Armenian Wine Traditions Rediscovered

For a long time, Armenia’s prominent alcoholic beverage was brandy. The 2007 discovery of a 6,000-year-old winery in a cave in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor town of Areni was an invitation for Armenians to rediscover their ancient wine-making traditions. Starting in the 2010s, Armenia’s once-forgotten wine culture began to reemerge and take on new forms. Wine reclaimed its place on Armenian tables and during social gatherings where vodka and brandy once dominated. 

Armenia’s first wine bar opened in 2012, a milestone for Armenia’s contemporary wine culture. Today, wine bars and restaurants centered around quality wine are found all over the capital, while numerous wineries offer wine tours, authentic food, and historical and cultural experiences to visitors in traditional winemaking regions of Armenia––Vayots Dzor, the Ararat Valley, and the slopes of Mount Aragats.

While the discovery of the wine-making facility in the Areni cave proved that wine was made in the region at least six thousand years ago, cuneiform inscriptions and archeological evidence from the 1st Millenium BCE, and written text in medieval manuscripts also prove that winemaking and viticulture were advanced in Armenia during the Urartian Kingdom, and that wine and grapes had an important place in religious symbolism as well as the economy of Armenia in the Middle Ages. 

Elixir for the Afterlife

Areni, where the cave is located, is also the name of a grape endemic to the area. In the Areni cave, archeologists unearthed a large, 60-centimeter-deep vat buried next to a shallow, 1-meter-long basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges. This is where the Stone Age humans inhabiting the region stomped grapes into wine. The wine press is not the only evidence proving that wine was produced in the cave––there is also DNA-based evidence. Malvidin, the substance that gives red wine its color, was found in jars in the cave. 

Initially, the archaeologists who made the discovery thought that Stone Age humans used the cave as a dwelling. Deeper analyses of the artifacts, however, suggest that the cave was a site of rituals and burials and that humans incorporated wine in complex belief systems and traditions going as far back as the Stone Age. Some of the jars found in the cave contained bones of humans and animals, further supporting the idea that the cave was a site for rituals.

Through analysis of the human bones, it was revealed that most of the bones belonged to young women aged 11 to 25. These girls and young women all died of skull fractures, suggesting that they were sacrificed and not simply buried in jars. Furthermore, archaeologists believe that a special caste of women was bred for the sole purpose of sacrifice. 

There is a growing belief among archeologists that conceptualizations of the meaning of life and wine were interconnected in ancient times. Traces of blood were found in the jars suggesting that blood was mixed with wine. The artifacts and human remains found near the wine press further support a connection between wine and sacrificial and burial rituals.

The wine was also used in funerary rites, which involved cremation. After the body was cremated wine was poured over the ashes from gold and silver chalices and bowls. Animal-shaped jugs, goblets, rhytons, and vessels used during rituals to pour wine were often decorated with ornaments symbolizing eternity and celestial bodies.  

Archeological evidence proves that as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, wine played an important role in the economic and social life on the territory of Armenia. For the Kingdom of Urartu, [1] established around the 1st millennium BCE, wine was not only an important component of rituals dedicated to their gods, but it was also a commercial commodity that was exported to other regions.

This is evidenced by cuneiform inscriptions dating to the Urartian Kingdom, which refer to the planting of vineyards, using wine in sacrifices, building wine cellars, and storing wine. Urartian kings were also known for building water canals and promoting horticulture in their territories. For them, this action was no less important than a military victory. 

Although the wine press discovered in Areni is the oldest such facility discovered in Armenia, it is not the only one. A 3rd to 1st century BCE wine press was discovered near Armenia’s old capitals Armavir and Dvin, and another was discovered near the ruins of the fortress of Garni which was used as the summer residence of pagan as well as Christian Armenian kings. Urartian texts noted the advanced state of viticulture in Armenia in the 8th century BCE, and a 2500-year-old wine cellar was found at Karmir Blur in Yerevan.

Wine Traditions in Medieval Armenia

Like many other cultures, in Armenia, many Christian holidays, like the water festival Vardavar or the grape blessing festival Khaghoghorhneq have their roots in pagan rituals. Christian traditions also took the importance of grapes and pomegranates in paganism and their significance in representing life and death, eternity, and the endless cycle of life. In Christian traditions, Jesus Christ shed his life-giving blood, represented during Christian holidays by wine, for the cleansing of the sins of mankind.

That is why on Armenian cross-stones, the cross is carved as the tree of life, also called the blooming cross, symbolizing the grapevine or a pomegranate tree. Grapes and pomegranates are also frequently used to decorate cross-stones and are used as ornaments decorating the walls of churches, symbolizing eternity and rebirth. 

