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Part of this article was originally published on Wine Folly. This article has been repurposed with their permission. This version of the article includes wine recommendations. The writing is done by Exotic Wine Travel and all images are produced by Wine Folly.
Somewhere in what is today’s Transcaucasia, mankind planted a new chapter in history. There’s more to wine than Old World and New World; welcome to the Ancient World of wine.
This red grape hails from a town of the same name in south Armenia. Its thick skin protects it from the summer sun and the harsh, high-elevation, continental climate. It makes red wine with medium ruby hue, fresh acidity, and soft tannins. Wines made from this grape can have sour cherry, herb, spice, and grassy flavors–which, at times, remind us of a cross between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. The grape gained some international fame when Zorah Karasi, a varietal wine made from Areni, was featured in the list of Bloomberg’s Top Ten Wines of 2012.
The name Khndoghni is derived from the Armenian word “khind”, which means laughter. This is a native red wine variety from the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh area, which–depending on the source–is considered a region of Armenia, a separate nation, or a part of Azerbaijan. This grape has high tannins and offers interesting characteristics of black and blue fruits, cotton candy, and earth. Wines made from this grape have grippy tannins, precise structure, and exhibit aging potential. Khndoghni is usually aged in Caucasian oak barrels that are sourced from the same area.
If Areni is the signature red grape of Armenia, then Voskehat is the poster child of Armenian white wine. Voskehat translates to “golden seed”. It is a hardy and thick-skinned grape that gets along well with the hot summer and bitterly cold winter of the high Armenian Plateau. Almost all the winemakers in Armenia who make a white wine use this grape, either in varietal wine form or in a blend. It makes smooth- and medium-bodied white wine with floral, savory, tropical fruit, and stone fruit notes. We have a recommendation for a Voskehat varietal wine in Voskevaz: A New Face in the Armenian Wine Scene.
Exotic Wine Travel’s Choice: Kataro Reserve 2013
A true product of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. This wine is made from an indigenous variety called Khndoghni and is aged in local oak sourced from the same area. A dark, rich, and massively structured wine. It is more of an earthy (than fruity) wine with other flavors of black fruit, chocolate, and smoke. A unique and well-made wine; it has the stuffing to age very well and can be paired wonderfully with Khorovats (Armenian barbecue).
This is a different variety from Mtsvane, which grows in almost every region in Georgia. Goruli Mtsvane means “green from Gori”, and Gori is a city in south-central Georgia. A late-ripening grape that oxidizes easily, only a few winemakers make wine from this rare variety. When made in the qvevri, it delivers one of the most interesting experiences in wine. Its high-toned aromas range from peach, lime, apricot, wildflower, pine, and nut. On the palate, the weighty body is reminiscent of a light red wine.
Rkatsiteli, whose name means “red stem,” is a ubiquitous white wine variety that comprises nearly half of Georgia’s vineyard plantings. It is a hardy and easy-to-grow grape as it is resistant to cold and maintains a high level of acidity and sugar as it ripens. It can be made into dry, semi-sweet, and fortified wines, and also brandy. This variety is treated in both the traditional Georgian qvevri-style with extended skin contact and conventional-style white wine technique. In the conventional style, it becomes a well-balanced, medium-bodied white wine with a touch of spice. When made in qvevri style, it takes on an amber tone, a forceful structure, and beautiful creaminess on the palate. What Chardonnay is for California, this grape is to Georgia. Check out Exotic Wine Travel’s 16 Wines Of 2016 for the tasting notes on Okro’s Wine Rkatsiteli 2010.
Saperavi means “color/dye.” This is the most widely planted red wine variety in Georgia. Like Alicante Bouschet, it is teinturier with red flesh and red juice. This dark-skinned and dark-fleshed grape makes deep red, inky, and often opaque wine with heavy body and profound texture. Some wineries in the country label it as black wine instead of red. Due to the grape’s marked acidity and myriad characteristics of black fruit, licorice, chocolate, earth, smoked meat, tobacco, savory spice, and pepper, it is extremely versatile and can be made into rosé, dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and fortified wines. A dry red Saperavi wine resembles a mix between Blaufrankisch and Syrah. Check out our tasting notes for Artizani Saperavi, Lagvinari Saperavi, and Jakeli Saperavi.
Also, here’s an episode of Exotic Wine Travel where we tasted two of our favorite Saperavi wines, Khareba Saperavi Premium Gold 2010 and Kortavebis Marani Saperavi 2014, side by side.
