The Tree of Knowledge: Winemaking in Armenia

Armen Levonovich Meruzhanyan is a translator, poet, essayist, and publisher. Born in 1954, he graduated from the Faculty of Russian Philology at Yerevan State University in 1976. He worked as a literary consultant at the Union of Writers of Armenia and is a member of the Union of Writers of the USSR and the Union of Writers and Journalists of Armenia. Since 1994, he has been living in St. Petersburg.

He is the long-standing editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Avatamk,” founded in 1993 to serve the Armenian community in St. Petersburg. A popularizer of Armenian culture, Meruzhanyan is the founder of the “Library of the Avatamk Newspaper” series (1997), which publishes books of religious and historical significance.

Meruzhanyan was awarded the “Silver Swallow” badge for covering the plight of child refugees. He is one of the founders and the first editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Artist of St. Petersburg” (2000-2001) and is a member of the Union of Artists of Russia.

“Here is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living soul with you, forever: I set my rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of an everlasting covenant between me and the earth,” said the Lord, blending seven colors and scattering them across the vast, tranquil sky.

These colors wove an ethereal arch, drawn by an invisible hand over the blessed land. One wing of the rainbow, soaring above Mount Masis, dispersed in the distance where the icy gaze of Mount Sipan guards the fragile azure of Lake Van. The other wing grew into the fertile soil of the valley, encircled by the course of the Araks River, whose lively, girlish laughter delighted the farmer’s ears each morning.

The first grape harvest, nurtured by the blessed Ararat Valley sun, was abundant. Thanking the Creator and blessing the sun, the farmer kissed the grape cluster, squeezed it, and grape juice flowed into cool clay vessels. The farmer patiently waited for the juice, pressed from ripe grapes, to ferment and for the young autumn wine to emit its intoxicating aroma.

The first traces of viticulture date back to the 5th–4th millennia BCE, making winemaking almost as old as agriculture itself. And since it’s not definitively known who and when first made wine, several nations, including the Armenians, lay claim to being the pioneers. It is generally believed that winemaking originated in the Transcaucasus region; from there, it spread to India and only later to Mediterranean countries, giving birth to the divine trilogy of Osiris-Dionysus-Bacchus. The word “wine” itself, prevalent in European languages, is believed by linguists to have originated from the Armenian “gini” and the Georgian “vini.” In Sanskrit, wine (“vena”) means “beloved.”

In the fortress of Teishebaini, during the period of the Van Kingdom on the territory of Yerevan, archaeologists unearthed gigantic wine cellars where 480 wine jars, each with a capacity ranging from 250 to 1500 liters, were neatly arranged. These grape seeds, blackened with time, lay in the vaults for twenty-seven centuries and revealed their secret only at the end of the last century. The leading Armenian winemaker, Professor L. Janpoladyan, determined that they belonged to eight grape varieties, including Mskhali, Garan-dmak (“sheep’s suet”), Ararati (Khachabash), the medicinal Hargi (Voskehate), and, of course, the most delicate Kishmish, which still grow in the Ararat Valley today.

When the Assyrians conquered the Middle East in the 9th century BC, they took tribute from Armenia, including wine. Even one of the grape variety names, “Hargi,” comes from the word “tribute,” although its real name is Voskehate (“golden berry”). Wine was a significant source of income, and many countries purchased the Armenians’ famed aromatic wine. Traders were most active along the Euphrates, significantly reducing transportation costs. Herodotus described the traders’ journeys:

“In the land of the Armenians, who live above the Assyrians, ships are constructed with reeds and covered with skins. Without arranging a stern or a prow but in a shield-like manner, they make the ship round and fill it with reeds. These vessels, loaded with goods, particularly wine in palm vessels, are managed by two paddles and two standing men; the ships are large and small, the larger ones lifting up to five thousand talents (about 30 tons) of cargo, each carrying donkeys, and the larger the ship, the more donkeys they carry.

Upon arriving in Babylon and unloading the goods, the ship’s reeds were sold on the spot, and the skins were brought back to Armenia by donkeys. Due to the river’s exceptional speed, it’s impossible to sail upstream, which is why ships are not made of wood but of skins. Once they returned to Armenia in this manner, they would construct similar ships.”

Not far from the earthquake-destroyed residence of Catholicos Nerses III, archaeologists discovered a large grape press and penetrated into four rooms separated by stone walls. Here in the 7th century, grapes were crushed, and grape juice flowed through stone gutters into jars with a capacity of 4-6 thousand liters each. Besides the vats and jars, wine was stored in leather skins—waterskins—which the inhabitants of this wood-scarce region had been using up until recent centuries.

