Aruch-Nor, Amanos Rd, Aragatsotn region (Armenia)
ArmAs Estate is a brand new winery built in a formerly dry and arid land by Armenian-Americans who came from California (Glendale as you can guess) to participate in the rebirth of the wine business in this country. They're betting on the renaissance of Armenian wine and have been investing in both land surface and tools, building a facility from scratch in this corner of the Aragatsotn province in the west of Armenia. The winery had its start in 2007 when the founder Armenak Aslanian decided to invest there, planting dozens of hectares of vineyards in a large ranch-size empty land with a majestic view on the mountains. The property with its vineyards it totally walled in order to keep predators out (I forgot to take picture at close range but this wall was pretty impressive by its length following the relief up and down the slopes).
The total planted surface (with vineyards) is something like 110 hectares if I'm right, and they also reserved more surface for a few orchards in the lot, some of which are already planted in the midst of the parcels and the hills. Like in a ranch-size property in the United States you need a car to tour the vineyards, driving up and down the hilly terrain.
The road to the winery was like usual very scenic, with this almost bare land dotted wih villages here and there, some cattle and these beautiful mountains in the far. Our guide that day was no less than Victoria Aslanian, the young CEO of the company and daughter of the founder, who spent her youth between California and Armenia. She communicatively felt enthusiastic about the prospects of winemaking in this country
Victoria [picture on left, courtesy of Голос Армении - Voice of Armenia] introduced us on Armenian wine and the rebirth of the wine culture. I also read in an interview of her that during the Soviet era the central authorities sort of decided according to the Gosplan that Georgia would be the appointed
Soviet Republic for winemaking and Armenia would do the Brandy part (plus some sweet stuff), this thing leading to a diminished practice in winemaking for Armenia, except for the farmers or villagers who would keep continuing to produce wine at home for family use. The better reputation of Georgian wines versus the Armenian ones in the eyes of the Russian consumers dates back from these political and centralized-economy decisions of the communist era. She says that Renée Payan the director of the Wine University of Suze la Rousse who came recently spoke while visiting the country about how important it is that this craddle of winemaking rediscovers its wine traditions and takes back its deserved place among the wine-producing nations.
About her bio in short : Victoria studied Art History at Berkeley and worked for Christie's in San Francisco, falling in love with wine in Napa; she enrolled then in UC Davis to learn more about winemaking and viticulture.
We stopped at the gate and had someone open the door and we parked in front of the facility. This is brand new of course and certainly lacks the charm of an older structure, be it a soviet-era one. The front part of the facility is designed to host the visitors from what I understand, as well as some offices, the vat rooms and other technical rooms sitting just behind in a large airconditioned warehouse. The cliff was partially dug into the slope in order to build this facility.
At some distance from the winery facility but on the same slope and also overlooking the vineyards and Mount Ararat, they run a wine-tourism operation wherez they have a few rooms (motel-like, with the possibility to park in front of the rooms) as well as a restaurant or special event wing, for weddings for example, or for corporate events including wine tastings. The view from the terrace there is astounding, especially when the sun goes down, you can see not only Mount Ararat but also other hills like the ones displayed on the top of this page.
Like you can see all the posts on this property are made of reinforced concrete, I thinks that first because there's no wood in the region (and in much of Armenia), so wood is expensive, and it could be also because the volcanic nature of the soil is corrosive in the long term, I should have asked, it's just suggestions I make.
We toured the vineyard, Victoria explains that their first harvest was scheduled in 2011 with an expected volume of 800 tons of grapes; the winery at that time was still under construction and their intent was to sell the grapes for that vintage and reinvest the money, but in 5
minutes of hailstorm they lost everything,
this was hail like it never happens in Armenia (at least for the last 50 years), the ice was fist sized, they didn't have a single bunch spared and the following year they had half what would have been a normal yield for the age of the vines, so they did the other way around, they themselved purchased 400 tons of grapes to surrounding farmers in order to begin make wine, because this year the winery was finished and ready.
