Armenian Apex: The Wines of Zorah

When I first wrote about the wines of Zorah in 2013, most people had never heard of wine from Armenia. Until Zorik Gharibian introduced himself to me and poured me a taste during my visit to Turkey for a wine communication conference, I hadn’t heard of wine from Armenia either.

But in the years since, Armenian wine has undergone something of a rebirth, thanks in no small part to Gharibian’s pioneering work as the founder and proprietor of Zorah Wines, an estate that continues to demonstrate the promise and potential of Armenian wine. When Gharibian began his odyssey, which I chronicled in my 2013 writeup of his wines, there were no other commercial wine ventures active in the country. Now there are several, and the streets of the capital are apparently rife with wine bars celebrating the products of the country’s ancient wine-growing heritage.

The mountainous terrain of Armenia

Armenia holds not one, but two, particular distinctions in the human history of wine. Firstly, that the earliest known archaeological evidence of commercial winemaking was discovered in a cave in Armenia, dating back to approximately 5000 BC. And secondly, that DNA evidence points to the area occupied by modern-day Armenia and the Republic of Georgia as the likely place that the ancestors of today’s fine wine grapes were first domesticated.

I had the opportunity to check in with Zorik Gharibian recently after receiving samples of his recent releases and to hear how his incredibly ambitious and dedicated project is going.

“Everything is movement in Armenia,’ says Gharibian. “We are here, and we are doing what we do. There is no precedent. We have no neighbors to watch, there is no path. Everything we do is by experimentation and trying to match things together.”

Raiders of the Lost Varieties

Gharibian’s latest obsession is ferreting out as many native grape varieties from old, decrepit backyard vineyards that he can find.

“My latest project I am calling the Zorah Heritage Project,” he explains. “It will be a collection of different wines, all native varieties. Luckily we have plenty. We started with 8 or 9 different ones, and are narrowing them down.”

The first wine to be released from this experimentation is Gharibian’s bottling of Chilar.

“There is no one vineyard dedicated to this variety,” says Gharibian. “We are literally picking bunches here and there from among rows to make the first wine. Now we have propagated it and planted a small portion of a vineyard. The idea is to save this variety from extinction.”

The second wine will be a tannic red variety called Syreni, but it will also incorporate a white variety named Ararati, says Gharibian, “to give it some lift and energy.”

“We’re adding one or two hectares of vines each year,” says Gharibian. “It’s not mathematics and I don’t have a plan in my head. I want to keep space reserved for new varieties, and not go to too many extremes. The Heritage line will be four or five thousand bottles, maximum.”

The Amphora Obsession

When he began, Gharibian explored aging wines in oak, but quickly found that it obliterated the character of the indigenous grapes. Inspired by the ancient archaeological evidence nearby showing terracotta wine vessels, Gharibian went down the rabbit hole of fermenting and aging in amphorae, which quickly led to the even deeper hole of locally produced amphorae.

“What I am thinking for my next project is the revival of the craft of making karasi,” says Gharibian. “I have to make this a reality. I want to create a school and a building where we can teach and produce karasi for the local market, and who knows, even for export. And in this same building I want to have an exhibition place that tells the story of Armenian winemaking.”

Gharibian goes on to explain that Armenia clearly had a strong history and tradition of crafting amphorae that have been entirely lost.

“It is a shame for Armenia that we have totally lost this tradition,” he says, explaining that he has submitted it and been shortlisted as an example of an endangered cultural heritage with the Europa Nostra project.

“Our Karasis they have specificity,” continues Gharibian. “Amphorae exist in other countries but I believe the tradition of aging wines in amphora, my forefathers took the best from other countries and made their own. They perfected it.”

“When I first became obsessed with amphoras, I didn’t know how to do it, and what was the best way,” says Gharibian. “I just went from village to village collecting the best examples I could find. I started by filling them above ground. Then I buried them. But the more I learned about the golden age of our winemaking 3000 years ago, and began to see photos of winemaking excavations the more I realized that my ancestors had decided that the best way was to have three-quarters of the amphora underground and one quarter above ground.”

As evidence, Gharibian sends me a photograph of an archaeological site dating to roughly 700 BCE where more than 500 intact or nearly-intact amphorae were discovered in one spot. A clear line divides the more highly decorated “above ground” portion of the amphora from the rougher, buried portion.

“After experimenting, I realized this is the best of both worlds,” says Gharibian excitedly. “When you have the amphora buried completely, you get a constant temperature, but you lose control and it is very hard to make an inspection of the wine. When the amphora is above ground, micro-ox is fast. But when you are 25% out, you can inspect the wine easily, plus you have that slightly different temperature of the part above ground, and so it creates this fluid cycle that causes more mixing. I haven’t seen this partially-buried approach written about anywhere, and I think this is specific to Armenia.”

