Sasounik, Aragatsotn region
Armenia, a small former soviet republic with today a 3-million population, has been going through a rapid change in its winemaking culture during the last couple of years, and Van Ardi winery is one of the vibrant example of this rebirth. This is a small-size family winery which works primarily from its estate vineyards, this is already a change in a country where wineries still routinely buy their grapes to contracted growers, with the known related problems where growers are paid by the weight.
Varuzhan Mouradian is an Armenia native who settled in California (in Glendale of course, the L.A. magnet for Armenians) at the age of 24 and improved his lot after becoming a CPA accountant there, before deciding to return to his homeland and invest in wine, believing there was a future in reviving the famed wine culture of Armenia. He organized the return progressively, bringing his wife and children for vacations so they could learn to love the life there. He got some training in the United States including at UC Davis. He bought some empty bare land in the Aragatsotn region north-west of Yerevan, had vines planted and made test barrels of wines just to see. Many people in Armenia were surprised that he'd leave the comfort of his California life and move here in a country that is still largely poor and destitute, but for him this was a challenge he believed into. The wines he had seen in Los Angeles (basically the only place in America you find Armenian wines because of the important Armenian population there) weren't up to what they should be and he thought this had to change. His move and boldness, which are not isolated, may well change rapidly the reputation and reach of Armenian wines.
The Van Ardi winery sits a short distance from the capital city Yerevan (30 kilometers), it's located in a mostly-baren land of gentle hills at an altitude of about 1000 meters with higher mountains in the far, with a view on one side on the much-loved mount Ararat which is often capped with its cover of clouds or fog. The land is quite desolate with apparently little vegetation growing and trees seem also rare, like in much of the country by the way. The Aragatsotn region was famous in the Soviet-Union days for its sweet wines as well as for its Solera wines (Xérès type), but alas they stopped making the latter after 1991, after the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the loss of State contracts for the wines. Russia went through a low point soon after 1991 and wasn't really an help in terms of export markets, and this for a few years before a rebound in wealth and economic recovery.
We left a main road for a bumpy secondary road and after some time reached our destination, the facility was standing alone in the open land, a couple of brand-new buildings with the vineyards next to them.
This is the harvest season in Armenia and when we arrived at the winery the workers were busy sorting the grapes. Much of the picking is done by hand in Armenia, even in industry-sized wineries, because the workforce is cheap, but here they bring the
grapes in small boxes, and the
vineyards are just around the facility, allowing a very safe handling of the grapes before the vinification. Armenia is a hot and sunny country and one of the problems for the wineries is having the grape condition affected by long transportation time on bumpy
roads in soviet-era open trucks, but here at Van Ardi there's not such issue, the grapes grow right next to the chai.
The grape varieties are very unique in Armenia, you hardly can pronounce the names and they've been around for ages, certainly perfectly adapted to the climate and terroir conditions. Here all the tools were new and imported, unlike in France you can't find used tools because there are still very few established wineries in the country, no more than 20 if I'm right, not counting the countless individuals and families (like Haigaz) who make wine to be sold along the road (a potential source of new wineries I think, some of them having the capacity to do a good job).
We were introduced by Ani, the daughter of the owner, who was not present in the winery when we showed up (we saw him later in Areni at the wine fest), she also had her youth in California and moved along with her parents when the whole project took shape on the ground, she speaks with an American accent and you feel confidence inthe growing winery. Ani told us that there was now 9 hectares of planted vineyards in the boutique winery (these vineyards were planted in 2008), some 2,5 hectares being still very young, and there's a 50+ hectare expansion plan in the future, on the bare land around. She says that while her father was an accountant before, he started getting into winemaking 15 years ago (that was in California) and took time to finetune his project.
This was in the middle of the harvest season and it has begun a week ago, so the chai and staff was busy. The size of this winery is very interesrting because unlike the large cooperative-type wineries inherited from the soviet years, this is a boutique-sized winery with an artisan approach dealing with estate vineyards, not contracted growers.
