An adventurous group of 18 friends, inspired by Louella Hanbury-Tenison, decided to explore Georgia and Armenia in October. Within the expedition were Louella’s husband, the veteran explorer, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, as well as a general and a brace of brigadiers. The latter maybe giving us peace of mind, during these skirmish-filled days, as often our road was only a few metres from the Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan borders.
Sheltered from Russia by the spectacular Caucasus Mountains, these brave countries are both beautiful and welcoming.
It is wonderful how wine binds friends together on an adventure. Especially in the countries in which it was ‘invented’ 6,000 or even 8,000 years ago. Even those who safely buy their wines from The Wine Society and maybe had never been to a vineyard, were fascinated by what Georgia and Armenia had to offer.
At the London Wine Trade Fair in June 2022, I had met Vladimer Kublashvili, the charming chief winemaker and deputy general director at the renowned Khareba winery in Georgia’s lead wine region towards the east of the country, Kakheti. It was he who extended our first invitation. At the door of his cellar, we were welcomed with open arms and given one of the most breathtaking tours and tastings I have ever experienced.
Issued with bright red blankets as we entered the cool cellars, we were led to an area where four traditionally-dressed singers were waiting. We were intrigued; we were not disappointed. A priest crossed himself and then unlocked and opened – actually opened – the top of an underground Qvevri exclusively for us. We gasped. The waiting singers burst into moving polyphonic songs as we were each presented with a small clay bowl: our tasting vessel. These were then filled with the most wonderfully rich red Saperavi wine.
Vladimer Kublashvili explained that the five-year-old Saperavi had been aged for six months in Qvevri. Then it was transferred to a stainless-steel tank to mature for several years. The actual Qvevri we opened was sealed just weeks before our arrival, in preparation for the special opening ceremony we’d witnessed.
I can still see and taste that wine. A junior Mouton or a hint of a Musar come to mind. This was Georgia at its best.
We were then introduced to six new wines – somewhat surprisingly four whites and two reds. Under the Monastery label, the 2018 white showed really well as did the 2014 Saperavi red. All the blends appeared to be crafted either for Georgian taste (using amphoras) or European style.
Afterwards, we each made our own slightly quirky, Georgian bread; tasted the most delicious lamb from the spit; drenched a walnut kebab in grape skin pulp (an interesting local speciality) and went happily on our way.
We also visited the cave town of Uplistsikhe, where I stood in a 1000 BC wine press. You couldn’t make it up. Wait till Las Vegas gets its hands on such an extraordinary feature.
In neighbouring Armenia, again to the east of the country, we were incredibly excited to be taken to the Areni wine region, which boats the oldest winery in the world. Areni Cave-1, also known as the Birds’ Cave, was our destination. Initial excavations only began in 2007, when evidence was shown that well-preserved Late Chalcolithic (4300–3400 BC) as well as Medieval (400–1700 AD) remains were likely to be found in the rocks and spaces of low humidity here. The perfect conditions for preserving treasure… and, as it happened, the oldest humanoid brain, which was discovered here in 2009.
The excavations were carried out by Boris Gasparyan of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia and have so far have unearthed fermentation vats, a wine press, storage jars and pottery sherds. Possibly over 6,000 years old. Also, 8,000-year-old grape pips were in evidence as well as the world’s oldest shoe.
Climbing up above, 1,000 metres above sea level, alongside the river Arpa, this site is truly a real wonder of the world.
The next day we visited the Armenia Wine Company, founded in 2008 by the Vardanyan and Mkrtchyan families as a result of love for their homeland, nature and culture. The winery is located in Aragatsotn, one of the viticultural regions of Armenia. It is situated between Yerevan and Mount Aragats (4,090 metres), Armenia’s highest peak.
This proved to be another eye-opener. In a display of sheer brilliance, 8,000-year-old wine artifacts were presented in a modern hologram style. For elevenses we tasted today’s wines: an engaging port style; a three-year-old fortified raisiny wine from the barrel; then, under the Yerevan label, we were introduced to a cleanly-balanced fizz, followed by an unusual 2018 rosé and a 2020 red. All well-made wines with lowish alcohol at 12.5%. There was no real mention of terroir, and these were not yet world-beaters, but they could be on their way!
We also managed to persuade our delightful hosts that we were worthy of their, as yet unreleased 10-year-old brandy. And boy, did that have strength and length!
So where are Georgia and Armenia in the great pantheon of fine wine? The two oldest wine producing countries in the world have been hostage to geopolitics since time immemorial. Very recently released from the Russian yoke, but still economically constrained, they now, at last, have a chance to prove themselves in a free market.
Just before we left on our trip, I met the charismatic Georgian Ambassador, Sofio Katsarava, at her Embassy in London. She expressed her wish that Georgian wine should be her country’s most recognized export and symbol.
Will this happen? If the traditions and creativeness of Khareba and other peer wineries such as Teliani in Georgia and the family investment model in the Armenia Wine Company can lead the way, then it certainly deserves to. When new vine plantings become mature, when modern technology is optimized, when premium blends, and ‘less is more’ in terms of brands can be achieved. And when the right overseas trade partners can be found, then yes, there is indeed a niche future.
The transition from curio wine, ‘interesting’ to discuss at a dinner party, to a trusted bottle you’d happily serve at home is possible. But to reach world-class, there will need to be fine tuning, which I sincerely hope can be achieved in these amazingly stalwart countries.
May I suggest that a competition is held to find the best strapline combining the extraordinary vinous history of these two countries, inextricably dug-in as the passageway between Europe and Asia, and today and tomorrow’s wine enthusiast? ‘Their future lies in their past?’
Vintners’ Scholar Ben Howkins has been involved with wine all his life. A former member of the Royal Household Wine Committee and a WSET trustee, he has a deep knowledge of port and sherry built up over many years, and writes about his favourite wines with a lively enthusiasm tinged with humour. He is, as Hugh Johnson says, ‘a wine merchant of the old school’ – but there is nothing in the least bit ‘old’ in his approach to Sherry…