"The loss of Artsakh for us Armenians is immeasurable! This is ancient Christian cultural land, randomly assigned by Stalin in 1921 to the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic as an autonomous region – now it's lost forever. And the world doesn't care. It has other problems," says Lianna Abelyan from the Vine and Wine Foundation of Armenia (VWFA), struggling to hold back tears as she speaks of the hundreds of abandoned churches and monasteries, the homes of displaced people, vast oak forests, and fertile soil.
In "Land of the Vines," as Artsakh's name translates, 15 estates recently contributed to the "Armenian Wine Resurrection," producing around 4m liters of wine on 1,730 hectares (about 4,270 acres) from indigenous varieties like Khnoghni, Voskehat, and Rkatsiteli. Importantly, all the oak used for the barrique barrels in Armenia's expanding wineries originated from the water-rich region of Artsakh.
The country, located in the south of the Caucasus, offers magnificent volcanic landscapes but has sparse vegetation. Most vineyards need irrigation, as do orchards with pomegranates, peaches, cherries, plums, pears, and apricots (whose Latin name is "Prunus armeniaca"). In the Soviet era, unlike their neighbors in Georgia, Armenians were assigned to Cognac production, as their vineyards are mostly above 1,000 meters in altitude.
In times of climate change, this once perceived disadvantage has turned into a benefit. Up to 1,800 meters in the remote mountain village of Khachik in the Vayots Dzor region, vineyards produce grapes for Vahe Keushguerian’s Brut Nature Rosé – within gunshot range of the Azerbaijani border. Hence, depending on the political situation, grape harvests sometimes occur in bulletproof vests.
"It doesn't feel good knowing there are 80,000 heavily armed soldiers on the other side of the mountains."
Despite biblical references to winemaking starting on the slopes of Mount Ararat, now in Turkey but visible from Armenia, scientists currently consider a cave about 100 km away as the birthplace of viticulture. In 2007, near Areni, archaeologists discovered the world's oldest winery, dating back 6,100 years. This cave has since become the most significant tourist attraction in Armenia.
Sev Areni, also the name of the country's most important red grape variety, has spread from its homeland Vayots Dzor to the regions of Ararat, Armavir, Aragatsotn, and Tavush. Of the 350 local grape varieties, 31 are used for wine production, including reds like Haghtanak, Milagh, Khndoghni, Karmrahyut, and whites like Voskehat, Lalvari, Kangoun, and Khatoun Kharji. These varieties share a unique typicity, distinct from mainstream tastes.
All the varieties mentioned, apart from having names that are nearly unpronounceable for those who speak European languages, are connected by a unique typicity that is far from the mainstream. Moreover, in the mountainous regions of Armenia, Cabernet and similar varieties are just as unknown as the grape harvester. Everything there is done by hand.
The wines, often made from vines over 100 years old that are planted on their own rootstocks, are not cheap supermarket offerings.
In just a few years, the count of wine producers has grown from 25 to 160, domestic wine consumption has seen a two-fold increase, and Yerevan now features wine bars that rival the sophistication of those found in Berlin or Barcelona. Armenia's total vineyard area is now about 15,000 hectares (approx. 37,000 acres).
Conflict and wine
However, the uncertain political situation looms large.
Armenians have been settled in the southern Caucasus for 2,200 years, but their history is marked by wars and the hegemonic ambitions of often stronger powers. Romans, Parthians, Sassanids, Byzantines, Seljuks, Persians, Ottomans, and Russians contested this land in eastern Anatolia. The tragic climax was the Turkish genocide against the Armenians with over a million deaths during the First World War in 1915/16.
In the late Soviet era, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh reignited. Following several armed conflicts, over 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled from what they call the Republic of Artsakh to Armenia in September 2023. About three million people live there, with another seven million Armenians scattered across the globe. Armenia is the world's oldest Christian nation.
All photos: Thomas Brandl