Usakhelouri translates to “a grape with no name.” A native of western Georgia, this is an extremely low-yielding and rare variety that grows on the slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The total annual harvest is only a few tons. It is grown in a few small, remote villages and can be made into dry red or naturally semi-sweet wine with a high price tag. The wines made from this variety are aromatic and velvety, with vibrant acidity and light tannins. The flavors are red fruit, purple flower, mint, pepper, and forest floor. The semi-sweet wine made from Usakhelouri is a wonderfully complex wine that somehow reminds us of what Pinot Noir might taste like if it were made into a dessert wine.
Exotic Wine Travel’s Choice: Soliko Our Wine Goruli Mtsvane 2015
Made from the rare grape variety Goruli Mtsvane, this wine is fermented, macerated, and aged in traditional Georgian qvevri. The wine has flavors of orange peel, peach concentrate, and wild flowers, perked up by a slight tug from the tannins. A food-friendly, juicy wine.
This grape is native to the Diyarbakir area in Southeast Turkey. It prefers to grow in a hot, dry climate, at high altitude. The name Boğazkere translates to “throat burner” – a possible reference to its strong tannins and medium acidity, which is reminiscent of Tannat. Boğazkere can be used as a blending grape and can also be made into a varietal wine. In varietal wine, it expresses notes of dark berry, pepper, dark chocolate, clove, eucalyptus, tobacco, and licorice. In our interview with Turkish wine maestro Burcak Desombre, she recommends the Kavaklidere Prestige as a fine example of this variety.
Native to and grown exclusively in the famous Cappadocia region of Turkey, this grape thrives in high altitude, volcanic soil, and diurnal temperature variation (hot during the day and cool at night). Its name translates to “lord/ruler,” as the wine made from Emir was once a popular choice at the local lords’ tables. It produces a smooth and crisp white wine with yellow-green hue. The flavor profile includes apple, yellow pear, pineapple, blood orange, kiwi, melon, and a touch of pine. Emir is often compared to Albarino and Pinot Grigio; while Sarah Abbot MW describes it as “a bit like Manseng but with more aromatics”.
This grape is native to the Elazig area in Eastern Turkey. It likes hot, dry summers, and cold winters, which matches up perfectly with the extreme continental climate of the Anatolian Plateau. The name means “ox eye,” which hints at its round and fleshy appearance. Öküzgözü has high acidity and floral aromas. On the palate, it leans towards raspberry, plum, pomegranate, brown spice, and earthy flavors. The high acidity is what stands out the most in this grape. It is often blended with Boğazkere for added structure. On its own, it makes some memorable, fruit-forward wines.
Exotic Wine Travel’s Choice: Kayra, Buzbag Bölge Serisi Elazig, Öküzgözü, 2012
This is a juicy, balanced, and delicious Turkish wine made from the indigenous variety Öküzgözü. If you are looking for a red wine that’s bright, fruity and without pretense, then this is a wine for you. This is produced by a big producer called Kayra who has many vineyards in eastern Turkey. The flavors are of sour cherry, fruit punch, and earth, with nice tanginess and smooth tannins. It goes extremely well Turkish grilled meat dishes.
For a listing of articles and videos on Armenian, Georgian, and Turkish wines and wine travel in the Caucasus Region, check out our page Uncorking the Caucasus. To purchase the Kindle or paperback copy of the book Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, please head to this Amazon product page.
The ideas expressed in this article are personal opinions and are not associated with any sponsors or business promotions.
5 thoughts on “Ancient Wine Grape Varieties from Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey”
“Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey. These three countries are considered to be the cradle of wine and the origin of the species Vitis vinifera”. That is only for ‘politically correct’ reasons. In fact, Turkey has nothing to do with it, and neither does “Georgia” since these countries never existed in ancient times. This leaves Armenia as the birthplace of grapes and wine. A large part of Ancient Armenia is today in Turkey and a small part in Georgia. It is clear which culture is the genuine and which cultures are the two thieves. Armenians brought their grapes both into what is today “Georgia” and also what is today the Mediterranean part of the “Middle East”. In fact, 2000 years ago, today’s eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel happened to be part of the Armenian Kingdom at its greatest extent.
We understand where you are coming from but the domestication of Vitis vinifera and winemaking span back 10,000 to 8,000 years ago (at the minimum). This predates political boundaries.