Tribute to Time

One of the things that Gharibian told me about when we first met was this ancient vineyard he had discovered, purchased, and slowly nursed back to life, at 1600 meters of elevation in the mountains near a remote village.

It took some time to rehabilitate the vines, and then even more time to make and age a wine that Gharibian thought was a fitting tribute to vines that might be as much as 200 years old.

The ancient vines of Yeraz

“I was trying to understand from the villagers, and talking to these 80- and 90-year-old people who were telling me that this vineyard was already old when they were little kids,” says Gharibian. “I kept telling [grape geneticist] José Vouillamoz we have to find out how old they are, and he stopped me and said, ‘what does it really matter if they are 150 or 200 years old? They’re old.'”

The wine Gharibian makes from these vines is known as Yeraz, and when he finally released it last year, he commemorated the occasion by climbing Mount Ararat with a group of friends.

“It’s the same grape, Areni, that is part of our Karasi wine,” explains Gharibian, “but when they say that age has a certain wisdom with grapes, you see that in Yeraz. They are the same family, but these vines have taken a different path.”

Gharibian ferments the fruit in concrete and then ages it in amphora, with a small portion aged in large oak casks, “Just to work on the tannins,” he says. “The wine ends up completely different.”

The wine ages for quite some time in amphora, and then longer in the bottle. The currently released vintage is 2016.

The Pull of Armenia

When I first met Gharibian, he was a fashion executive, living and working in Milan, and then jetting over to Armenia when he could find the time. But in the past 8 years, things have shifted for him.

“My fashion business was becoming not so exciting anymore,” admits Gharibian. “Even though the wine was financed by the fashion, wine was giving me much more satisfaction, and taking all my energy and thinking. I’ve realized in the last 2 years that I am spending more time in Armenia and traveling for wine than I am spending in Italy. So now I am building a house in the vineyard. My wife is certain that in a few years I will be here full time. As more time passes, Armenia becomes more important to me.”

Recent events have brought clarity and pain to that realization for Gharibian. When I spoke with him, it was the one-year anniversary of the death of several people related to his winery staff in the ongoing border conflict with Azerbaijan.

“Personally, as an Armenian, I am hurt by this conflict as you cannot imagine,” says Gharibian. “We are a peaceful people who have lived here for millennia. Everyone knows we are the native people of this region. But we continue to be peaceful and we continue to lose territory. The tragedy is that no one knows about Armenians. But one thing I know is that we shouldn’t cry about the past. We should get more organized, focus, create a good economy in Armenia, good education for the next generation, and keep remaining Armenians.”

Zorik Gharibian

Garibian, thus far, seems to be doing far more than his part to make that happen. While Zorah has been joined by several other high-profile winemaking ventures, all seeking to raise the profile of Armenian wine globally, Zorah remains at the pinnacle of both quality and passion when it comes to Armenian wine.

These incredibly impressive wines represent a kind of frontier in the world of wine, one that rewards the most intrepid of wine lovers with simultaneously a taste of the past, and a vision of the future. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

The current Zorah lineup

Tasting Notes

2019 Zorah “Heritage” Chilar, Armenia
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of peach and banana and a touch of pastry cream. In the mouth, it is quite creamy, and a bit weighty on the palate, with flavors of tropical fruits like Jackfruit and Cherimoya, and a hint of peach, and perhaps not quite enough acidity to make it truly lively. But it’s always fun to try wines made from grapes that most people haven’t heard of or tasted. Made from 100% Chilar, an indigenous Armenian grape. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2019 Zorah “Voski” White Blend, Armenia
Light straw in color, this wine smells of Asian pears and white flowers, and unripe apples. In the mouth, silky flavors of apple, pastry cream, white flowers, and a hint of grapefruit have a nice bright briskness thanks to excellent acidity and a nice rich complexity. Quite pretty. A blend of 50% Voskehat and 50% Garandmak. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Zorah “Karasi” Areni Noir, Armenia
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a spicy aroma of mulberries, blackberries, and a touch of incense. In the mouth, perfumed fruit flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and mulberry swirl with floral notes and a touch of dried herbs. Silky but with excellent acidity. Alluring. Grown at 4600 feet above sea level. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2014 Zorah “Yeraz” Areni Noir, Armenia
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin and mulling spices. In the mouth, silky flavors of red apple skin, dried berries, dried flowers, and hints of stone fruit are gorgeously wrapped in a gauzy, wispy haze of tannins that just barely tickle the palate. Lovely. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $135. click to buy.

Images courtesy of Zorah Wines.