The vineyards here are irrigated, and they're building a reservoir to hold water, using the rocks they took away on the hills to build its wall (these two trucks on the left may also be used to irrigate I guess).
Buying grapes in the area was also a good way to come in business relation with these farmers because in the future if the business expands beyond the estate-vineyard capacity, they might purchase more grapes as well. This said, they intend to use the purchased grapes mostly for brandy making (the winery also distillates and make spirits). the brandy distillation gives them also the opportunity to get rid from juices/wines they're not fully satisfied with, if there's a doubt they can shift a batch to the distillation queue...
The area can boast of more than 300 days of sunshine per year (that's the case in the rest of Armenia I guess), an altitude between 1600 & 1800 meters and a complex volcanic soil with limestone and calcium carbonate as well as nitrogen and sulphur, making it a good combination for the aromatic properties of the wines. Before choosing this area they had analysis of the soils made in different prospective regions known for being fit for viticulture. They finally zoomed in on this large piece of land where they could build a self-sustaining estate.
When they landed here in 2007 there were vague remains of grape/corn fields but most of the land (especially on the hill part) was rocks and a thin vegetation that managed to survive in these arid conditions. They had to bring electricity here as there was none (there was building to begin with), to bring water irrigation, and they began to build on several fronts, pushing the rocks away with heavy macinery to give way for planting, building the 15km brick wall around the property and erect the buildings. The wine-tourism part (pictured on right) was initially built to house the international crews that spent months at a time for 4 years building the winery and installing the imported vats and winery tools. By the matter of fact this is a very pioneer adventure, we can consider there was nothing here before, and it's at the same time certainly much easier for a motivated investor to find affordable land here but also quite difficult to have all of the rest done, the building, landscaping job and importing the new facility tools here in Armenia. Now only a handful of years after they can offer quite a good range of cuvées, which Victoria showed us in the reception room (pic on left)
This winery story, like the one of Van Ardi, is something the government of Armenia would like to repeat, because it breathes a new life into the Armenian countryside, bringing jobs, hope, high technology jobs and there's no real limit or oversupply risk, nor shortage of appropriate land. The market is yet to develop beyond Russia but gradually as daring entrepreuneurs join the fray opportunities should show up,
especially that Armenia beyond the terroirs and the sun, has the advantage of a competitive workforce, salaries being low here. With a population of only 3 million people in the country itself, Armenia bets on its large diaspora living abroad, many being quite successful; the return of a portion of them, like what Birthright Armenia is working for, can raise new life and economuic prospects in this country.
In the Armenia Report published by Foreign Affairs on Armenia's Roadmap to Growth, the writers highlight the excample of ArmAs as a new generation in winemaking (see page 13). It says among other things :
The taste for Armenian wines is also on the rise, as vineyards increasingly move towards producing premium wines. Producer Golden Grape ArmAs is the fresh face of Armenian wine and out to challenge the international competition. [....]Domestic demand is on the rise, as a new wine culture is taking hold in Armenia, but for larger producers such as ArmAs exports are inevitable. “While the market for wine in Armenia is expanding and has great potential, it is too small to consume the quantities that major wineries in Armenia are currently producing. Currently, ArmAs wines are set for export to the United States and Russia,” explains Aslanian. For Armenia, wine has become one of a number of promising sectors that will contribute to the country’s long-term growth
Man, I'll never have seen so many Xpert press by Bucher Vaslin is sich a short time, business must be terrific in Armenia for the press manufacturer... The facility inside the building is spotless and very roomy, the whole thing was designed and built by Italians, from the architect to the engineers and construction crews. Victoria says that the winery only uses the free run juice for the wines, I understand that part of the press juice goes for distillation, not winemaking.
