Sasunik, Aragatsotn region (Armenia)
Just one kilometer or two from the Van Ardi winery you can find along the same side road a very large and modern winery, "Armenia Wine Factory", its name hints at the huge size of the operation, this is a coopérative-size company relying on purchased grapes all over the region and possibly beyond. This large kombinat is part of the "Armenia Wine Company", the largest wine producer in Armenia which makes the bulk of the wine exports of this country. the winery which is family owned (it was founded by the Vardanyan and Mkrtchyan families), is fairly recent and started to operate in 2008, its red-brick compound can be seen from very far in the open landscape (picture on right).
Armenia Wine exports most of its bottles to Russia with also a few other side markets and it takes part to wine fairs like ProWein. It produces not only still wine but also sparkling wine and several spirits including Brandy for which Armenia is famous beyond its borders. Its facility is spotless and brand new, with the latest state-of-the-art imported tools and vats, it has also a few wings and buildings devoted to wine-centered events and wine tourism. The view on the valley and the mount Ararat is particularly stunning from there.
The vineyard surface directly operated by the winery makes about 50 hectares, with regional grape varieties and also European ones like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, to this they add large volumes of purchased grapes across the country. The yearly sales projected for 2014 were 2,5 million bottles and 3000 tons of grapes were bought to growers.
Armenia Wine Factory is a large company and to get in you first pass a security corridor (there's lots of security systems in Armenian wineries including video surveillance cameras), and the first other thing you spot at the door is the weighing station, this is used to know the volume of grapes being delivered by the growers, as they're being paid by the weight. Efforts have been devoted to have the growers limit somehow their yields though, they've been encouraged to do some green harvest in order to keep the yields in check. I remember having seen such a weighing station in Chateau Tamagne in Russia (scroll down picture #8) but here at Armenia Wine the whole system and winery is more modern. From what I remember they also conduct a thourough analysis of the grape data when the truck delivers the grapes. Hygiene was pretty tight and the floor was hosed down to wash any grape or juice remains and keep the place spotless.
On the other hand the grapes are delivered in these bin trucks on the left, meaning that the grapes are packed and juice is bleeding. Depending of the distance fromthe vineyard, that can be a problem especially considering the heat, and SO2 use on the incoming grape is a must. I was told that the growers are given the SO2 and appropriate directives so that they can spay the grapes and the juice lying in the bottom of the bin truck, limiting the development of unwanted issueed during the transportation. Once the truck has passed the weighing station it unloads its grapes into one of these big tanks (pic on right) where the screw will push the grapes inside the facility all the while destemming them. There are similarities in this facility with the one of the Coopérative of Vaqueyras in the Rhone, which I visited a couple years ago.
The winery has been designed for efficiency and volume, with gravity and ergonomy in mind, inside and outside it's spotless and looks like it's been built this year. The vatting volume is very big, the winery makes wine from the 50 hectares belonging to the company, but it is also the leading buyer of grapes in Armenia and the bulk of the wine is made from purchased grapes. Thzey're going to plant additional surface near the winery, something like 65 hectares from what I understand. While it was not said formally, I understand that the best cuvées might be made from these estate vineyards because they'll have better control on yields and farming, and the delay between the picking and the facility will be very short, making way for an improvement in the delivery conditions (the big issue here when grapes are transported in bulk by trucks.
Our guide says in English that before buying the grapes, the company's agronom visits the vineyards to check the situation on the ground, giving advice on how to conduct the farming and organize the irrigation, fight disease, and do the green harvest on time. Green harvest was not a common thing in Armenia and they were the first company to ask their contracted growers to do a green harvest. She says it was not easy in the beginning because growers are reluctant to do anything limiting their yields but not it has become more mainstream and the company also pays more to reward the growers doing this, because they then deliver grapes of higher quality.
A few more words on the vat room : it is designed with gravity, and after the destemmed grapes have macerated in their respective stainless-steel vat, a pneumatic press can be smoothly rolled underneath so that the grapes can fall straight in the press. The metal mesh floor can be opened virtually anywhere around the vats to let the grapes fall through when necessary, you can see for example a red press through the floor here on the right. There vats are made by Biomashin in Bulgaria, from a maker plaque I saw on one of them.
The company exports its wines to 14 countries, with Russia taking the bulk of the exports with 79% of the export share,
then Belarus, France, Belgium, Latvia, Litvia, Estonia, Israel, Canada, the Unites States,
Mexico, China, and from 2016 to Japan (the latter for pomegranate wines). 6,2 liters of wine was produced in total in Armenia in 2015 and Armenia Wine Factory makes 67 % of this total from what I understand, this speaks by itself of the size of the winery and the mass of growers selling their grapes to the company.
You can read some data here about wine export in Armenia.
