An Armenian Feast with Friends Paired with Armenian Wines: Modern Wines from an Ancient Place



In 2007 a team of Armenian and Irish archaeologists discovered a 6,100 year old wine press in a cave site outside the Armenian town of Areni. The team went on to discover fermentation and storage vessels, traces of grape skins, seeds, vines, and cups. They’d found the oldest winery in existence so far.

Areni-1 cave panorama.jpg
Panorama of the Areni-1 site along the Arpa River. By Serouj - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

Areni-1, as the cave complex is known, has been a treasure trove of ‘oldest of’s.’ The team, which went on to partner with UCLA in 2008, found a very well preserved mocassin (ie. the leather oldest shoe), a straw skirt, and the oldest humanoid brain. Evidence of twenty different burials was found around the winery area, which has led scientists to believe that wine was used in a ritualistic manner here. It was perhaps dedicated to the dead, and the shoe, which was found in the winery, might’ve been removed in order to participate in a ritual, or perhaps for stomping grapes.

In 2010, archaeologists excavated a 2-foot-deep vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long basin made of hard-packed clay. The team chemically analyzed shards of pottery for traces of wine. Radiocarbon dating suggests the pottery dates back to 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C. In the clay, they found traces of a compound called malvidin, which is plant pigment responsible for giving red wine its color.

Older evidence of wine has been found in Iran dating back about 7000 years, but this is the oldest winery found thus far. When combined with previous studies, evidence now points to the mountains around Armenia and Georgia and other neighboring countries as the birthplace of domesticated viticulture.

(For more on these fascinating archeological finds, check out these articles from National Geographic here and here.)

Somewhat tragically, despite their looooooooooooooonnnggg winemaking taditions, the wine industries of both Armenia and Georgia were dealt huge blows in the 20th century. Both countries were part of the Soviet Union, and sadly neither the history nor the quality of the wines were big considerations under Soviet rule. The grand majority of Armenia’s vineyards were shifted towards production for brandy distillation. This is largely still the case today, but things are changing.  When Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, interest in reviving the wine industry and in rediscovering their winemaking traditions have returned. Moreover, the Armenian Diaspora sent Armenians to many parts of the world. Many descendants of that diaspora grew up elsewhere, but are bringing back the knowledge they’ve gained back to Armenia – winemaking knowledge included. In addition, many of the most famous “Flying Winemakers” have taken an interest in Armenia’s wine industry and are part of projects in Armenia including Michel Rolland, Alberto Antonini, and Paul Hobbs (some of whose wines are featured here today.) All of this has shifted the focus from quantity to quality, and the improvements in wines are turning this into a very exciting wine region. I’d say that is one hell of a comeback story.

I first got to try an Armenian wine when a couple of friends who were working for Paul Hobbs at the time brought a bottle from his Yacoubian-Hobbs wine project to lunch. One of these friends and I eventually concocted a plan that we should have a dinner party to explore these wines with Armenian cuisine. It took a bit, but we eventually planned our feast for last summer. 

Map borrowed from www.nationsonline.org.

We also have a good friend whose family is Armenian and I immediately enlisted her help in the menu planning. Gohar pointed out that because of Armenia’s location and history, its cuisine is kind of an amalgam of many others, principally Russian, Georgian, and various Middle Eastern cuisines. I cooked a few dishes, Gohar brought a mix of mezze for appetizers, my friend Laura brought a salad, and the rest of our guests brought the wines. A few people also brought desserts. Most of the dishes I made for this dinner party drew more from the Middle Eastern side of things, with a little bit from the Russian side. 



Here was the menu:

  • Assorted Mezze with lavash bread.

 
  • Imam Bayildi – I love the story behind this dish. Its name means “the Imam Fainted,”  supposedly for an Imam who swooned when his wife presented him with this dish because he loved it so much. Other versions say he fainted at hearing the cost of the ingredients. It consists of eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onion, and garlic and it can be served hot or at room temp. It can sometimes include other veggies or meats, as was the case here. I basically made this version I found on The Spruce Eats with the seasonings from this version. I then topped it with extra roasted red peppers and parsley for color. A few years ago I made a similar, simplified stuffed eggplant dish for 8 & $20, in case you're interested to try a streamlined version.     

  • Surim (or Suram or Surram) – This is a pasta dish topped with feta, yogurt, garlic, butter, and herbs. It’s considered by some to be like an Armenian “mac and cheese.” This is an Armenian-American version, as the original was extremely time-consuming, and Armenians that immigrated to the US adapted it to use dry pasta. 


  • Salad




      The Wines


      Today’s wine are all from the Vayotz Dzor region in the southern part of the country. This is the same region the Areni-1 cave is located in. It’s a heartland for native varieties. This ancient wine region launched the annual Areni wine festival launched in 2009.

      Keush Origins Brut NV

      (Average price: $21)

      As an aperitif, we had a traditional method sparkling wine from Keush, a winery located about 1800 meters above sea level in the community of Khchik. The terrain is mountainous with rocky limestone and volcanic soils. It’s made up of native varieties 60% Voskehat and 40% Khatouni (see grape descriptions bellow), and it spends a minimum of 22 months on the lees.

