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10.09.2013

Drinking The Past: The Wines of Zorah, Armenia

Wines are always a link to our past. At the very least they tell a story of a previous season, capturing in the bottle and in the glass the sum of one circuit around the sun. But there is still more. Wine is also the repository of hopes, dreams, struggles, and levity -- all the humanity that conspires to harness the soil, the weather, and the unruly grape into something delicious.

But occasionally, wine can be yet even more. Some wines tell stories and represent a past much deeper and more profound than one, or even several, generations of toil can represent. A select few wines can truly capture human history on the grandest scale, echoing, at least in our minds, with the depth of eons.

This is the story of one of those wines.

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The wine is named Karasi, which in Armenian means "from amphora" and it grows a mere stone's throw from a small cave in a hillside that, for any self respecting wine lover, should be as hallowed ground as the vineyard of Romanée-Conti.

In and around this cave, known as Areni 1, lies some of the earliest archeological evidence of large-scale winemaking known to man. The amphorae, sluices, and primitive crush pads on the side of this barren mountain date back more than 6000 years to what scientists believe is likely the true origin of civilized winemaking. If that were not enough, all the DNA evidence we have found points to this region as the place where human beings first coaxed random mutations of wild grapevines into reliable producers -- the parents of every wine grape now known to man.

Somewhere in what is now Armenia, the Republic of Georgia, Eastern Turkey, or northern Iran, mankind entered a new chapter in its history.

Today, under the same barren, windswept mountains, lies a vineyard whose roots at least metaphorically quest back to that time.

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Zorik Gharibian was born to Armenian parents in Iran, but grew up in Italy. As an adult he forged a successful career in the fashion industry, and today he lives in Milan, where he collaborates with large brands and department stores to create private labels. Like any good immigrant Italian, he grew up drinking wine.

"I don't have a single memory or an epiphany moment of when I realized that I loved wine," says Gharibian. "As far back as I can remember I was always intrigued by wine. But what I loved most at the beginning were the vineyards. I loved everything about each and every vineyard I visited, their beauty, their colors, their smell, the bustle of harvest, the unpredictability of working with nature. I was always romancing with vineyards."

Then, fifteen years ago, shortly after the birth of his first child, Gharibian, returned to Armenia.

"When I first started visiting I really had no experience with Armenian wine whatsoever," recalls Gharibian. "On my visits I had just tasted some of the local wines available on the market. For curiosity I also visited some of the wineries. Everything was 'Soviet' and the wines had all the basic defects you can imagine."

Yet despite this, these visits kindled something in Gharibian. The existence of ancient local grape varieties, however maligned and mistreated, and the deep history of the place coupled with his own heritage provided enough tinder to ignite a dream of making wine in his homeland.

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The question was, however, how to start?

"I realized that there was absolutely nothing going on in Armenia from a winemaking perspective, from which one could learn," says Gharibian. "I knew that if I was to start I only had to take the potential of the terroir, the potential of our indigenous varieties (of which no one knew anything about) and look back and research the country's ancient wine history. Everything else had to be disregarded. We would have to rebuild from scratch."

But Gharibian had the funds, and the time to risk on the dream, so he began looking for land.

"The only clear requirement I had was that I wanted one large, single, barren plot," says Gharibian. "The aim was to start everything from scratch and not make any compromises. But that turned out to be more difficult than one could have imagined. Much of the land in the likely areas had been divided into small holdings among the villagers. We didn't want to simply buy the plots from the locals, as for many, these plots were their [sole] livelihood."

"Anyway it took us over three years to finally find what we were looking for. We eventually found an abandoned village with surrounding land that had not been divided and had not been cultivated mainly because there was no water. But as luck would have it, a huge World Bank project was in the works and water pipes were being built to bring water to these remote areas. And that meant that for the first time these areas could start to be cultivated."

