Wine is now made in nearly every country of the world, even if many Americans can’t locate those nations on a map and are totally ignorant of their culture, customs, lifestyle, cuisine, religion and politics. So it is with Armenia: aside from the occasional news story about conflicts with their Turkish neighbors, the country is largely a cipher here in the U.S.
In fact, Armenia is probably the oldest wine-producing region on the planet. A winery dating to 4000 B.C. was found in Areni, headquarters for the present-day cultivation of the eponymous red grape variety. Yerevan, now noted for both winegrowing and distillation, was a leading center of production from the 9th century B.C. onward. During the Soviet era, wine production increased nine times, brandy 17 times and sparkling wine 10 times. Although the majority of vineyards are still used for brandy, wine cultivation has experienced a renaissance since Armenian independence in 1991, and the country is once again a star in the Caucasus region.
Distribution of Armenian wine in the Southeast is widespread, thanks in large part to Storica Wines, an import company focusing on marketing, production, and direct-to-consumer sales. They’ve partnered with visionaries such as Syrian-born and Italian-trained Vahe Keushguerian, who repatriated to Armenia and founded WineWorks, a consulting firm and “winery incubator.” One of his properties is Keush, a house making sparkling wine by the Champagne method. Origins ($21) is grown in high-altitude vineyards ranging from 4500 to 6000 feet, and ages on the lees for at least 22 months before release. The grape varieties may not be household names (Voskehat and Khatouni), but the wine is delicious. The nose is fragrant and forward, yielding whiffs of citrus, melon and hints of vanilla. In the mouth, it displays good acidity, a generous texture, and a nutty, Sherry-like quality that emerges in the mid palate and continues on the finish.
Keush’s Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2013 ($31) spends three years on the lees before release and displays a richer and more sedate nose highlighted by aromas of crushed hazelnuts. It is layered and complex on the palate, with mouthwatering acidity, a medium-bodied texture and exceptionally long finish. Both of these wines are cost-effective alternatives to Champagne, and the Blanc de Blancs in particular has a quality level several times higher than the mass market brands.
Aimee Keushgarian, Vahe’s daughter, spent three years managing Keish before establishing the Zulal Winery in 2018. Her 2019 Voskehat ($20) hails from Vayots Dzor, which she fondly refers to as “the Napa of Armenia.” The expressive nose offers aromas of stone fruits, fig and quince. The wine is ripe and assertive in the mouth, with good acidity, a rich texture, a firm mineral backbone, and flavors of orange peel that emerge in the mid palate and carry onto the finish. Given its amplitude, it would make a good match for poultry, veal and pork, either sauced or roasted.
Zulal bottles two wines from the Areni grape, an ancient, thick-skinned variety cultivated in Vayots Dzor. Their 2018 Areni Noir ($19) displays hints of grapeskins and blackberry jam on the nose; on entry, the texture is bright and fresh, highlighted by flavors of black fruits, mocha, minerals and mint that deepen through the midpalate and extend to the finish. More reserved on the nose, the 2018 Arenia Reserve ($30) is more complex and layered in the mouth, with pleasantly earthy overtones tempering the rich flavors of dark berries. Like their sparkling counterparts from Keush, both these wines are significant bargains in today’s market.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.