The German winemaker in charge is a German enologist who comes from the region of Stuttgart, Josef Watzl, he explains us how this all works while having us tazste a few wines from the vats. He tell for example how the grapes are moved at the winery, he says some are looked at on sorting tables before the destemming process. White wines in Armenia are faced with the problem that in Armenia harvesting is possible only during the day, because I guess it's done by hand only instead of combines like in the large wineries of the West, combines being able to work nightly (when temperature is down) thanks to their lighting system and automated catching of the bunches.
And in Armenia there is this problem that the grapes are transported from far away in a hot weather, and there's no refrigerated trucks on the scale which would be needed to transport the grapes at cool temperature. What they do is they refresh the juice after pressing and that is very effective to let the juice ferment starting with cooler temperature. Also if he receives 100 tons per day like at the peak, it'd be difficult to cool this all before pressing
Winemaker Josef Watzl explains that they work with the Bucher Inertys system where nitrogen is pumped into the press in order to prevent the oxidation of the juice, this is particularly beneficial on whites. For the reds it's different, the polyphenol condensation stabilieation and color stabilization should start directly after the fermentation and you need on the contrary to let air in. He confirms that addind SO2 at the beginning on the grapes is a must, not for the grapes delivered in boxes but for the ones delivered in bulk in the back of those big trucks, the roads are not very good in Armenia and given the distance from the vineyards (for the puchased grapes), there's time for the mass of grapes to let go 10 % of juice by the time the truck stops in front of the destemmer screw at the facility. In orser to make the trip safer for the grapes they prepare a ready-made solution for the agronomer's side so that it's sprayed on the grapes before the truck starts its journey to the winery. Two weeks ago he says, the day temperature in the area was like 34 ° C (93 F) and you have to act properly in these conditions.
The good thing with sulfur use at this stage durung the transportation of the frapes is that it prevent issues with Candida and Brettanomyces, they're under control with this. They of course add yeast after this in order to start the fermentation.
He says that while you can try otherwise with small volumes, it's another story with the large at play in this winery, he has to conduct the first fermentation and then the malolactic.
The winery's equipment and tools range is really impressing, they've got the best you can have for this type of mega-winery, and this was certainly not easy to have them here given the distance from major wine-tools manufacturers. On the pic on left you can see a tangential filtration system, and on the right, the ingenious toboggan system to let the grapes fall by gravity from the fermenter to the press on the lower lervel through the tilting floor.
Armenia faces a challenge in developping its own internal consumption levels, you have to keep that im mind when visiting this country. While ages ago, this country was historically a wine country, it somehow turned into a vodka-drinking country, probably after spending most of the 20th century under Russia's ruling. During that time, much of Armenia's wine was exported to the other Soviet republics and vodka flowed in the other way. The Gorbatchev years almost finished off the wine culture in Armenia, the last strong man of the soviet Union having oddly decided to fight alcohol addiction through the destruction of vines and of the industry at large (we all know it doesn't work that way and people made their Samogon at home even more actively).
You can learn much on this challenge and the issues facing the Armenian wine sector in this Pdf document in English, it focused on figures and industry-level economics but there's still things to learn, even though I think the more artisan winemaker in Armenia, the closer this country will learn anew what wine is about...
We're poured here also from a vat some other wines in the making :
__ New wine, bernache style, made from Colombard, it's another exquisite sugary juice with just enough alcohol to make you gently high, with these milky and yeast aromas that add to the velvet. It was picked at 20 brix to keep the acid Will be blended with other white varieties (Chenin was to be brought in the same day, this is the latest variety to be picked for the whites). I ask about the yields usually, the winemaker says it varies from place to place. For the brandy production the grape yields can go very high. And he adds that especially in Armenia the vine density is often very low, like 2500 vines per hectare, so when you had some growers in the past getting 20 tons per hectare, that made really a lot of grapes per vine. Now he says he had the growers change this pattern ang get lower yields.
__ Muscat, blended with Kangoun (60 %). Grapefruit aromas, plenty of other fruit notes. Josef Watzl says that the Muscat had no acid at all, so he saw the blending with Kangoun as a way to balance it back. they stopped the fermentation, leaving some 5 or 6 grams of sugar and giving it this semi sweet feel. There's a market for this type of wine he says, for example in Austria and Germany. And this way the alcohol level is not that high, and the young consumers look for this type of easy-drinking wine. The price here would be 3 to 4 €, which will be an entry wine for their range.
__ Red Karmrahyut (local variety), zero sugar left, there were still 8 grams the previous day, just vanished overnight. Compoted fruit nose, some tannin, clafoutis cherries, substance is a bit meager maybe, but was pretty nice to drink, especially giving that the wine is very young.
Speaking again about the gravity design of the vat room, winemaker Josef Watzl says that what is important is to avoid the use of pumps after the fermentation stage. They use here pumps in the stages before including peristaltic pumps, but when the fermentation is completed it's better to rely on gravity alone, and for this reason the design here is good. Josef Watzl says he didn't take part of the planning of the design (he arrived recently at the winery, just a few months ago if I remember), and there's a couple of things he'd make differently if he had had his say, like avoid red-wine fermenters that are too slim and high, because it makes a thick cap that gets very hard and difficult to break, that's why he's conducting a couple of changes to correct this issue and allow an easier delestage.