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"Then," continues Gharibian, "there was the challenge of what to plant. No one really knew much about the indigenous varieties and many were not even interested. Many were convinced that they really had no potential. But I will say that after tasting many, many, bottles of local wines from some of these varieties -- both homemade and what was in 'commerce' in Armenia at that time -- we took the brave decision to go only with Armenia's native varieties. I say brave because looking back, I truly believe that we were brave and perhaps even a little irresponsible. Fifteen years ago there wasn't all this talk or even interest in these off-the-beaten-track wines. We also had no clue as to whether we could make decent wine with these grapes, or if we would be able to sell a single bottle in any market. Then of course there was the challenges of the lack of almost everything from the most basic of machineries to anything that you can imagine that you would need for starting a vineyard which are easily found in most advanced countries, but not in a remote section of Armenia."

But such dreams aren't easily diverted by reality's constraints. Early on, Gharibian roped in winemaker Alberto Antonini (formerly of Antinori and Frescobaldi), to whom Gharibian had been introduced by friends.

"I started talking to him about Armenia its wine history and the idea I had and it honestly didn't take much convincing," recalls Gharibian. "He was fascinated with the place, the history the indigenous varieties and the potential of the country."

Together they painstakingly assembled the equipment, the manpower, and the plant material to establish vineyards on 37 of the roughly 100 acres of land that Gharibian had purchased.

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Taking cuttings from vineyards they estimated were 80 years old, Gharibian, Antonini, and their viticulturist Stefano Bartolomei planted directly into the rocky, arid soil, which has never seen, and likely never will, the predations of phylloxera.

The vineyard lies at 4500 feet of elevation, beneath snow capped mountains, with a view, in the distance, of Armenia's grandest feature, the conical slopes of Mount Ararat.

Gharibian and his team selected the grape Areni Noir as their best bet for producing the quality of wine they sought. According to the recently released Wine Grapes, DNA evidence suggests that Areni is an ancient grape variety and most likely comes from a village of the same name that sits close to the border with Azerbaijan, where it is known as Malayi.

The vineyard excavation began in 2001, and while the ground was being prepared, Gharibian and his team spent several years planting, breeding, selecting, and propagating what they felt was the best plant material. Luckily, the arid climate offers few threats to wine grapes, other than cold winters. Molds and rots are largely unknown, and so the only treatments required in the vineyard are occasional doses of sulfur to combat the rare threat of powdery mildew. Cover crops tilled into the virgin soil provide all the fertilizer currently needed.

By 2006 or so, Gharibian had enough cuttings to fully plant his initial acreage at a density of more than 2000 plants per acre. In 2010 Zorah Winery celebrated its first commercial vintage and harvest: 1600 cases of the wine named Karasi.

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Made from 100% organically grown Areni Noir, Karasi is made with as much attention to its heritage as possible. The grapes are destemmed fermented with native yeasts in a combination of steel tanks and large clay amphorae buried in the ground. Around 30% of the juice is aged in French oak, and 5% in Armenian Oak.

Gharibian was quite firm in his decision to use amphorae.

"If you look back in history, the amphorae are an important part of Armenia's winemaking culture," he says. "There are examples scattered all over the country which date back thousands of years, the most famous of which is the Areni 1 cave. Armenia's national state museum is also littered with these amphorae that were used for wine. So it seemed only natural to experiment with something that was so deep rooted in this country. Also strangely enough, we found that aging the wine in these amphorae gave us the best results as compared to steel or barrels. The amphorae, which are buried underground and keep a constant temperature, allow the wine to breath smoothly during the aging process and their small size guaranties good lees contact."

Gharibian says that they are currently only using steel tanks in addition to amphorae as a matter of necessity.

"We found that even if these were an intrinsic part of Armenia's wine making history the tradition has now almost completely been lost in Armenia. There was a time when entire villages were dedicated to amphorae making but these have mostly disappeared. When we started looking for potters to make these big amphorae for us we found that only a few experts were still around that had the knowledge to build them, but were not able to make them because they didn't have large enough kilns. So now we have started a whole new project. In an attempt to revive this tradition in Armenia we have decided to build a facility dedicated to amphorae making. With the help of the few elderly experts we plan to revive the amphorae making techniques and build the old traditional kilns. We want to bring in young potters who are willing to learn from these few remaining experts and continue the tradition."