“This predates political boundaries.” True to an extent but not completely correct. I am interested in accurate history foremost. And political boundaries are not applicable… until talk of “Turks”, “Azeris” and “Georgians” are mentioned at the expense of Ancient Armenian History, which this article dabbled in somewhat, and thus politics cannot be ignored here. Now some history for the interested reader. Once upon a time, at the beginning of Human civilization, call it 8 thousand years, 10 thousand years, or whatever years ago you wish, there lived indigenous peoples in the land geographically designated as “Asia Minor”. These people, designated by many names by historians such as “Hittites”, “Urartians”, “Mitanni”, “Hurrians”, as well as many others, would eventually unite and assimilate at which point the ARMENIAN identity would form around 3000 years ago, and their geographical nation would span from the Caspian sea to the Mediterranean. When the above peoples “disappeared” the “Armenians” came about in the same location. That’s not such a hard one to figure out is it? This is where the true “Cradle of Civilization” was and where farming originated. At the height of their unity, it would be precisely 2000 years ago, under King Tigran that all their kingdoms would unite as one. The point here is that, it would be only from this point on, after Armenia fell under Roman rule and got smaller and smaller, headed to the Middle Ages when we see other races enter what is known as Asia Minor, into historical Armenian territory. For the purpose of this discussion, this means that where viticulture is concerned, it happened on the lands of today’s Armenians and THEIR ancestors. There are no people today which can claim descent from the people of Asia Minor other than Armenians. Thus -ALL- of the “tribes” of Ancient Asia Minor were Proto-Armenians. The conclusion here is that, there is a reason most of the oldest things are found in the rough area of where the Armenians inhabited in history. Viticulture is but one of them. Georgians also being an ancient people want to take advantage of Armenia’s history and claim viticulture as theirs. Unfortunately for the truth, they have some support from pseudo-historians with anti-Armenian sentiments. But Georgia got its culture mostly from Armenia at its early stage, and all of it is verified: Georgian alphabet, their Christian religion, their architecture, their “most powerful dynasty (Bagratuni), all a result of Armenian influence. And the reverse is NOT true. Also proven: when the kings of Persia received delegations from various nations, the people which brought them jugs of wine were Armenians and NOT “Georgians”, and this fact was even carved in stone, at Persopelis and can be found in Iran. For more interesting reading on this subject, search for “Armenia – The Cradle of Wine” at the PeopleofAR site.
An addendum to the discussion above. Imagine that I called myself a “historian” and started claiming that the ancient Britons, Celts, Scots, Picts etc were a distinct people and in fact had nothing to do with the modern day British. Would this be acceptable? Or perhaps in fact ridiculous? Well this is the kind of misinformation modern day British “historians” engage in, including British Museums. Not long ago, the British Museum started displaying “Urartian” artifacts and labeled the exhibit “Ancient Turkey”. After a protest by Armenians, they responded with “Well the Urartians may not have been Turks, but they weren’t Armenians either”!!! Seriously, there is a certain evil, arrogant and vile mentality that they must have to be making a statement like that. Unfortunately for us Armenians, we do not have enough influence, resources, people and funds to resist all this anti-Armenian sentiment that exists today. And please do not kid yourselves, this has everything to do with politics, because the UK and Turkey are like two peas in a pod. So mush so that, the British would do anything, including blatantly LYING in order to continue the status quo of their pro-Turk sentiments. And the worst part of all this is, they even admit that the English language “originated in ancient Turkey” – in fact it is ancient Armenia and there is ample evidence of English-Armenian language connections, similar to German-Armenian also. Of course they are desperately trying to redefine The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as a result. Oh yeah, “they spelled everything perfectly, except when it came to “Armorica” they spelled it incorrectly as Armenia”. Yawn.
Hagop Are you kidding :)))))) Georgian wine is famous as very good one. And I have a question, why Armenians always want to claim Georgian traditions and history? Just read this historical statement:
For generations, Georgia has taken pride in its distinction as the birthplace of wine. Now, aided by emerging archeological findings and material evidence, many of the world’s most noted experts agree. The recent discovery of 8,000 year-old grape seeds and remains of vines sealed inside ancient clay vessels only reinforces Georgia’s position as the world’s cradle of viticulture.
Georgia’s tradition of making wines began eight thousand years ago—three thousand years before the invention of writing and five thousand years before the beginning of the Iron Age. While ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece developed wine cultures of their own, all owed a debt to Georgian viticulture. The mention of the ancient traditions of vine growing and high quality winemaking in Georgia can be found in the works of Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes. Even the unique Georgian alphabet is modeled after the shape of the vine’s curly offshoots. Many of the vines still in cultivation in Europe and Asia have a Georgian origin, and even Western words for wine—vin, vino, wine—likely come from the Georgian word gvino.