In more recent times, planting vineyards required real dedication, as nomadic Muslim tribes continuously crossing the highlands ruthlessly destroyed the vineyards to clear space for uninterrupted pastures.

Grain and vine, as primary crops, have always symbolized fertility and prosperity. Wine was initially identified with the blood of the Divine, and it was attributed with the sacred function of transcendence over death, the gift of immortality. Thus, planting the Tree of Life, which offers the “elixir of immortality,” took on the characteristics of a sacred act. I’m not mistaken in writing “Tree of Life.” In Armenia, you’ll often hear the legend that the forbidden fruit tasted by Adam and Eve was a grape.

The image of the grapevine as the Tree of Life has long been widespread, not only in our mythology. Recall the apocryphal text, “The Apocalypse of Baruch,” where the protagonist, lifted by an angel to the heavens, asks to be shown the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which opened the eyes of our ancestors. On the third heaven, the angel shows him that very tree, which turns out to be a grapevine—the most energetically charged gift of flora.

Even in art, the grapevine has entered as a symbol of serene life. The “Grape Belt,” framing the Surb Khach Temple on the island of Akhtamar, is the best expression of the concept of an ideal world. Here, pastoral images of the world blend with the symbolic, reflecting the cycle of existence. The garden, as a cosmic model of life, is presented by Akhtamar sculptors in the time of its maturity, and the fundamentally unbroken vine organizes the world with its proportionally distributed branches, nourishing it as the Tree of Life.

The energetic center of the garden is the winepress, where the fruits of the Tree of Life are turned into the elixir of life. The garden itself is open to anyone whose heart is ready to dwell in it. How can one not recall the lines of the Sufi poet Rumi: “Before the garden, grapevine, and grapes appeared in this world, our souls were already drunk with the wine of immortality”?

Let’s pause briefly to remember the history of the word “alcohol,” which refers to any drink containing ethyl alcohol. It is borrowed from Arabic and is thought to have originally meant fine granular antimony used for darkening eyebrows. In medieval pharmacy, the ground powder was called pulvis alcoholisatus. But the Arabs themselves understood the boundaries of the term much more broadly; it meant the finer essence of material. After all, the word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “soul.” And the Armenian “vogelits”—”alcoholic”? It literally means “saturated with spirit.” So there you have it—wine is indeed spiritualizing!

Wine is created for the joy of the heart and the exultation of the soul—this is how it was perceived in the ancient world. The cult of the grape, uplifting the soul and boosting vitality, originally dominated in Armenia. Here, at every turn, you can find a place name related to the sun and grapes. One of the oldest settlements in the Artsakh (Karabakh) region is called Azoh—meaning “unripe grapes.”

It couldn’t be otherwise in a country that has long been considered a classic land of winemaking. A healing mountain spring, originating above the village of Akori founded by Noah, bore the colorful name Ginavet—meaning “Wine-bearing.” Folk singers, known as gusans, sang praises of their “wine-bearing” homeland. Extensive vineyards in Vagharshapat were also called “wine-bearing,” and they were surrounded by apricot orchards.

The peasant winemaker would build a winepress near his home or right in the garden. The grape harvest was accompanied by festive celebrations, expressing mankind’s gratitude to the Almighty for generously bestowing the Earth with nourishing fruits. Inside the winepress, a long stone reservoir was constructed with a sloping bottom and a hole leading to a stone vat in the ground. Men, with songs and dances, would crush the ripe grapes with their bare feet, and the must would flow into the vat. Then it would be poured into large earthenware jars, also buried in the ground. During fermentation, a lump of red clay was added to the wine for degreasing and purifying, and the young blood of the grape berries would mature in cool cellars, awaiting its time.

Until recent times, a wonderful custom was preserved in Armenian villages: in the autumn, after the harvest, the father would personally offer his son, who had come of age, the first cup of sun-infused grape juice in his life.

This was a unique initiation rite, a symbolic ceremony of manhood. “Drink not to fall, but to rise,” the father would advise. It’s not for nothing that in our language there exists the word “ginovtsats,” conveying the uplifting, inspiring effect of wine. Specifically, wine—not any alcoholic beverage. Literally, it can be translated as “wine-imbued,” not merely drunk, tipsy, or inebriated.

