WTM Wine Talk | Armenian Wine | Astghik Derdzyan / by Brian Yost

Astghik in the barrel room at Karas Wines.

Astghik in the barrel room at Karas Wines.

After graduating from Yerevan State University with a degree that prepared her to teach languages, Astghik Derdzyan took a wine course and was inspired to change course. Working as an enotourism expert and marketing specialist for Karas Winery, Armenia’s largest producer, Astghik discovered a real passion for telling people about her country.

Astghik began to explore other Armenian wineries and to acquaint herself with the industry. She subsequently began her Instagram blog The Guide in Wine. This is all part of Astghik’s nonprofit effort to bring attention to her county’s young, but vibrant, wine industry.

Wine Tourist Magazine recently sat down with Astghik and asked a few questions.

WTM: If you could tell us just one thing about Armenian wine, what would it be?

Astghik: Actually it is difficult to say just one thing about wines with a 6100-year history. In the words of Zorik Gharibyan, “these wines are older than time.” Armenian wines are iconic, historic and an expression of our culture in every glass. A glass of Armenian wine is a gateway toward revealing our rich traditions.

WTM: What are your country’s biggest strengths as a wine producer?

Astghik: Wine production in this region started in 4500 BCE and was made in karas (big clay jars). According to Christian tradition, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat and Noah planted the first crops, which included a vineyard. In short, Armenian lands are blessed with ideal terroir. We have 300 days of sun each year and rich, volcanic, stony soil—perfect conditions for viticulture.

We also have the advantage of traditions that date back millennia and these are complemented by modern technology. Fruit cultivated in ideal conditions benefits from a combination of traditional (karas) production and modern techniques to get the best possible results.

WTM: During the Soviet era, the Armenian wine industry was essentially eliminated. How has it been able to recover?

Astghik: During the Soviet era Armenia was known for its brandy. In the 1980s more than 800 Armenian wine grape varieties were destroyed and replaced by brandy grapes. During this time, small farmers saved a few small, select vineyards and preserved some of the indigenous varieties.

Recovery has been difficult and required great effort, but we did it thanks to the many people who believed in country’s potential. Investment and experimentation has resulted in many hectares of indigenous varieties and we continue to expand that acreage. Today there are more than 25 wineries and the number of wines increases monthly.

Astghik (center) leading a tour at Karas Wines.

Astghik (center) leading a tour at Karas Wines.

Leading a group of Italian winemakers.

Leading a group of Italian winemakers.

WTM: Are there many Armenian indigenous grape varieties used to make wine?

Astghik: Armenia is home to many hundreds of indigenous grape varieties. During the Soviet period, we had over 250 registered and as many as 300 unregistered varieties. Today there are less than 25 used in wine production, but others are cultivated. Great efforts are being made to recover as many varieties as possible and restore them to some level of high-quality wine production.

WTM: Do you think there is a market for Armenian indigenous grape varieties? Why?

Karas Wines grows Areni Noir, which is the ancestor of Pinot Noir. They produce a wine from Areni Noir and Khndoghni grapes and is an expression of grapes that were cultivated thousands of years ago.

Astghik: Wine is something that people cannot always immediately appreciate. Armenia is taking its “first steps” in wine world following the Soviet era. There are many companies who work exclusively with indigenous varieties and others who try to combine indigenous and international grapes.  The problem with grapes like Katun Kharji, Tozot, Kakhet and others is they are not known outside my country. I believe that even if it is difficult to pronounce some of the varietal names, once you try them you will look for these tastes and aromas again and again.

WTM: Can you tell us a few of your current efforts to promote Armenian wine?

Astghik: It would be easier, if I had started sooner. So far I have devoted two years to this project. During this time I studied and graduated from EVN wine academy, visited wineries and became acquainted with the local producers. I frequently attend wine tastings in local wine bars or visit wineries to see how things are done from vine to wine. To promote Armenian wines, I must make every effort to know them everything about them.

I recently started a wine blog that has gained a following from people all over the world. This is where I share information about the wineries, their wines, how to pair them and so forth. I include other aspects of wine tourism like hotels, restaurants, wine bars and things to do in Armenia.

Astghik conducting a tasting of Armenian wines.

Astghik conducting a tasting of Armenian wines.

Finally, I work as a wine guide and enotourism manager for the largest wine producer in Armenia. The first step is to tell guests from around the world about Armenian wine. Wine tourism is more than tasting wine. It is the story of the terroir, the people behind the wine and how the work is performed. In Armenia, for instance, we don’t use machinery in the vineyards. At Karas Wines, were I work, we have 400 hectares (1000 acres) and everything is done by hand to insure the best quality.

WTM: In your enotourism role, you conduct a number of tours for a variety of groups. Where do most of the wine tourists come from?

Astghik: Last year, which was the first year of tourism in Karas Wines, I have worked with guests from Russia, the United States, Latin America, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, the Baltic nations, Israel and Australia.

WTM: One last question. Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite Armenian wine?

Astghik: I am in love with all the Armenian wines, but of course there are some that deserve to be mentioned. Alluria wine is a blend of the Karmrahyut and Haghtanak grapes that displays great character

Karas Winery’s Areni and Khndoghni (Sreni) is a wine with rich history, good value and shows the the Armenian character. It is a blend of Armenian and Artsakh local varieties.

Finally, Karas Wines grows Areni Noir, which is the ancestor of Pinot Noir. They produce a wine from Areni Noir and Khndoghni grapes and is an expression of grapes that were cultivated thousands of years ago.