Cave in Armenia containing the world’s oldest known winery. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Discovery of ancient wine-press could help raise profile of Armenian wines abroad.
By Naira Melkumyan - Caucasus
CRS Issue 575,
21 Jan 11
Boosted by archaeological evidence of the world’s oldest known wine production, Armenians are optimistic about the chances of reviving this ancient industry.
Earlier this month, an archeological dig in a cave in southeast Armenia unearthed a 6,000-year-old basin thought to have served as a wine press, as well as the remains of grapes, seeds and vines. Remarkably, these belong to the Areni strain of grapes still grown and turned into wine in Armenia.
Ninety per cent of grape production goes towards the famous Armenian brandy, but deputy agriculture ministry Samvel Avetisyan says wine production is picking up, with 2010 data showing nearly a 20 per cent rise on the previous year.
Total wine production last year was just over four million litres, a fraction of the 15 million litres the government is hoping to achieve by 2020. Even that figure is only half of peak production in the Soviet period.
“We can recreate our wine culture, because our wine is good quality, and we have lots of sun and a good climate for raising vines,” Vazgen Safaryan, chairman of the Union of National Producers, told IWPR.
Aside from the commercial producers, Armenians have a long tradition of turning out home-made wine.
“My grandfathers grew grapes and made wine, and I’m just continuing the business,” Hrayr Asatryan, a resident of the village of Aghavnadzor in the southern Yegheknadzor region. “I follow the old recipe, trying to add some new elements, and I reckon I end up with good homemade wine.”
Asatryan still uses the old family wine-press to squeeze the juice from the grapes, and lets the wine mature in an earthenware amphora.
Nine out of ten households in his village make wine, like 40,000 others across Armenia.
Industry experts say Armenia’s climatic conditions are suited to viticulture. The catch is that Armenians do not drink much wine, preferring stronger stuff like vodka. Average per capita consumption of wine is one litre a year, much lower than in comparable European states.
Avag Harutyunyan, chairman of Armenia’s Union of Wine-Makers, added another note of caution, saying local wines had not attained the quality needed to break into the high end of the international market.
“Armenia doesn’t have the… high technology needed to produce expensive wines, [although] we’re well represented in the mid-range niche priced between five and ten euros,” he said.
Most wine exports currently go to Russia, with a smaller amount going to the United States, which has a large Armenian diaspora.
Harutyunyan said this was where the archaeological find could come in handy.
“To be well represented on the world market, we need a story to sell,” he said. “A historical narrative about the oldest wine tradition could form the basis of a state programme to establish a national brand. But the state isn’t doing anything about it.”
Avetisyan responded by saying that his ministry had been working on marketing for years.
“The ministry has drawn up a policy to find organisations that will assist producers, and this is continuing as part of the Centre for the Agribusiness and Rural Development Programme,” he said. “There’s no area where we aren’t prepared to help. However, wine production is private-sector business, and we can’t control everything.”
Industry experts say the country’s wine needs to develop the same reputation abroad as Armenian brandy, which is governed by legal standards defining its quality and source.
Eleven brandy producers agreed last year to form a manufacturer’s association to keep quality high. Aram Minasyan, a former wine producer, said wine companies needed to do the same.
“This would help protect Armenian wine as a brand that wouldn’t be held by any one company but would instead be the international brand of an Armenian product,” he said.
Naira Melkumyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.