Wine expert Dr Caroline Gilby MW (Master of Wine) has written an interesting article about the ancient origins of wine. Bellow screenshot of the page followed by the transcript of the article.
Wine’s ancient Armenian roots
By Dr Caroline Gilby MW
Several countries vie for the title of ‘birthplace of wine’, but new evidence suggests that Armenia is the winner. And now a new producer aims to bring modern winemaking to the country.
Armenia is a small landlocked former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan, and yet with its own unique language and culture. Its population is just three million people, though worldwide an estimated eight million people claim Armenian descent. It’s not exactly well known as a wine country but recent developments should put Armenia squarely back on the world wine map.
In recent years, Turkey and Georgia have fought for pride of place as the true origin of wine, at least verbally. There’s strong genetic and archaeological evidence for grape domestication in the South Caucasus between the Caspian and Black Seas, and now Armenia has added her voice with the recent discovery of the world’s oldest winery. It was found during excavations of the Areni-1 cave, near the southern border with Iran, between 2007-2010, and there’s strong evidence that this is the oldest complete wine production facility ever discovered; including grape seeds, vine twigs, remains of pressed grapes, a rudimentary wine press and a large clay vat apparently used for fermentation.
Chemical analyses have detected Malvidin, a pigment only found in grapes and pomegranates, (though no traces of this fruit were found), and the morphology of the pips is consistent with Vitis vinifera. Carbon dating of a vine twig from the cave dates the find to around 4,000 years BC, at least 1,000 years older than the next comparable discovery. Boris Gasparyan, the project director of the Gfoeller Foundation, sponsors of the excavation and Director of Armenia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, says, “ this is the first evidence of winemaking on an industrial scale. Areni came like a jewel in the crown of our scientific project, confirming my scientific theories of a very early winemaking tradition in Armenia.”
Wine in modern Armenia
Historically, grapes have been an important crop in Armenia, though today statistics are limited. Grape production hovered around 200,000 tonnes from 2006 to 2008, produced from as many as 200 different local varieties. Sources suggest that only about 4m liters of wine are produced commercially, the vast majority being distilled into grape brandy. Wine consumption is estimated at around 1 to 1.5 liters per head, though of course this doesn’t include unofficial home-made wine which is widespread and often sold by the roadside. Grape brandy is Armenia’s national drink, which is no surprise when you taste a selection of the bottled wines on offer, even in the capital’s best wine shop.
However, one new producer is aiming to change all this. Zorik Gharibian is an Armenian Italian working in fashion, who changed his mind about following the predictable, safe route of buying a vineyard in Tuscany in favour of returning to his ancestral roots in Armenia. It took him several years and numerous soil samples shipped back to Italyfind the ideal plot. As in much of the former Soviet Union, land holdings have become very fragmented, so finding a single sizeable piece of land, with water (there’s no summer rainfall here so irrigation is essential) and “terroir” took time. After searching for three years, he bought 40 hectares of village land near Areni, surrounded by dramatic snow-capped mountains, though then he had no idea of the ancient archaeology waiting to be discovered literally a couple of kilometres away.
Six hectares are now planted with the local Areni grape, using cuttings from ancient vines found locally. The first small crop was picked in 2010. As winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini says, “this was real leap in the dark as I’d never tasted any wine from this grape.” The winery is still just foundations, so the first crop has been vinified in a rented garage – in modern versions of traditional clay amphorae, as well as steel and local oak to learn what it can do. And, perhaps ironically, it’s the amphora wine that shows the best structure and fruit balance.
As for the ancient winery discovered so close by, Gharibian says, “obviously the discovery brought more attention to my project too, and to me personally the discovery is a confirmation that I have made the right choice regarding the terroir.” Commercially, Gharibian adds, “My ambition is not to be the best wine in Armenia. From the first day when I started this project all my efforts have been to make a high international level wine.” The strength of his vision and passion is such that distributors are already lined up in Russia and Italy, while he’s in negotiations in California, even before the first wine is bottled.
Politically relations remain difficult with some of Armenia’s neighbours – especially Turkey, and there’s some resentment locally of Turkey’s claims to the roots of wine. Gasparyan diplomatically sums up, “I consider not only modern Armenia, but also the territory of what is called Turkey today and Georgia and Iran as the birthplace of winemaking and grape domestication.” He adds, “The regional perspective is more correct and there is no need for this kind of championship, who is the oldest or first. Yes, the area of modern Turkey is part of the motherland of winemaking. But where Turks lived in IV Millennium BC is another question. However, if we adopt those rules of the game, then we are champs. But we have not to forget that at some stage all of [us] were just chimps.”