PLANT­ING AR­ME­NIA’S FU­TURE

Coun­try notable for its in­dige­nous grapes striv­ing to re­cap­ture its place in wine

Montreal Gazette - - WEEKEND LIFE - BILL ZACHARKIW You can hear Bill Zacharkiw talk about wine on CHOM-FM (97.7) Fri­days at 7:45 a.m. gazettewine@gmail.com twit­ter.com/Bil­lZacharkiw face­book.com/ bil­lzacharki­wwine

Last week I wrote about Ar­me­nia’s wine his­tory, which can be traced back to 4000 BC. But the mod­ern Ar­me­nian wine in­dus­try “is not 6,000 years old — it’s closer to six,” quips Yeraz Gharib­ian, co-owner of Zo­rah, one of my favourite Ar­me­nian winer­ies.

“Our cul­ture, our tran­scripts, our songs are filled with ref­er­ences to wine,” ex­plains Gharib­ian. “But up un­til re­cently, there was no wine.”

This puts the coun­try in an in­ter­est­ing place within the in­ter­na­tional wine­mak­ing com­mu­nity. It might be the youngest wine in­dus­try I have seen in my ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist. To­day there are just over 40 winer­ies in Ar­me­nia, up from around 20 in 2010. By way of com­par­i­son, Que­bec has been pro­duc­ing wine since the 1980s and there are

close to 100 winer­ies.

Ar­me­nia has a nice mix of larger, well-fi­nanced winer­ies and small bou­tique ones. It has a few ad­van­tages over other coun­tries with newer wine in­dus­tries, start­ing with the ter­roir. Its soils are pre­dom­i­nantly vol­canic and lime­stone, and while the cli­mate is warm, Ar­me­nia is also very hilly, with many high-al­ti­tude vine­yards. In short, it’s ideal for grow­ing high-qual­ity grapes.

As for the grapes them­selves, there are 200 to 300 in­dige­nous va­ri­eties, ac­cord­ing to wine­maker Vahe Keushgue­rian, who re­turned to Ar­me­nia to plant vines in the late ’90s.

While this is an in­cred­i­ble re­source, there are a cou­ple of prob­lems. First of all, very few of those va­ri­eties have been doc­u­mented and tested. How many can pro­duce world-class wine? That has yet to be dis­cov­ered, and is the most im­por­tant work that lies ahead for the Vine and Wine Foun­da­tion of Ar­me­nia, which in­vited me on my trip.

The other prob­lem is that, ow­ing to the coun­try’s time as part of the Rus­sian Em­pire, many Ar­me­nian vine­yards are filled with Soviet-made hy­brid vines — es­pe­cially the white grape kan­gun — which were de­vel­oped to pro­duce wine for dis­til­la­tion for Ar­me­nia’s renowned brandy in­dus­try. Kan­gun may be great for brandy, but for white wine it can be a bit bland. More in­ter­est­ing are the white va­ri­eties voske­hat and garan dmak, es­pe­cially when blended to­gether.

The red va­ri­ety areni is con­sid­ered the king of Ar­me­nian grapes. It is widely planted and, de­pend­ing how it is treated, falls some­where be­tween Valpo­li­cella’s corv­ina and pinot noir in terms of taste pro­file. There are other very good red grapes as well: sireni and hagh­tanak im­pressed me, and blend well with areni to make a more pow­er­ful wine.

I vis­ited a num­ber of notable winer­ies. Some, like Karas, are ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­ter­na­tional va­ri­eties, but most are con­tent to work with in­dige­nous grapes, which rep­re­sents the fu­ture if Ar­me­nia is go­ing to take the next step.

Koor, Old Bridge, the Ar­me­nian Wine Com­pany and Ar­mAs all have very good wines. Va­hagn Gevorkian’s amarone-style wines are ex­cep­tional. I also loved the areni from Voskeni.

While Ar­me­nia has work to do if it wants to carve out a niche in the world of wine, the big­gest chal­lenge might be within its own bor­ders. Most Ar­me­ni­ans drink vodka and brandy in­stead — not sur­pris­ing, as wine is rel­a­tively new there, and the vodka and brandy is very good.

Ar­me­nia’s wine cul­ture is de­vel­op­ing, with wine bars be­com­ing more and more plen­ti­ful. They need more lo­cal ex­perts, som­me­liers, writ­ers — peo­ple who will cast a crit­i­cal eye on the coun­try’s winer­ies and will push them to ex­cel. I won’t be sur­prised when that hap­pens, as the raw ma­te­rial and the will to suc­ceed are al­ready there to put Ar­me­nia on the world wine map.

There are only three Ar­me­nian wines listed at the SAQ, and only one has suf­fi­cient in­ven­tory — a white wine from Karas (SAQ # 13504558, $20.45). If you would like to pur­chase Ar­me­nian wines on pri­vate im­port, the Kiné­doun agency (kine­doun.com) spe­cial­izes in them.

BILL ZACHARKIW

Zorik and Yeraz Gharib­ian co-own Zo­rah win­ery in Ar­me­nia. “Our cul­ture, our tran­scripts, our songs are filled with ref­er­ences to wine,” says Yeraz. “But up un­til re­cently, there was no wine.” There are now about 40 winer­ies in the coun­try, twice the num­ber in 2012.

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