Carvings on Armenian churches and cross-stones, as well as paintings in manuscripts, tell us that medieval Armenians pictured paradise as a vineyard where the state of peace was depicted as people harvesting grapes, making wine, and enjoying it. Door frames of churches and the edges of cross-stones often depict embroidered ornaments that look like intertwined grape wines, again representing eternity and the Garden of Eden. 

Like the Stone Age humans living around the cave of Areni, medieval Armenians also thought of wine as a drink capable of imparting immortality. Depictions of wine on wake tables and soldiers drinking it before battle are found on numerous gravestones around the country. 

Although Armenia’s last independent kingdom fell in 1045, from the 11th through the 15th centuries, there were semi-independent princes in different parts of historic Armenia, who managed to keep their princedoms in relative peace and where Armenian culture and traditions continued to thrive, including winemaking. Like the Urartian kings, medieval princes of Armenia also exported the wine they produced. 

In the Middle Ages, monastic complexes were also large wine-producing institutions and were among the largest vineyard owners. Monasteries also received vineyards and wine from kings and princes as gifts. A 7th-century wine press was found near the Zvartnots Cathedral [2] and around 20 wine jars were found in the library of the monastic complex of Haghpat in northern Armenia. 

At the beginning of the 16th century, Armenian provinces were divided between the Ottoman and Persian empires. Raids and invasions by nomadic tribes and bans imposed on the production of alcohol by Muslim rulers had a devastating impact on viticulture and wine-making traditions in Armenia, and many vineyards were destroyed or deserted.

The region of Vayots Dzor, one of the main centers of wine production in Armenia, suffered greatly, from where many Armenians were forced to leave, mainly to settle in Persia. In the 17th century Persian Abbas the Great exiled 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians to Persia. Following the exile of Armenians, their villages were inhabited by various Muslim peoples.

The newcomers did not use grapes for wine, but rather for consuming fresh and dried grapes. As the wine grape is different from the one used for everyday consumption, most of the wine grapes were destroyed. 

Reviving an Ancient Tradition 

The seeds of reviving ancient Armenian wine traditions were planted in 1877 when the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory was established after eastern Armenia and Yerevan became part of the Russian Empire. Although wine started to be produced in Armenia again on a large scale, it was mainly done for quantity rather than quality, and mostly sweet wines were produced. In the Soviet era, wine was produced more in Georgia and Moldova, while Armenia was tasked to focus on the production of brandy.

For this reason, grape varieties for red wine production were neglected, while white grape varieties used for the production of brandy were cultivated and their quality was improved. Armenian vineyards also suffered in the 1980s, when the Soviet authorities under Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a partial prohibition on alcohol. Many vineyards in Armenia, including vineyards on the territory of the Dalma Gardens, were destroyed during this period.  

Although a few wine factories were opened in Armenia after its independence in 1991, it was not until the first decade of the 21st century that Armenia experienced its wine boom. The revival of Armenia’s winemaking and wine-drinking culture was also thanks to many diaspora Armenians, who moved to Armenia with their expertise and resources and put Armenia back on the wine map of the world. 

Today, Armenians celebrate their ancient love for wine on the streets of Yerevan and the wineries and gastro yards of the Aragatsotn, Ararat, and Vayots Dzor regions. Every year at the end of May, Yerevan Wine Days are held. For three days, Saryan Street is closed to traffic, and local wineries put up stalls where they present their wares. Tourists and locals get to enjoy the wine together with local and international food. Saryan Street is the site of the very first wine bar in Yerevan. Now Saryan is a bustling street boasting many cafes and restaurants. 

In October, Vayots Dzor pays tribute to winemaking with its own Areni Wine Festival, a few hundred meters from the Areni cave. Here local producers gather to present their wines to visitors. Wine tastings are accompanied by music, dances and the traditional crushing of grapes; young men and women crush grapes with their feet, singing and dancing during the process, as their ancestors did long before them. 

By Hranoush Dermoyan evnreport.com

Footnotes:

[1] Also known as the Kingdom of Van, named after its capital Van-Tushpa.
[2] The ruins of the Zvartnots Cathedral are adorned by carvings of grape vines and leaves, which have served as an inspiration for carvings in many modern-day buildings in Yerevan.

References:

1-Sahakyan, A., Wine in Traditional Armenian Culture, National Academy of Sciences (2005).
2-Hovhannisyan, N., Armenian Vine and Wine, GIZ Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (2017).
3-Horkey, M., Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, The Blue Roster (2016).
4-Areshian, G. et al, Wine and Death: The 2010 Excavation Season at the Areni-1 Cave Complex, Armenia, Back dirt 

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