A wine country emerges

Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, is rich in oil and natural gas, as well as agriculture. Eugene Gerden reports on government plans to add high-value wine production to the economy.


Like its immediate neighbours Armenia, Georgia and Russia, Azerbaijan has ambitions to be recognised internationally for its wines. Situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and with a population of 9.5m, it has a very strong winemaking tradition stretching back to the second millennium BC. German immigrants from Württemberg were brought into Azerbaijan by Tsar Alexander I at the beginning of the 19th century, circa 1817-1818, and the wines they produced were said to rival those of classic regions of Europe. 

During the Soviet era, wine production was encouraged as an alternative to grain and long-term plans were drawn up during the 1960s for a growth in production of an annual harvest of as much as 3m tons of grapes by 1990. In 1982 when over 2m tons were produced, these ambitions seemed to be on their way to being realised. Wine had become one of the most profitable segments of Azerbaijan's economy. 

However Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s anti-alcohol campaign in the USSR resulted in the massive uprooting of vines. According to Heydar Asadov, Azerbaijan’s Agriculture Minister, his country has the potential to grow 450 grape varieties, including many that are not found elsewhere. Vineyards growing these grapes were, however, included in the over 130,000 ha of vineyards that had been destroyed by 1989.

Plans to expand 

Asadov has plans to revive the wine industry that include the establishment of new vineyards in different parts of the country, and in particular the valley of the Kura River, the main winegrowing region in the west, as well as the Shemakhinsky and Kurdamir areas to the east of the country.  

Finally, particular attention will be paid to the increase of production in the Ganja-Gazakh and Shirvan economic zones, areas, that in recent years have become the centres of Azerbaijan winemaking, as well as the Shamkir region.

Compared to the vast swathes of vineyards that were lost in the dying days of the USSR, the government’s current plans seem relatively modest: the current area of vines are set to be increased by “at least 7,000 hectares”. However, in contrast to Soviet times, when Azerbaijan winemaking mostly focused on the production of cheap wines, the current ambitions are to focus on the production of high-quality wines. 

At present the country has 10 large wineries and vineyards, the largest of which – Vinagro – was established in Ganja 2006 in a plant built by German immigrants in 1860. The state plans to significantly increase the number of producers during the next few years. According to Asadov, the government also plans to broaden its export markets and to compete with Georgia and Moldova, its main rivals in the Russian and European markets where most exports have traditionally been sold. The aim is to expand into Asia and, in particular, China. There are also plans to increase exports to the US, where there is an established demand for Azerbaijani wine. 

State investment

The amount of government investment that will be made available to the industry has not been disclosed, but sources close to the state suggest that it may reach $100m. This would allow a significant increase of production of wine in the near future from a volume that’s variously estimated at between 7,200 and  15,000 tons. According to the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee statistics, production in the country during the period of 2005 to 2013 years increased 2.6 times, from an admittedly small base – from 400,500 to 1.063m hL. At the same time, exports for the same period have grown nearly eight-fold, from 49,400 to 389,000 hL. It is planned that a focus will be on increasing production of Bayanshira, Azerbaijan’s most widely planted grape variety. This grape, widely distributed in the territories of the former Soviet states of the Caucasus is a questionable choice, if the impressions of Julia Harding MW, co-author of Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties  are to be believed. Harding describes wines made from this variety as “typically crisp, moderate in alcohol but overall pretty inferior. [The variety] is grown for the table as well and for juice as well as for a range of wine styles”. 

Outside help

The possibility of a joint venture with French wine producers was discussed during a recent meeting between Heydar Asadov and Stéphane Le Foll, the French Minister of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, so it is possible that other traditional varieties will be included in future projects. According to Nariman Agayev, chairman of the Azerbaijan Sustainable Development Research Centre, the project will, in any case, also involve the cultivation of French grape varieties. 

Agayev has also added that, as part of the state plans for the raise of prestige of Azerbaijan wine in the global wine market, there are also plans to ramp up the fight against counterfeiting. Fake Azerbaijan wine may be a problem in Russia, but it may be some time before most consumers in other markets are likely to encounter a bottle.



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