Armenia is going through a similar winery revolution than the one Israel went through around the year 2000, when lots of winemakers coming often from the New World came there to start small wineries and added a new layer of quality to the long-established wineries like Carmel (the wines of which werre'nt very exciting, at least at the time). Armenia by the way has other similarities with Israel, it is surrounded by several potentially hostile countries that will certainly not buy their wine, beginning with Turkey [imagine Israel having a common border with a Germany that would have never recognized the genocide against the jews...], Azerbaidjan and Iran (even if they have commercial relations with the latter, they'll not buy the wine...), and on the other side Georgia which, while a friendly country and also a former soviet republic, has also started its own wine revolution. So we could say that on the wine sector they're kind of rivals, both having Russia as main wine buyer. Anyway, Armenia, beyond its own market (which is limited with only 3 million people and few Armenians being able to afford quality wine) has above all to find new markets than Russia, and these are quite far away, it's a tricky road to reach Western Europe, and you have to make your wines known there, another challenge. Russia has been a close ally on the wine issue, buying most of their exports but it's always healthy to diversify its market, and also with the recent devaluation of the Russian Ruble it has been more difficult to make good business there. On the other hand there's no embargo issue between Armenia and Russia and the commerce routes are open.
We had a beautiful weather for all these 5 days in Armenia but the first day was a bit cloudy in the first hours, it was to clear soon after, leaving the huge 5137-meter high mount Ararat in full view. Armenia has a pretty stable weather and if you want sun you'll have it with almost certainty, particularly in these mild after-season months like september and october, that's certainly a nice time to visit the country.
Ani explains to us that this year has been very unusual for them, there's been incidences of severe hailstorms earlier in the season and on their own block more than 60 % of the grapes have been damaged and are deemed not useable, so for the first time they have been obliged to buy grapes elsewhere, they been visiting several vineyards and they chose the grapes and parcels they wanted. The picking was done by their own team of pickers to ensure quality.
The team outside the chai was busy sorting Kangun grapes, this is an indigenous grape variety, we were to begin learn these names, some being easier than others. Armenia has quite a good number of local varieties, the most well-known being possibly the Areni variety, which is conveniently easier to pronounce and remember as it is also the name of a Village with a ageless wine culture (this is where archeologists found recently a winemaking facility that was to be aged 6100 years, making it the oldest documented wine facility in the world.
Gagik (pictured on left), the vineyard manager shows us these Areni grapes that are pretty damaged by hail, I ask Ani if they still use the grapes for something, be it a home cuvée even if not for the market, and she says they'll certainly not dump them, they'll see, perhaps for a rosé...
Ani says that the hail was not concentrated on their area, it's been a country-wide issue this year and many farmers suffered.
The climate is hot and dry in Armenia, and irrigation is widely used all over the country for grape growing. Armenia is covered with a network of irrigation canals, all of them apparently dug during the soviet years and now in disrepair or being renovated. I tend to be suspicious of the use of irrigation for vine growing as vines can survive where other plants can't, but I guess Armenia is really dry (much drier than some other wine regions where irrigation is routinely used), and in order to make a living and have some grapes you have to bring some water. The issue is certainly here what amount of water is necessary, as the growers who are paid by the weight will not easily set limits set to the organoleptic balance of the grapes. Here at Van Ardi they deal with estate vineyards, so they control everything including the irrigation levels, which is certainly a plus compared to the wineries who deal only with purchased grapes. They have been building a reservoir to stock irrigation water and make it easier fror the drop irrigation.
Here are a couple of pallets being pushed to the sorting table. Armenia is using mostly hand labor for the picking, which doesn't mean grapes are always brought to the winery in boxes, in the large wineries (which make most of the wine production in this country as of now) trucks are used like gondolas to haul the fruit from the vineyard to the facility, and given the distance that's not always good for the general conditions of the grapes. Here the picking is done with small, ventilated boxes, and given that the estate vineyards are virtually next door there's no way the grapes have time to suffer.
The boxes of grapes were hauled to the chai with this old soviet truck on the right, this is the same type used by large wineries and kombinats in Armenia if I'm right, except that then the grapes aren't in boxes and they get thus more damaged and crushed during the trip from the vineyard to the facility. Here I guess they used these trucks because this year exceptionally they had to purchase grapes elsewhere (because of the hail-related damages) and there was some distance to cover. They'd put the pallets of grapes in the shadow in the vat room for the sorting team to process the backlog of boxes.