      The wine showed notes of golden apples, lemons, yellow peaches, sweet smoke, pastry, and stones. It was a lovely kick-off to our dinner.




      Yacoubian-Hobbs


      The Yacoubian family invited Paul Hobbs to visit Armenia to explore the country’s winemaking potential. They eventually partnered together, and after visiting six of the country’s ten provinces and decided to establish their project in Vayotz Dzor, not far from the Areni-1 cave, and planted vineyards here in 2014.



      Dry White Blend 2014

      (Average price $27)

      Made from 4 indigenous varieties grown at an elevation of over 4,000 feet, in the vineyard sites of Aghavnadzor. Since I’m not all that familiar with these varieties, I’m going to borrow descriptions from the tech sheet.
      • 80% Voskehat: or "golden berry" is considered the emblematic white variety of Armenia, thriving in high-altitude, rocky soils, known for its longevity with vines living well past 100 years. Thick-skinned berries yield complex and expressive aromatics including the fresh scent of the Armenian Snowdrop flower.
      • 10% Khatuni: thick-skinned berries, gives a notable crispness and unique floral expression to the wine.
      • 5% Qrdi: a late-ripening variety, bringing a beautiful freshness to the blend.
      • 5% Garan Demak: or "sheep's tail" prefers rocky, semi-desert soils; its delicate fruit rounds out the final wine.
      The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel.

      This wine showed lots of crisp, fresh notes of green apple, lime zest, white peach, and hints of herbs and flowers. This wine paired beautifully with the Surim and the cucumber salad. I really enjoyed this lovely white wine.

      Areni


      Our next three wines are made of the Areni grape, which is considered to have huge potential because it tends to be elegant in the glass and is simultaneously very hardy in the vineyard. It’s disease resistant and does well in the harsh climates with extreme variability. Interestingly, its DNA profile is completely unique, unlike any other variety. The wines tend to be full-bodied, red-fruited, with fresh acidity. The grapes also are fairly thick-skinned and which tends to lead to a firm tannic structure. All of the Areni wines tasted here had medium+ tannins, but they were ripe and round. I've seen it compared to a cross in flavors between Pinot and Merlot, and I'd say that's a pretty good description, or perhaps something a long the lines of a fuller-bodied Barbera.

      All of the Areni wines paired really well with the Imam Bayildi.



      Areni 2014 and 2015

      (Average price $32)

      The grapes for this wine comes from the village of Rind, and from vines grown in volcanic and limestone soils at an elevation of 4,000 feet. This wine is 100% Areni and is fermented and aged in stainless steel.

      2014 - This vintage showed more floral notes, pomegranate, red plum, and a little bit of tobacco.
      2015 - This vintage had a bit of a sweet smoky note to it, with red fruits and a hint of black pepper. The acidity on this one was also a bit higher than on the 2014.



      Sarpina Areni 2014

      (Average price $44)

      This wine also came from the Rind vineyard area, but this bottling is produced in smaller quantities and aged in French oak. ‘Sarpina’ is named for the posts used to train vines as is recorded in Armenian agricultural history books.

      In addition to red berries and pomegranates, there was also a hint of blood orange to this wine. There were also notes of clove, vanilla, and smoke. It was round and full with more tannic structure than the other two wines, but the tannins were quite smooth. 


      All of these wines were really approachable. They’d all be a great option if you want to have a tasting adventure and try something completely new, while still not getting too far out of your comfort zone.

      This was such a fun feast and a happy memory to revisit right now. I hope to have the chance to gather with friends for culinary explorations again soon!



      Photo credit on all food pictures to Greg Hudson.


      *****


      This weekend I’m hosting the Wine Pairing Weekend (#WinePW) blogging group in an exploration of the wines of the Ancient World. Be sure to check out all the interesting wines they've discovered in their explorations.



      Additional sources used for references and additional reading:


      What You Need to Know About Armenian Wine on Sevenfity Daily 
      Armenian Wines Are Kicking With Quality on Forbes.com
      Meet the Man Bringing Incredible Armenian Wine to the U.S. on Food & Wine
      From Georgia to Lebanon: Exploring the Best Wines of the Ancient World on the Guardian






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      8 comments

      1. What a delicious feast!! You and your friends outdid yourselves! I loved this topic, Nicole-thank you. I learned so much.

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      2. Oh I'm dying to try those wines! I've heard so much about Armenian wine but have only been able to get one (Armenian wine not exactly being thick on the ground in Turkey). It sounds like you had some really beautiful wines.

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        1. I can totally see it being hard to get these wines in Turkey, but if you have the chance I think they're definitely worth exploring for sure!

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      3. Wow - what a feast! Will have to track down one or more of these approachable Armenian wines to try. The food looks stunning.

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      4. Wow, what a great history lesson about the Armenian site! And this meal sounds amazing...the Armenian mac & cheese caught my eye in particular.

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        Replies
        1. Thanks David. As I was writing this, I was also thinking "Oh, I definitely need to make that again."

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      Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!