According to an ancient sacred tradition, Armenians, who have long called themselves “Arevordi”—”Sons of the Sun,” brought the fruits of the first harvest to the temple as gratitude to the Sun-Creator for the earthly blessings bestowed upon mankind. The life-giving sun of the south, the receptive and fertile soil, and the purest spring waters gave life to remarkable specimens of flora, which have made the region famous for its wonderful beverages, the patriarch of which remains wine, gifted by the royal vine.

“I will bury a grape seed in warm soil,” wrote not just a fine connoisseur of wine, but a man who regarded the divine drink as a true philosopher. The poet, whose veins flowed with southern blood, knew firsthand that life under the shade of one’s own vineyard symbolized comfort and well-being.

Therefore, in the Armenian Highlands, grapes were cultivated wherever the soil allowed. Establishing a vineyard on vacant land was marked as a special celebration, in honor of which stone stelae with solemn memorial inscriptions were erected. “Rusa, the son of Argishti, says: there was no cultivated land in the valley of the country of Kuarlini. By the command of the god Khaldi, I have laid out this vineyard, arranged fields with crops, and set up fruit orchards around… I have brought a channel from the river Ildaruni (Zangu—A.M.).” The approach to viticulture was state-sponsored—rulers cared about planting large orchard tracts, proudly naming them after themselves, considering gardening to be no less important than military exploits. Yes, let us remember yet again: build a house, plant a tree…

In the Christian world, grain and vine have become Eucharistic symbols. “I am the true vine,” Christ allegorically says, “and my Father is the vinedresser.” The bloody color of wine forms the basis of its sacred symbolism. The symbolic significance of liturgical wine, representing the image of Christ’s redeeming blood, was expressed by ancient Greeks long before through the god Dionysus, equating wine with the blood of the deity. According to their beliefs, every year on January 6 in the temple on the island of Andros, Dionysus turned water into wine. So what happened in Cana of Galilee is a later event.

And other words of Christ, spoken to His disciples during His last, Secret Supper: “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s Kingdom.” In these words of the Master lies the highest esoteric meaning of red wine. Thus, love feasts initiated a new understanding of communal consumption of food—a spiritual union between the Master and His disciples, a mystical transubstantiation.

The wine of the New Testament was no longer just a charged beverage but divine blood, obtained through the participation of the Holy Spirit in the liturgical act. A drop of liturgical wine, dipped in bread, purifies a person, transforming their entire being right on the church’s ambo, partaking of the Blood and Flesh of Christ, leading, in other words, to spiritual immortality.

The deepest meaning of the feast lies in spiritual enlightenment, opening one’s heart to the fellow diner. This is precisely the inner state that the wise Greeks denoted with the word “agape”—”love feasts.” The meaning of such elevated communion, where grape juice turns into a miracle of brotherly love and the mystical presence of God in each participant, was inherited by the Christian ecumene precisely from the Greeks. And Christianity could not do without the symbol of the grapevine, through which it expressed inspired joy and the banishment of heart-oppressing sorrows. Thus, the words are remembered: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

But not even a century after Christ’s crucifixion, Pope Alexander I introduced the use of wine diluted with water during the liturgy. The pontiff explained this innovation as a remembrance of the blood and water that flowed from the Savior’s pierced side during His suffering on the cross.

The blood of the Savior symbolizes the mystery of communion, and the water—the mystery of baptism. The Armenian Christians inherited this teaching directly from the apostles. That’s why, when performing the Eucharist, the Armenian Apostolic Church uses whole wine, not diluted with water. This custom remains a unique feature of our Church.

The arid mountain climate, water rich in minerals, the angle of the sun’s rays gently caressing the slowly ripening, resilient vine, produced a harvest from which unique Kagor and Muscat wines were made—these varieties did not lose their high taste qualities for ten to fifteen years. People accepted wine as a blessing, as a preventative and medicinal means, invigorating life. In civilized countries, where wine once earned the title of royal drink, it is still not considered alcohol to this day, but rather a necessary product for the body, containing substances that regulate the daily diet. Wine is not indulged in; wine is drunk.

Centuries and morals have changed, and the lofty attitude towards wine has begun to show an unhealthy tendency towards drunkenness, elevating wine’s second, vulgar aspect over its first—sacred one. Early medieval statesmen wisely demanded the isolation of chronic alcoholics as mentally ill. The mere presence of a drunk person in society was already considered a sign of disrespect to those present. Even during the reign of the first kings of the Arshakuni dynasty, there was a decree regulating feast hours for nobles, who were avid admirers of the grapevine.