They distill at no more than 65 % because above that level they take out unwanted things and loose flavors, they also can get the speed they want for the distillation, and they choose a slower mode in order to get the best quality in the final product. the spirit will then settle in stainless-steel tanks, after which it goes into foudres & barrels for aging. I think this is Italian made like much of the machinery here, this is not a very fancy design but it may well make a better product than the traditional alambics we're familiar with. They make brandy, grappa or fruit liquors, they do everything if they want.
Victoria had us taste a few of their wines, we did that on the roofed terrace ovelooking the vineyards and the mountain and were treated with great food as well the Armenian cuisine is really excellent, they have a talent to make delicious salads, their cream butter is gorgeous and I got also unique terrines in this country. For this tasting they'd use a glass per cuvée. Victoria tells us about her family relocations, they lived in Glendale, California, they also lived in Russia and now they moved here back in Armenia. She says that building the market for the wines will be as a big challenge as it has been to build this winery in the middle of these hills, but if they succeed, it can create a cascading effect and change this country for the better, bring jobs, lift the mood, bring more families in the villages and so on, it's more than about a winery in the end...
Victoria says that winter is very cold and that they used to have the vines buried for the cold month, but they stopped doing it now. Anotther interesting thing is that all the vines here are ungrafted, that's pretty amazing to hear that but that's actually the same all over Armenia from what I heard elsewhere. This country is pretty isolated and seem to remain immune from the Phylloxera. It's a bit of a risk but there's no nursery like in Europe and it would be very costly to import rootstock with the graftings. Maybe the soil also is very friendly to Phylloxera (my supposition). Grapes are not farmed organic here but that's an option they keep open for the future.
__ ArmAs White Dry 2012. Kangun (actually 50 % Kangun & Rkatsiteli), the grapes come from here the cheese we eat with the wine comes from around here too). No oak, just stainless-steel. Nice white, light and pleasant. there's not this strong alcohol feel here. 12,5 % alc. Pretty good, I would say, tells a story of soil & minerality, not cheap by Armenian standards (but wine is a luxury good in Armenia), 5000 AMD or 10 USD.
__ ArmAs Voskehaz white. Less easy and gentle.
__ ArmAs Voskehat Reserve 2013. Had some oak élevage.
__ ArmAs Rosé 2012, made from mostly free-run juice, with the Karmirhyut variety (Karmir-hyut means red juice in Armenian). Nice peppery rosé, interesting wine, some concentration, a rosé to eat with, something we weren't shy to do... Costs 7000 AMD or 14-15 USD, a bit expensive tyhough.
__ ArmAs Areni 2012, dry red wine, aged in French and Armenian (Nagorno-Karabakh) oak. Well intzegrated tannins, nice wine, I like it, label could be improved though (my taste). There may have been less SO2 adding here compared to the other wines we tasted. Sells in Armenia for 9000 AMD or 14 €.
__ ArmAs Areni Reserve 2012, aged 2 years in oak. There's a quite refined tannic structure here, very nice palate feel with fruit aromas, very nice wine with good length but expensive (12 000 AMD or 23 €)
__ ArmAs Karmrahyut 2012, another dry red. Mostly Karmrahyut variety but also 5 % Areni, 2 % Kakhet and 1 % Meghrabuyr. 13 % alcohol, that's no excessive give,n the hot days in this country. Less length here. Excquisite dust feel in the mouth. Spent 2 months in oak.
__ ArmAs Karmrahyut Reserve, 2 years élevage in oak; no label, not released yet. Just superb, must be also expensive but it's so good... Had it after eating dry apricots and this was all so good...
It's obvious that I Armenia has excellent terroirs for reds, we didn't taste all the range of their wines but these last few reds in particular were very nice and enjoyable, plus we were tasting (drinking, no spit) them at the beginning of their time window with many more years of potential evolution in an even better way.
The wines & spirits of ArmAs Wines can be found in Europe (Armenia Brandy & Wines), in the United States (Remedy Liquor and Mission Liquor), in Canada (Quebec - Kinedoun) and in Japan (The Ancient World)