Speaking of trucks there was a vintage model of my favorite Russian-made all-terrain vehicules, an UAZ 452 (pic on left), you find lots of them here and a few years ago a relative of mine who was working in Armenia had a colleague of his who bought one, I was very jealous. They still make these vans in Russia, with many versions, but my prefered is certainly the glassed-in van. These vehicules look archaic and lumpish but they are the most fearsome, efficient 4wheelers to get through mud, snow and sand, andthey're known to be very easy to fix...
This was to be my first tasted thing in an Armenian winery during this trip : a glass of freshly-pressed Kangun juice, this Armenian local white variety. It was taken from right at the bottom of the basket press, a gorgeously-velvety juice, that was so good... I asked about the issue of SO2, if they add some at this stage (on the incoming grapes), I was said yes, although the grapes are hand picked and are in perfect conditions and went through the sorting table almost berry per berry.
Much of the tools found in the wineries here are Italian-made, and this basket press for example was made by EnoVeneta. In general I've noticed that German and Italian medium-sized companies and industries are much better at selling in eastern Europe and even farther like here in the Caucasus.
The second tasting was somehow even more pleasant, this was a new wine, meaning this transitional stage where the juice is still very sugary but begins to turn into alcohol on the edge, making the drink at the same time a velvety, sugar-coated drink but with enough hidden alcohol to make you high after a couple of glasses, and in a beautiful way.... We call this juice/wine stage bernache in the Loire, and in other regions it's called vin nouveau. This time of the year it's good to drop in any winery (even conventional) with an empty 1,5-liter plastic bottle and ask for a filling, they'll do it usually kindly, sometimes for free. The important thing is not forget to make a tiny hole in the plastic cap otherwise the bottle might explode in the car...
This sweet but still inebriating new wine was made with another weird-sounding local variety, I write it as I heard it but can't find anyrthing online about it, Rkatsiteli [I ended finding the right spelling, it's a variety also found in Georgia...], the aromas were strong on grapefruit with a nose like the one of a Sauvignon.
Ani then offered us to taste from the barrel, beginning with the red Areni 2015, the iconic red variety in Armenia. The grapes were destemmed a,nd went through a skin maceration (12 to 15 days, with some pumping over). Ani says it should be bottled in 1 or 2 months from now, and kept an other 3 or 4 months of laying down in bottles.
Refined nose where I have the impression to already feel this refined tannic structure and this dust like in the mouthfeel. Powerfull wine, with pepper notes and energy. The wine will be filtered (alas). Areni or Areni Noir is certainly a very interesting grape variety and I went through several excellent wines made with this local variety during this trip. It is said to be particularly well adapted to the wide swing of temperature between night and day (Armenia wine regions are in relatively high altitude with hot days and cool nights).
We then tasted the Syrah-Areni blend, also a 2015. Thin strong tannin feel, already subdued. SO2 added on the incoming grapes also and all along the vinification. I think you can feel already the iron-cage effect of the sulfites here, from my impression, that's the issue on which they have some range to maneuver, certainly, especially given the excellent conditions of their grapes.
We tasted a few wines, beginning with this
__Kangoun 2015, Kangoun being one of the local white varieties in Armenia. 100 % Kangoun, cold maceration on skins. 14 % alcohol. Powerful white wine. Ani says she feels some banana aromas here. I ask about what yeast they use here, indigenous or commercial, she says commercial. Sells for 2500 AMD (4,7 €) in Armenia.
__ Rosé 2015 made with Syrah & Kakhet. Very nice, onctuous, aromatic, and also much lighter in alcohol it seems to me. At 12 % according to the labzel, it would make a killing in France at this price ( 3300 AMD or 6,6 €). Otherwise for their other prices, the reds cost 2800 DRAM or 5,3 € (very affordable by Western Europe stadards) and the reserve wines (reds with élevage in barrels) 6000 AMD or 11,3 €.
We asked about the production in the winery, the total yearly output is somewhere between 40 & 43 000 bottles, 60 % sold locally and for the rest most exported in Russia, with also some wine shipped to Sweden, the U.K., France.
Map and location of the 30 domaines & wineries in Armenia toda.