We keep emphasizing how new the Armenian wine industry is and for good reason. While the French have had centuries to perfect the Bordeaux Blend or document the nuances of every row of grapes in the Côte d’Or, most Armenian vintners have had 5 years of experience at most. The winemakers we talked to are still experimenting with grape selection, wine blends and cellar techniques and can’t wait for the next vintage to put those ideas in practice.
That said, here is what we see as emerging red wine trends:
Armenian Native Grapes
Areni: It’s clear to us that Areni is a special grape and perfectly suited to the current global wine palate. In today’s market there is a movement away from the heavily concentrated, heavily oaked red wines made popular by Napa Valley Cabernets and Australian Shiraz towards lighter reds. The growth in worldwide planting and consumption of Pinot Noir attest to that. Areni fits that profile as it is naturally a lighter bodied red that doesn’t overwhelm food, it compliments it.
The best Areni’s have a purity of cherry fruit on the nose and palate, with herbal, floral or oaken notes underneath. While the fruit is darker in some wines than others (just like Pinot Noir), Areni always needs a deft touch with the amount of new oak used in the winemaking, less the nuances are lost.
Many of the best Armenian wines we’ve enjoyed were Areni Reserves that benefited from strict vineyard selections and just the right amount of oak.
Khndoghni: If Areni maps to Pinot Noir, then Khndoghni maps to Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the color and body of a Cabernet and the dark fruits of a Syrah. Unlike Areni, Khndoghni and oak (particularly Artsakh oak) are made for each other. The best Khndoghni wines have the body and the power to seamlessly marry with the spicy Caucasian oak.
[For marketing purposes, some producers are using Sireni as an easier to pronounce name for Khndoghni. Sireni is certainly easier to pronounce, but Khndoghni does have a certain panache once you learn how to say it!]
We love these Artsakh wines, and as the country is literally under siege, we salute the courage of the investors and winemakers working to bring these great wines to light.
Kharmrahyut: Of all of the other Armenian red wine grapes we single out Kharmrahyut because it is so controversial. A hybrid grape created in the Soviet period, some would say that by definition a “fine wine” cannot be made from a hybrid grape. “Fine” or not, we found that some really interesting wines are being made from Kharmrahyut. In fact, if we were developing an “Introduction to Armenian Wine” course, we would certainly include a wine made from Kharmrahyut as part of the curriculum.
Kharmrahyut produces deep purple wines with a considerable concentration of fruit; but typically there are often a lot of other spicy/vegetal flavors in the wine as well, not all of which people find pleasant. To us it’s like a red version of a Gewurztraminer, it’s a unique grape and you either like it or you don’t. We like it.
Other Armenian Reds: We’ve had one wine made from 100% Haghtanak, but otherwise we have only experienced the other Armenian red grapes (e.g. Kakhet, Meghrabuyr, Tozot, etc.) as part of red wine blends. The typical red blend has a base of Areni, to which Haghtanak is added (presumably for color) as well as Kakhet or another grape.
Many of the great wines of the world are blends; Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Chianti to name a few. The grapes that go into these blends and the properties that each adds to the finished product are the result of decades of winemaking and experimentation. It will take time for the right formula to emerge in Armenia, and the blend likely vary by wine growing region and how each variety performs there. We’ve found some good red wine blends we recommend, but to date the pure Areni or Khndoghni wines have produced the most excitement.
In addition to its own native grapes, Armenia is also producing wine from European varieties. The best known of these are the Karas wines. Karas grows Syrah, Malbec, Tannat, Petit Verdot and others at its Armavir estate. Karas’s red blends, the Classic Red and the Reserve are some of Armenia’s best made wines.
Others using European grape varieties include Van Ardi, who makes a delicious Reserve Syrah, and Armenia Wine Company who’s Ariats Red is a wonderful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Areni.
While some will argue that Armenia needs to focus on its own native grapes to forge a unique wine identity, that approach certainly was not the case with the United States, New Zealand or Argentina, all of which built successful wine industries by making wines from European varieties. For us, having a great Armenian wine made from familiar European grapes adds to the tapestry of Armenian wine and provides another avenue to get Armenian wines into the global conversation.
Part 2: Pink, White, Bubbly & Sweet