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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In neighboring Armenia: pioneering winery brings winemaking back to its roots

by Yigal Schleifer

Oenophiles tend to classify wines into either coming from the "old world" -- France, Spain, Italy and other European countries that have traditionally produced wine -- and the "new world," which includes upstarts such as the United States and Australia. Soon, though, we might need to come up with a new classification: the "ancient world," which would cover bottles coming from what's often described as wine's birthplace, Transcaucasia, a region that includes Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Iran and Turkey.

While history and archeological finds may back up the region's "birthplace of wine" claim, the quality of the wine produced there -- at least in decades past -- mostly made a mockery of it. That is beginning to change, though. Georgian wines have, in recent years, made great strides in quality and have started earning international attention and acclaim. Wines produced from indigenous grapes grown in vineyards in eastern Turkey have also started to show promise.

Now an ambitious entrepreneur wants to revive Armenia's historic, but mostly dormant, winemaking tradition. Zorah, an Armenian boutique winery that just released its first vintage, was founded some ten years ago by Zorik Gharibian, an

Armenian who grew up in Iran and Italy, where he now works in the fashion industry. Enlisting the help of a pair of Italian wine experts, Gharibian is making red wine using the indigenous areni grape and traditional methods, such as letting part of the wine's fermentation take place in large clay jars that are buried underground (Georgians use a similar technique).

I recently sent Gharibian, who is based in Milan, some questions in order to learn more about his venture, which has been receiving some positive reviews:

Why and how did you begin Zorah?

“Why?” seems a simple enough question but, in this case, it is quite a difficult one to answer. It was certainly not a rational decision but a decision that came from the heart. Even though I grew up in the diaspora I am very much proud of my Armenian identity and feel a strong connection to my ancestral homeland, something passed on from the previous generations. I suppose, going ‘back’ to Armenia and creating something there is like a homecoming a return to my roots.
I have always had a passion for wine and having lived in Italy for so many years, in the back of my mind, I always toyed with the idea of making my own wine and for many years I spent weekends down in Tuscany enjoying all that it had to offer. When I visited Armenia for the very first time in 1999, however, it made a very strong impression on me. Despite the difficulties it was facing after its post-soviet and post-war era I was really moved and felt a strong connection to this place. I began to spend some time there, get to know its people and travel the different regions, and I think it was then that I subconsciously decided to start the vineyards, wherever you turned there seemed to be a reference to the grapes and wine. The idea gradually began to take hold of me and the challenge of creating something in Armenia and putting roots down in the land of my forefathers excited me. It was truly a challenge. Once I came to the Yeghegnadzor region, traditionally known as the quintessential grape growing region of Armenia, I was really taken by the natural beauty of the area and its rugged terrain and began to look for some land to plant my vineyards.

Armenia is well known for brandy but not wine, why is that so? 

There is absolutely no agricultural or viticultural reason for why Armenia is known for its brandy but not its wine. It is a legacy inherited from the Soviets. As it was common practice in the Soviet Union each region would be designated with the production of one certain thing. Armenian grapes were therefore used for brandy while Georgia was designated as the winemaking region of the Soviet Union. If you look back historically, however, Armenia has always been considered a prime wine making country, and certainly the recent findings at the Areni 1 cave, dating back 6000 years, are a testimony to this (the cave is considered to be the site of what could be the world’s oldest winery ). Other findings in the vicinity of Yerevan back in the 1940’s show that Armenia had a well-developed wine trade 3000 years ago. History is also full of references to Armenia and its wine trade. Greek scholars such as Herodotus, Xenophon and Strabo described the river trade on the Tigris by Armenian merchants who exported their excellent wines downstream to the Assyrians and beyond.

Terroir is a term that’s increasingly used these days. What is your terroir and what makes it different from others?

I truly believe that our terroir is unique. First, to find a vineyard at such high altitudes – 1375 meters above sea leve – is incredibly rare. Equally rare is also the fact that we are one of the world’s very few regions (this area in Armenia and a few regions in Chile) where, because of the unique climatic and geographic conditions, there is no Phylloxera [a vine destroying pest] so our vines are grown on their own roots and are ungrafted, which means that they are pure and probably unchanged for centuries. The vines thrive in the area’s terrain and soil: in fact in this area there are 40- and 50-year-old vineyards which still continue to produce grapes because of the exceptional condition of this soil for vine. The climate is ideal, the long hot dry summers, with an incredibly vivid and unfiltered sunlight with its high daytime temperatures and cool nights creates a day/night temperature difference of about 20°C which ensures the development of the natural sugars which balance the fruit’s characteristic acidity. This is also helped by the fact that we harvest in late October so the slow ripening of the grapes also contribute to the acidity of the wine. We have also decided to work only with indigenous grape varieties of the region, which seem to have been forgotten for centuries, and use the ancient traditions of aging in large clay amphorae which are sealed with wax and buried into the ground so our wines are unique and really a true expression of this terroir.

What are your growth plans for Zorah?

From the very beginning of the project Zorah was conceived as a boutique wine. My aim has always been first and foremost quality and I have been very firm on this. It has taken me almost ten years to arrive to my first vintage and I only decided to come out with the 2010 vintage when I was sure that the wine was of an extremely high standard. I plan to move forward slowly to ensure the high level of the wine. In the next few years we are working to come out with our second wine, but again this will happen when I am 100 percent certain of the quality. We are also working on white indigenous varietals, still in their early stages. I don’t intend to become a mass wine ever. Zorah will always be a wine of limited production and sold only on allocation.

What kind of a future do you see for the wine making industry in Armenia? 

The Armenian wine making industry is very much at its beginnings. Even though historically and traditionally Armenia has a strong wine making past, with the Soviet era it has disappeared completely. Present local Armenian wine, unfortunately, is of rather low quality. But there are now significant investments being made in the wine industry and new modern wineries are being built which should help build a new generation of Armenian wine. In Armenia I consider myself a pioneer in this field. When I first began there was nobody who was approaching wine making with my same mentality. I had no certainties whatsoever about the end product, its salability or even if it would generate any interest. I only had mere opinions of experts in the field. But based on the interest generated by my first wine and its quality I can now safely say that there is immense potential in Armenia for great wines. I think if Armenia concentrates on its own indigenous grape varieties and plays it right, with some patience and the right investments it can become a true reality in the wine world, especially now that there begins to be a great interest in the wines from the areas considered the cradle of vine and wine.

Where are your wines available and when will they be available in the US?

Zorah’s “Karasì 2010” is now available in Russia, United Kingdom, Ireland and obviously Armenia. Remaining true to the core of my project I wish to enter each new market with leaders in the field who have a sensibility for this venture. We are currently in negotiations with US importers as well as Italy, Austria, the Benelux and the Ukraine. So hopefully in the near future we will also be present in these markets.

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