” to get what he wanted, a top wine that would put Armenia back on the world wine map.
His success in doing so was the payoff, with Bloomberg famously including his first vintage of Zorah Karasi Areni Noir, the 2012, in its list of the world’s top 10 wines. The money to survive that long while he ensured he could make very special wines came from his “other” job, custom design work for the fashion industry in Milan, where he and his family live. Every penny they could set aside they’ve poured into the wine business, explains Yerez Gharibian, a ceramic artist who is now deeply involved in their project to bring back Armenian clay amphora craftsmanship. Zorah, if they succeed, will again be a pioneer, making amphora that are far larger – 1500 litres – than those that have become trendy among winemakers in the past decade. “It’s far more complicated to make them than people realize,” she concedes, “starting with making ovens large enough to fire them!”
What the wines are like
Odrysia 2017, Arcadia Vineyards, Turkey, Narince grape, dry white: I fell in love with this wine. Mineral, acidic, citrus notes, mouth-filling and rich yet balanced. A very long finish. 15% alcohol – a wine with a statement to make.
Ja2z 2016, Trinity Canyon Vineyards, Armenia, grapes Qrdi 70% and Nazeli 30 %, dry white, 13.5%: a more subtle nose than the previous wine, floral and white fruits, but complex as it opens. Surprising aromas of apple in mouth, acidic with a long and very pleasing finish.
Yapincak 2017, Pesaeli winery, Thrace region in European Turkey, dry white wine, Yapincak grape, 12%: pale gold and both nose and mouth were a startling reminder of Dezaley Chasselas wines from Switzerland – in terms of subtlety, relatively low alcohol and acidity, lemon notes in the nose and citrus mouth with a pleasing hint of bitterness. A lovely wine.
Voski, Zorah winery, Armenia, full-bodied white from 2 indigenous grapes, Voskèat and Garandmak: a gorgeous mouth-filling wine, delicious acidity and a slightly spicy mouth – a wine with an interesting background. “Our plan was to make white grapes in amphora and to work only with native grapes,” says Zorik Gharibian. “But since in our winery we are not trying to do anything weird – we just wanted to make a good wine with 50% Garandmak and 50% Voskèat – and we noticed the wine was losing its colour. So we tried stainless steel but stopped; concrete allows it to breathe.” Fermented then aged in unlined concrete vats for nearly a year and then 6 months in bottle.
Papaskarasi, Chamlija Wines, Turkey, grape of the same name, 13%, a dry light red that was almost abandoned after producers tried to make a Beaujolais-style wine from it. Here, a deeper wine with some smokiness and green pepper – for me it verged on woody notes but not unpleasantly so. A nice touch to their story: they cannot show their bottles but the label artwork, of a woman, is by the owner’s daughter, an accomplished artist – and her artwork is used to give the line of wines visual brand recognition.
Areni Ancestors’ 2016, Trinity Canyon, Armenia, Areni Noir grapes, dry red, deep ruby colour: surprising and pleasing contrast between a nose of dried fruits with a hint of leather and saddle, and the mouth, which is fresh and fruity. The original use of the word “gay” comes to mind for this charming wine. Very much a terroir wine. From their web site: “naturally fermented for over a month and macerated for 5 months in karas, the Armenian terracotta vessels, buried in the ground. The wine is unfined, unfiltered. No added sulfates and eggs.”
Yeraz 2012, Zorah, Armenia, a wine of sheer class from beginning to end, the highlight of the wines tasted: deep red, Areni Noir grapes, 13.5%. The owners refer to the “natural field blend” of grapes, a treasure they inherited when the took up where others left off, with old abandoned vines. These reproduced themselves and the vineyard today has several generations of the same grape, a far cry from most cloned grapes vineyards. “I don’t like to hear it called a ‘single grape’ wine,” says Zorik Gharibian. “It’s so reductive!” No one knows the exact age of the vines but “when we arrived we asked the old people who told us the vines were already old when they were children.”
These high-altitude grapes are fermented in rough concrete tanks, then matured in amphoras of varying sizes as well as large untested oak casks. The resulting wine is concentrated and rich, but not in the heavy sense of overly extracted wines: it is all fruit, cherries and raspberries, followed by sweet spices and, in this complex wine, other notes including black olives for José Vouillamoz (which I didn’t find). Maurice Zufferey, whose Sierre region winery is noted for its top line Cornalin wine, said it reminded him of the best of Cornalins, with their dense, rich fruit and dark cherry notes. I had been thinking the same.
The wine is so special the winery decided to launch it on Mount Ararat, a symbol of their country to Armenians (although today it is in Turkey). A mere 400 bottles are made, and with 21 countries to which Zorah exports, the price is, not surprisingly, high. Wine-searcher shows an average price of CHF150, but only 1 bottle available, in the UK, for CHF556.
Note: Most of these wines are not readily available in Switzerland, but Coop’s Mondovino will be carrying some this autumn, thanks to efforts on the part of José Vouillamoz to make them available to Swiss wine-lovers. Cave SA in Gland sells Voski.