The wine is not fined, and is given only a very coarse filtering to remove sediment before bottling. Its story alone would make it an interesting wine to drink, but thankfully it is also compelling on its own organoleptic merits, ready to dazzle any palate tired of tasting the same old things day in and day out.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this wine is how respectfully it has been made. It would have been all too easy for this rich Italian to waltz into Armenia with his karasi_2011.jpgworld-class consulting winemaker in tow and to make an "internationally styled" wine slaked with new French oak and polished with micro-oxygenation. Instead we have the pleasure of tasting both the place, and the exotic personality of an ancient grape that most have never heard of.

As I was preparing to write up my review of this wine Gharibian contacted me with some exciting news. He had just harvested the first grapes from an old abandoned Areni vineyard high in the remote mountains (5250 feet above sea level), that he believes is more than 200 years old.

"It seems that previous generations had planted these vines in these remote and off the beaten track places in order to have some kind of reserve in the case of war and invasion which, as you know, Armenia's history is full with," he wrote me in an e-mail. "Exactly because of their remoteness these vines have managed to survive even the Gorbachev era when all the vineyards in Armenia were uprooted in an attempt to combat the severe drinking problems of Russia! Harvesting these grapes and getting them to the winery is a challenge in itself. I am extremely excited and motivated for all the work ahead and am as determined as ever to create fantastic wines from this incredible terroir!"

This second wine will be released in 2015.

Gharibian and his wife Yeraz, who has been his partner in this escapade since its beginning, along with their two teenage children, continue to live in Milan and make regular trips to the winery in Armenia, along with Antonini and Bartolemei. Gharibian and his wife also regularly travel to their various sales markets and wine exhibitions around the world. They have a local Armenian winemaker and agronomist, as well as vineyard staff that live full-time near the vineyards.

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Gharibian's passion for this project seems to have no bounds, and it is gradually pushing fashion aside as the focus of his life, a prospect which he says he welcomes at the age of 47. He will talk animatedly for a long time about every aspect of the project, leaving no doubt at his excitement for what this project has achieved, and what he still hopes it will achieve.

"I hope we will be able to make amazing and interesting wines of the highest quality from our indigenous varieties that will excite and raise awareness of Armenia as a winemaking nation," he says. "Hopefully it will also inspire others, so that in the future we will be able to have many fantastic wines from here."

Even if no one rises to the challenge, Gharibian has established a window that both looks back into a long forgotten chapter in the ancient history of wine, and simultaneously provides us a view of vistas in the future. It is a profound achievement, and one whose depth will only continue to grow.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

TASTING NOTES:

2010 Zorah "Karasi" Areni Noir, Armenia
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and huckleberries. In the mouth strong huckleberry and mulberry flavors have a bright juiciness, thanks to good acidity. Faint tannins hang in the background. The wine is gamay-like, to the extent that it can be compared to a more common variety. Peppery notes linger in the finish. Very nice, and something I'd love to drink. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2011 Zorah "Karasi" Areni Noir, Armenia
Light, brilliant purple in the glass, this wine smells of smoky mulberry and cassis. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderfully bright cassis and grapey quality (think purple SweetTarts) backed by a fantastic wet campfire - woodsmoke flavor that is quite arresting. Excellent acidity makes the wine juicy and quite easy to drink and powdery tannins lend substance to the bright fruit. Distinctive and unique. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

Images courtesy of Zorah winery.

Comments (6)

Tom wrote:
10.09.13 at 11:30 PM

Great article! Thanks.

10.10.13 at 9:00 AM

Great write-up, Alder. I really enjoyed this wine, and talking with Gharibian too. His passion and story are inspiring. He's done a good job too at releasing nice wine right out of the gate from an unfamiliar (to most) region. It's exciting to see.

Really nice job giving great context to Zorah. I enjoyed your account of the story very much.

Elaine

Neil McNally wrote:
10.14.13 at 5:15 PM

Perfect timing on this great article! I am covering the region in my next class

Z wrote:
10.15.13 at 10:28 AM

How can we contact Gharibian?

04.12.14 at 4:18 PM

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on few common things, The web site taste is wonderful, the articles is actually
nice : D. Just right process, cheers

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