King Vagarshak could not be called an opponent of wine-drinking; according to Movses Khorenatsi, he even humorously named his chief wine steward “Gnuni,” from the word “gini” (“wine”). The steward’s duty was to supply the court with select wine varieties and oversee the provision of the nobility with the healthful beverage. For the sake of laughter, let’s say that this steward was named Gin. “King Vagarshak had a great deal of fun with this and elevated his lineage to princely dignity.”

Ovan I Mandakuni, a 5th-century Catholicos, was a subtle poet and composer who shamed drunkards and was strict with clergy who had a penchant for the potion that overstimulates the mind and leads to the most foolish actions and abominable deeds.

From foolishness to cruelty is but one step. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery, stupidity, and is the source of adultery, all kinds of filth, unrighteousness, strife, dirty slander, leading to murder; for, according to the Gospel word, you will not inherit the Kingdom of God,” says Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali in his “Conciliar Letter,” which has remained in public consciousness as a catechism.

The clergy’s elite—learned archimandrites—particularly despised drunkenness, valuing every minute they were given and seeing drunkenness as a senseless reduction of one’s own life and personal degradation. When listing the seven deadly sins, sacred texts point to drunkenness as a part of gluttony.

“Wine is life to a man if he drinks it in moderation,” the biblical prophet David reminds us from the depths of centuries. And although monks, in their land-improving work, gladly planted vineyards and cultivated vines, they never forgot that excessive wine-drinking turns a person into a will-less, apathetic being and stimulates destructive idleness.

Wine vapors cloud the mind and disrupt thought: they possess the elusive quality of turning joy into sorrow, sorrow into melancholy. Under their influence, the strong become weak, the learned become ignorant, and the ignorant believe themselves wise. The more wine consumed, the more passions flare; the crazier the passions, the closer one comes to unconscious anger, which is demonic. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise,” warns the Book of Proverbs by Solomon.

Our renowned 13th-century legal scholar, Archimandrite Mkhitar Gosh, formulated a law about the punishment of drunkards in his “Code of Laws.” First and foremost, Gosh demanded that the oaths and promises of a drunk person should not be considered in legal disputes. “Do not engage in conversations with arrogant, reckless, and drunk people,” advises a folk proverb.

Gosh called for particularly harsh punishment for clergy members caught in drunkenness, as well as for those who organized feasts for religious servants. At the same time, the Archimandrite insisted that a drunkard should be admonished the first time and only punished upon a repeated display of improper behavior.

On August 13th, the Armenian Church performs one of its most popular folk rituals—the blessing of the grape harvest. In pagan times, these were the days of the New Year’s festival, Navasard. Among Western Armenians, who lived south of Ararat where the harvest ripens earlier due to climatic conditions, there was an infallible sign: if the snow had melted from the smaller peak, the grape harvest could begin. The priest performing the ritual, after ritual prayers and thrice making the sign of the cross, blesses the grapes, and the sanctified fruits are distributed to the congregation. In olden times, the ritual took place in church-owned or personal vineyards, and both the king and princes eagerly participated in this beloved festival.

In deference to the deep roots of the ritual, Gregory the Illuminator, the baptizer of Armenia, who saw neither sense nor opportunity to deter popular consciousness from it, combined the day of grape blessing with the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—sometimes the time of its full ripening. Christianity could not ignore the established regulations of national life and, in some cases, did not oppose popular ethics and aesthetic creeds. Many elements of pagan ritual entered the young religion through allegory, functional roles, or even phonetic similarities. Over the centuries, pagan ethics dissolved into Christianity, creating a unique worldview blend.

At the beginning of the first millennium of our era, there were over 80 varieties of wine in the world. Many of them are forgotten or entirely unknown. However, if you are fortunate enough to visit the artificial grotto of the “Ararat” winery, you will find yourself in a wine museum, whose collection includes over 3,000 types of wines, some of which have been aged for centuries. There are only three such repositories in the world— in France, Italy, and Armenia.

Mystically, wine is considered a symbol that unites opposing elements: Fire, representing the masculine principle, and Water, representing the feminine. According to astrological science, the best wines are made from grapes harvested during the years of Mars and the Sun. Years of the Sun are especially favorable for red wines. The term “comet wine” (vin la comète) originated in France and applies to rare, high-quality wines, thought to be influenced by the effects of comets on the taste of the harvest.

The life of wine before it reaches the table consists of four stages. The first is the initial fermentation of grape juice. In Armenia, “machar” (must)—a young wine where the fermentation process has barely completed—is very popular. Machar still contains carbon dioxide and lacks the flavor properties inherent in matured wine. The second stage involves the formation of the wine (3-5 months), during which new taste and aromatic substances develop, and it becomes clearer. This is followed by maturation, lasting from one and a half to four years, giving birth to vintage table wines and vintage fortified wines. The aging stage occurs in bottles.

