A Wine Expert’s Diary from the Roads of Vayots Dzor, Armenia

Armenia, where the oldest trace of wine production is 6,100 years old, can indeed compete for the title of the “cradle of wine.”

In the summer of 2020, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s My Armenia Program partnered with Armenian publication Yerevan Magazine to publish a special issue highlighting community-based cultural heritage tourism in the country. Over the next few months, the Center will publish English translations of the articles to Smithsonian Voices.

In 2019, historian and wine expert Tigran Zakaryan dedicated an entire day to the Vayots Dzor Wine Route and visited six wineries at the request of Yerevan Magazine. During this difficult time in the region, we hope these stories shine a light on the resilience of the Armenian people by showcasing their vibrant, diverse cultural heritage.

Wine has been an integral part of the Middle East and the life of the ancient civilizations of Europe since prehistoric times. Armenia, where the oldest trace of wine production is 6,100 years old, can indeed compete for the title of the “cradle of wine.”

One source of this claim is the Bible, which describes how Noah created a vineyard at the foot of Ararat, where his ark landed following the flood. There Noah made the first wine from the fruit of that vineyard and even became drunk from the wine. For ages, people believed that Noah lived in Nakhijevan after the flood and was buried there after he died.

While the Bible and science have not yet agreed on the birthplace of wine, nothing can prevent us from wandering along the wineries of Vayots Dzor, near Noah’s vineyards and towards the first wine cellar. Indeed, in order to gain greater insight into Armenian wine, we should start at its cradle, Vayots Dzor. So, let’s go.

The Beginning of the Route

As the road stretches along the sun-soaked Ararat Valley, let’s remember that Armenia is a country of incredible crossings, a place where people boast about the day before yesterday, are upset from today, cherish hopes for tomorrow, and forget about yesterday.

The same is true for wine. We have relatively limited information about wine culture in Armenia during the Middle Ages, but we do know that wine culture completely collapsed during the Soviet period, when the habit of drinking low-quality imported vodka replaced it.

Today’s restoration of wine culture in Armenia comes not from the Soviet-era factories, but rather from numerous newly created small and medium businesses, many of which are family enterprises. The more notable ones are the destinations of today’s wine route.

On the way from the Ararat Valley to Vayots Dzor, we notice how the terrain changes from flat fields to low hills, and then to chestnut-colored high mountains. We soon reach our first destination, which is located at the southern edge of Areni village, at an altitude of around 1,000 meters above sea level. There are two wineries next to each other awaiting us here: Areni and Hin Areni.

Founded in 1994 as the family enterprise of the Simonyan family, Areni is the oldest winery of the village. Its current production is impressive—up to 200,000 bottles per year, with a large assortment featuring both white and red wine, as well as many fruit varieties. Built in 2013, the wine hall complements a large restaurant where you may taste traditional and modern dishes along with the Areni wines—red dry, semi-dry, and semi-sweet wines, made from ingredients brought from neighboring Aghavnadzor village.

From the fruit wines, the Areni winery offers wines made from pomegranate, cherry, quince, blackberry, raspberry, and other fruits. Those fruits come mostly from the surrounding villages, and the berries are from Lori—but the pomegranates are imported from Artsakh, namely from Martakert, which is famous for this bright-red fruit.

The next winery on our list is Hin Areni (hin means old in Armenian), an impressive place where winemaking traditions are combined with modern equipment, designed by the Argentinian specialist Mario Japaz.

The wine’s composition and expressive aromatic bouquet result from the rich sedimentary and volcanic soil, bright sun, and microclimate of the vineyards located at an altitude of more than 1,200 meters. The winery cultivates around 250 tons of grapes each year to produce high volumes and an assortment of varieties—including Areni Noir red and rose, and Voskehat white—that have attracted and still continue to attract new fans in Armenia and abroad.

Getapi tun (House on the Riverbank)

Other wineries await us in the surrounding territory —only 20 minutes away along a picturesque road to Yeghegnadzor. Along the way, we may see the renowned cave of Areni and the lush green gorge of the Arpa River, which contrasts with mountain slopes that acquire a golden tint under the sun, which can be scorching in summer.

A bit further, we can see the Getnatun winery on the left side of the road leading to the south. This place, which formerly served as a tobacco factory, became a winery in 1999 and expanded over the years (and we can’t help admiring this greatly positive transformation of the factory).

The fruits growing on eight hectares of vineyards in Vernashen village are highly sweet and sour, which are very important factors for creating a balanced wine.

This is due not only to the vineyard’s location in a submontane territory at an altitude of 1400 to 1600 meters, but also the sandy and calcareous soil, sunny climate, and great temperature differential between day and night.

The semi-sweet pomegranate wine of Getnatun is fascinating with its distinctive scent and balanced taste. It is sour and a little bit sweet, complemented with just a touch of astringency.

The over-ripe, often cracked, and exceptionally red pomegranate is brought from either Meghri in southern Armenia or Artsakh. Yet, Getnatun also uses its own fruits to make high-quality apple, apricot, and plum vodkas, which are aged for seven or more years. The wine factory also has reserve wines—aged wines, which are first kept in oak barrels and then in bottles for at least four years before being sold.

The Old Bridge of the Silk Road

Let’s head back home, but not too quickly. At the very edge of Yeghegnadzor, on the right side of the road to Yerevan, a hospitable hearth welcomes us, equipped with everything: a wine cellar, a tasting room with a kitchen, a rest area, and last but not least a guesthouse.

We are at Old Bridge, named for the only bridge in Armenia today with a pointed arch, built at the beginning of the 13th century and renovated several times. There was a time when the bridge served travelers on the old Silk Road. Currently, Old Bridge unites the Western and Armenian winemaking traditions, introducing Armenia and particularly Vayots Dzor to the world.

Founded in 1998, this family business of the Khalatyans does not have a very large assortment of wines—only the red reserve wine made of Areni grapes and white wine from Voskehat grapes. However, the owners constantly seek to improve the quality of their existing wines.

by Tigran Zakaryan Smithsonianmag

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