After spending some time in the part of the facility with the fermenters and presses, we wandered in the walled gardens along well-tended lawns and imperial structures like this tower, with here and there large decorative clay vessels (named Karas in Armenia) of the type that were used in the past in this country to make wine and which are still used in neighboring Georgia (where they're called Qvevri). I learned that there's no new production of this type of clay vessels in Armenia, that's certainly an unchartered territory when someone should venture (you must first find out the composition of the clay I guess).
The geometry and the immaculate order of the red-brick buildings added to the scenery of the mount Ararat that could be spotted from an open vaulted gallery on the side; This majestic architecture made me think to certain big north-American wineries, in particular a couple of them I saw in the Canadian wine region of Okanagan, for example Mission Hill, where you wondered if this was about a winery or a temple, and the logo over there was also a mysterious bird...
We walked briefly through the building devoted to the making of sparkling wines. they're using the Charmat method (or tank method, the one commonly used for Prosecco) through which you can make sparkling in bulk, as opposed to the Champagne traditional method where it's made in bottles. The Soviet Union in its time has been an avid user of the charmat method, which they skillfully modified into what is known as the continuous method, allowing then to produce millions of sparkling wines that were really found everywhere at the peak of the Soviet years, and at very affordable prices. There remains some of this tradition in the former Soviet republics, and I wrote a story a few years ago about the one in Donbass near Donetsk, Artyomovsk. I don't know which method (Charmat or continuous) is used here.
Find more info on the different sparkling methods on this page.
Armenia Wine Factory is also a distiller and produces lots of brandy, and after our winery tour we then walked into what really looked like a temple, this was the élevage wing
for the brandy, where at the upper
level you had rows of impressive tronconic wooden vats (imported from France, made by Mercier), and on the bottom you could look at dozens of barrels with their (presumably) brandy inside. You find here some 2000 oak barrels, not only French oak but also Armenian oak, and from what I tasted later (for the red wine aged in Armenian oak) they have a good cooperage here where they let the oak dry the appropriate number of years, it's located in the Nagorno-Karabak region. The temperature was not very cold in this élevage building, it was kind of normal temperature. the tronconic vats come from the Cognac region and I heard that a French consultant was working with ther winery to make the brandy.
We saw also another, smaller room which had barrels filled with wine (picture on right), red and white if I'm right. The room was decorated with paintings featuring the mount Ararat and traditional Armenian scenes. Barrels were apparently coming from a few French wineries, particularly Mercier and also Renaissance.
We also briefly had a look at the distillation building, spotless and immaculate like the rest. Armenia is well known for its brandy, it exported also much of it to the rest of the Soviet Union during much of the 20th century. I havent much tasted brandy alas during this trip, as were were mostly focused on wine, but there's much to explore in this field too. They use the grape variety Kangoun for the brandy if I'm right, they do a first filtration where the alcohol reached 30-35 % then do a second one where it reaches 70 %. They do some every month. They also make some Grappa with the same distillers, we were told.
__ Takar Extra Brut, a sparkling white made with Kangoun, made with the Charmat method (2nd fermentation taking place in stainless-steel tanks 4-6 months) . Acidic and a bit sweet at the same time, like if brought by a generous dosage. The sparkling is mostly exported to Russia, usually by road through Georgia. Josef Watzl who runs his own family winery in Germany and makes traditional, Champagne-style sparkling there, says that you can make Charmat sparkling that is close to the Champagne quality, given you manage correctly the temperature in the ageing of the wine.
This sparkling sells for the equivalent of 8 € here in Armenia.
__ Takar Kangun 2014, dry still white. From grapes collected in boxes. Spent 6 to 8 months in oak barrels. On the tasting side, alcohol comes forward, here. Sells for 2800 AMD or 5,35 €.
__ Takar Areni 2012, dry red, spent 12 months on oak. the Areni grapes often carry cinnamon aromas. the winemaker had some Areni tasted in his home wine region in Germany (Baden) and people over there said Armenia would be certainly a good region for Pinot Noir.
As we left the winery and drove to our next destination, we passed a large red-brick compound in an isolated area, which our guide described as being a former Soviet research center akin to some sort of Silicon Valley, it was eerie to see these immaculate albeit abandoned buildings sitting there on the bare and rocky land with no other inhabited structure in the vicinity, and also having apparently suffered no damage and no vandalizing. Armenia had the reputation in the Soviet years to be an active research center, giving it the reputation of being the Silicon Valley of the Caucasus, where much of the Soviet Union’s high tech and military research took place. This could be one of these places. I love ghost towns and abandoned factories, and I would have loved to explore this one which was sitting in the middle of nowhere in the high lands of Armenia...