This stage lasts from five to twenty years and leads to the production of collectible wines. Many varieties, sealed in clay vessels and buried in the earth, are stored for 15–20 years and are only considered ready for consumption after this period. Armenian grape varieties have a high sugar content, leading to a high alcohol content, which favors the production of strong and dessert wines. Their aging can last 50–80 years—a whole human lifetime. A drink truly fit for royalty.

Wine in Armenia was made not only from grapes. Utilizing the medicinal properties of pomegranate, quince, rose, and many other plants that nature has gifted the land, highlanders prepared therapeutic and tasty wines from them. Another alcoholic beverage was also produced here, which entered the category of traditional drinks quite late. In 401 B.C., when Greek troops led by Xenophon passed through Armenia, the locals treated them to a beverage stored in cool cellars.

The historian was amazed by a beverage resembling what we today call beer: “There was wheat, barley, other grains, and in large vessels, wine made from barley, upon the surface of which floated barley grains. There were also reed straws—large and small—in the vessels. When thirsty, a person would put the tip of the reed into their mouth and suck. The beverage was very strong if not diluted with water, but for someone accustomed to it, it was a very appetizing drink.”

Xenophon’s account is far from the only evidence that Armenia is among the early producers of beer. Archaeological digs in Yerevan, offering a glimpse into local life in the 7th century BCE, suggest the same. The Romans sent special expeditions for Armenian barley because their beer was inferior in quality to Armenian beer, a difference attributed to the water’s properties. The beer was brewed from barley (and more rarely from millet), which is why we call it “garedjour” — barley water. The beverage’s popularity was also ensured by its low cost, making it accessible to the poor.

The term “tski,” which expressed a tingling sensation in the heart after drinking, was used by our ancient ancestors to describe an alcoholic beverage similar in taste and strength to vodka. Tski was made from date juice, and later other aromatic fruits were also used in its production—cornelian cherry, mulberry, plum, pear, apricot, grapes, and so on.

The first mention of mulberry vodka, the most popular among the listed beverages, is found in the chronicles of Alexander the Great’s expeditions, who passed through Armenia. Over the past decades, medical researchers have conducted numerous scientific studies dedicated to the effects of this popular drink on the human body.

Scientists almost unanimously assert that the daily intake of 50 grams of this yellowish-greenish liquid is the best preventative measure for cardiovascular diseases. A shot of mulberry vodka can lower high fever, clear the throat, and relieve coughing. In traditional medicine, mulberry vodka was used as the alcoholic component in compresses.

It was also used to eliminate intestinal worms. The mulberry vodka contains mind-altering substances in a reasonable sense of the term—citric acid, tartaric acid, and essential oils. Thanks to such a unique complex, the measured consumption of mulberry vodka has a calming effect and ensures a peaceful sleep. One of the main features of this beverage is the absence of a hangover syndrome, despite its high alcohol content.

There was a time when vodka enthusiasts were subjected to public persecution. A drunk person would be tied to a horse and led from house to house, shown to relatives and neighbors to demonstrate the state to which a person could deteriorate.

Historical literature also provides other ironic characteristics that add color to the collective portrait of an Armenian. State Councilor Ivan Chopin, during the reign of Nicholas I, headed the Revenue and State Property Administration of the Armenian region for many years and had a good understanding of Armenian customs.

In his work “Historical Monument of the State of the Armenian Region at the Time of Its Annexation to the Russian Empire,” he describes an episode from the life of Yerevan residents: “…Armenians are hospitable and passionately fond of vodka and wine, which uplift a person’s spirit.

During the reign of Shah Abbas, Yerevan residents, frightened by the strict rules of a newly appointed ruler, earnestly requested the appointment of someone else. The Shah, conceding to their plea, stated that ‘these Yerevan people do not deserve to have such a pious man as their leader,’ and appointed another, not averse to the temptations of the sweet poison.”

Nonetheless, Armenians are not considered aggressive to this day, and our people’s relationship with alcoholic beverages has played a significant role in this, as drunkenness brings no fewer devastations than war and plague. This is because wine-drinking as a ritual occupied one of the highest ranks in the system of traditions. Even within the USSR, Armenia was the only republic where there were no sobering-up stations—simply because they were unnecessary.

Armen Merujanyan
Translated Vigen Avetisyan

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