9 Armenian Wine Grapes to Know
Trace through centuries of wine history and almost every trail will lead back to Armenia. As the Book of Genesis describes, the country—nestled between Iran to the south, Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the East—was home to the world’s first grapevines. When Noah’s Ark ran aground on Mount Ararat, he planted rows of vines (and got quite drunk off the first harvest). Students of history know that the snow-capped peak, despite its present-day location within the borders of neighboring Turkey, is an iconic symbol of Armenia.
You can label the Noah’s Ark story as legend or lore depending on your beliefs, but in 2007, the world’s oldest-known winery was uncovered in Areni, a town just 60 miles from Mount Ararat. Nestled deep in a cave perched up a rocky outcrop, researchers found a 6,000-year-old grape press and fermentation vats buried in the floor. It’s thought that wine played a significant role in the era’s human sacrifices and other religious ceremonies.
Winemaking continued in the country for thousands of years until practices wilted under Soviet rule. “Georgia was tasked with wine production and we got brandy,” says Mariam Saghatelyan, owner of InVino wine bar in Yerevan. Grape varieties better suited to spirits production were introduced and still-wine production fell dormant.
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Over the last twenty years, however, producers have re-emerged, reclaiming family land and planting indigenous grapes like Tozot, Voskehat and Khatoun.
When Paul Hobbs started his Yacoubian-Hobbs project with the Yacoubian brothers in Armenia two decades ago, “the wine industry was in rough shape,” he says. “A lot of expertise was lost and Soviet-era facilities were rusted and run down.”
So he tried planting American grapes to match his California background. “I looked to classic Western varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir—a total disaster,” he says. “We wanted to understand how these vines would behave in the Old World. It’s been very revealing—most of the varieties we brought ripened earlier and jumped up in sugar. They didn’t work here. Meanwhile, the indigenous varieties ripen late and never get out of control.” Now he relies on Armenian grapes—hyper-aromatic examples like Voskehat or intense reds like Areni Noir, just two of the offerings that make up Armenia’s 400 autochthonous grape varieties.
To really understand Armenian wine, these indigenous varieties are the place to start.
Known as the queen of Armenian grape varieties, Voskehat has been cultivated for over 3,000 years, most commonly in the cooler, forested province of Aragatsotn and higher altitude sites in Vayots Dzor.
Voskehat is known for its longevity and ability to withstand increasingly unpredictable climates, thanks to its thick skin and hardy vines. (It’s not uncommon to find 150-year-old plantings of Voskehat.) Because of these traits, wineries are starting to look to this grape as the future of the region amidst warming conditions.
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Voskehat is also malleable to style preferences. Depending on the growing season or winemaking treatment, the grape can be formed to bring out vegetal and key lime flavors or richer tropical notes of white flower and beeswax.
“I appreciate Voskehat because of its similarity to Chenin Blanc,” says Danya Degen, wine director at Meli in Washington, D.C. “Both grapes blend floral flavors with moderate acidity and fuller body. Like Chenin Blanc, acidity and body also make it a fabulous blending variety for sparkling wine. Armenia makes some of the best non-Champagne, non-Prosecco bubbles from Voskehat.”
Scott Stroemer, beverage director of Galit in Chicago, describes Khatoun (also known as Khatun, Khatouni or Khatun Kharji) as “a total acid freak.” With a yellow-green hue and near-colorless juice, Khatoun is known for its tart lemon, alpine flower and pineapple characteristics. “It’s great as a blending grape for Voskehat, which can be a bit flabby on its own,” he says.
Kangun (or Gangun, depending on who you ask) was born during Soviet rule and specifically created for brandy production. It’s the child of three grape varieties: First, it was crossed with the Ukrainian grape Sukholimansky Bely and the Georgian grape Rkatsiteli, then that offspring was later crossed with Chardonnay. It settled well in Armenian terroir and was adopted for not just brandy, but white and sparkling wines. Expect a light straw color, ample freshness and notes of honey, wildflower and quince.
The white grape variety—found most commonly in the Ararat region—is planted widely in the clay and higher desert soils of Armenia. It’s known for its vegetal and ripe pear characteristics, though Stroemer compares it to something more French in nature. “I want this to be the Sancerre of 2024,” he says.
“Areni Noir, often known as Sev Areni or Sev Malahi, is considered the pearl of Armenian grape varieties,” says Bertil Jean-Chronberg, the owner and operator of Bonde Fine Wine Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It grows in the Vayots Dzor region—distinguished by a unique climate of mild winters and sunny days—at an average altitude of 3,000 to 5,900 feet. This terroir reflects the peculiar characteristics of this grape variety: In its youth, it produces wines with a pronounced acidity and a deep and intense color with delicate aromas of cherry, blackcurrant and black pepper. Aged in Armenian oak barrels, it becomes finer and more velvety and gains aromatic complexity and roundness.”
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Areni Noir is “thin-skinned with bright acid,” adds Stroemer. “When grown in Vayots Dzor, Areni Noir becomes more Burgundian in presence with a black pepper finish.”
While Tigrani is Armenian in origin, part of its parentage comes from Georgia, the Caucasus’s other historic wine region. The grape is a cross between Saperavi, one of Georgia’s ancient grapes, and Areni Noir.
It’s seldom seen on its own. Instead, Tigrani lends fruit and florality to more tannic red varieties. The grapes are juicy, sweet and tart with deep natural color, a subtle spice and touches of ripe pomegranate.
Translating to “victory” in Armenian, Haghtanak’s deep purple berries and intense red juice have made the grape one of Armenia’s most beloved varieties. It’s often found in blends—the deep color adds oomph to lighter grapes like Tozot—though if you do find a single varietal wine, it’s deeply cherry-like, hyper tannic with additional notes of plum, cloves, coffee and vanilla. “I find it quite similar to Saperavi from Georgia,” says Stroemer. “It’s red-fleshed and super tannic.”
Kakhet has deep roots that date back to the 4th century, but for the last few centuries, the grape has been exclusively reserved for Port-style sweet wines. Producers are wising up to the grape’s potential: While Haghtanak and Areni are rich and tannic, Kakhet tends to be berry-forward and terroir-driven—it’s light and aromatic, with notes of blackberry, black currant, fig and black pepper. Experts at U.C. Davis reckon the grape is a relative of the French varietal Carbonneau.
“I see a lot of potential in this grape,” says Pavel Vardanyan, who makes a Tozot at Noa Wine in Vayots Dzor, located at the tippy-top of one of the region’s rolling mountains. “You can make Tozot elegant and ageable, you can make it into a rosé, you can make it into a blanc de noir,” he explains.
While Tozot isn’t found widely (and often only in older vineyards), the red grape offers up high acidity and freshness, with vibrant, bright strawberry notes not dissimilar to something from, say, Beaujolais.
Because of its rarity, “these days, it’s often blended into a still wine, used in table wine, dessert wine or distilled into Armenian brandy,” says Jean-Chronberg. “If vinified alone, it produces wines of great freshness, which are unique and invigorating.”
Published: January 11, 2024