Georgia in Perspective: Journeys in Armenia and Turkey
(with archeologist Boris Gasparyan in southern Armenia)
September has been a whirlwind month of nearly non-stop travel, mostly outside of Georgia, to gain a fuller regional and historical perspective - we began in Corsica, and continued with fascinating visits to Armenia and Turkey. What we found has extraordinary relevance to the Georgian wine story.
Our Armenia visit couldn't have happened without the generous assistance and companionship of Boris Gasparyan (pictured above, in an enviably cool 30-year old red Lada). For several days, we traveled with him and a small team of viticultural student researchers throughout the Armenian countryside, mostly in the regions of Armavir, Ararat, and Vayots Dzor, and centered on the Areni-1 Cave site, which Boris discovered; dated to 4,100BC, it's known for being the world's oldest 'winery' yet found.
(Armenian landscape, with entrance to Areni-1 caves center-left)
By all evidence, this was not a 'winery' in the sense we usually think, but rather, a ritual cave 'temple' where, once a year (grape harvest time, no doubt), wine was pressed into clay qvevri and given as an offering to both the gods and the dead. This offering (which also involved other foods and grains - there is even some evidence for human sacrifice), if pleasing, would ensure fertility and a successful harvest for the year to come. It was mind-opening to consider that in these small caves, rituals were performed by a small group of initiates for the good of the greater region at large.
(Areni-1 cave entrance)
(Entering the site with Boris)
Areni is remarkably well-preserved, thanks to the cave's nearly-constant temperature and humidity. It is one of the world's most unique and valuable sites for wine history and the Chalcolithic period in general. "This was once a location to honor the gods with gifts", Boris said when we entered the cave together, "and now it is now again a gift - from god, to us - to understand."
Alongside the grape seeds and vine stalks found in and around the buried clay pots, evidence of germinated grains were also discovered. It's currently believed that these were added to the active grape must to strengthen the fermentation - if this is true (and it's very likely), it points to a high level of experience with fermentation, which was already achieved 6,000 years ago. Over the course of several hours in the cave, Boris and I discussed the significance of the place, and speculated about what it might mean for its historical period's wine culture at large.
(Areni 'grape foot press pad' [center, low] and clay pots surrounding)
We also visited new wine excavations further up the Amaghu River gorge where Areni is located, and a beautiful example of classical Armenian architecture at the top of the gorge, the 13th c. AD Noravank Monastery, which bears grape vine reliefs and wine-related inscriptions.
(with Boris - hat slung around his neck - in front of the oldest part of the monastery)
The Armenian Viticultural Agency is in the midst of compiling Armenia's first modern ampelographical 'dictionary' - researchers are currently busy collecting data and correctly identifying the nation's grapevines. The day after our visit to Areni, it was a great pleasure for us to join a group of these students in the field as, with the help of GPS coordinates, a Lada, and advice from small farmers, they hunted for examples of ancient local vines along the Iranian-Turkish border. Together, we tasted the fruit, inspected the vines, and spoke about Armenia's long viticultural past and its relation to Georgia's.
(Grape hunting along the Turkish border)
(Tasting a cluster of rose with student researcher Suzanne Esoyan)
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Just as Boris was our kind and indispensable guide in Armenia, so was winegrower, preservationist, and amateur archeologist Udo Hirsch in his home region of Cappadocia, Turkey. Originally from a winegrowing family in the Ahr region of Germany, Udo came to Cappadocia for the first time in 1969, and after many years of visits and study, has made a home here. In the last 7+ years, along with his companion Hacer, he has produced utterly natural wine (native yeast, no sulfur, no chemicals) under the Gelveri label, from mostly unidentified vines, in clay amphora often millenia old, with the conscious aim of preserving Turkey's vinous heritage and learning the taste proper to each grape.
(Udo and Hacer)
(The Cappadocian landscape. [A small plot of vines can be seen, lower left])
While sharing his rich store of knowledge with us, Udo warned us against arriving at quick conclusions, stating, "Turkey, you think: Muslim country, no wine. Not true. There's a deep history with the vine, even through the encounter with Islam." During the height of the Ottoman caliphate, there were well over 1,000 wine bars in Istanbul alone. While driving with him through Cappadocia, we continually saw vineyards, and often in the most surprising places, tiny plots of 20-30 vines whose wild appearance belied their careful tending. The family wine culture here is clearly widespread, just not overtly acknowledged.
Within Turkey, Cappadocia represents a very special terroir, created by the eruption of a number of volcanoes which surround it. These deposited a thick layer of tuff throughout the area, a soil type whose texture resembles sandstone, and in which phylloxera can't survive. The most recent eruption, recorded on wall-painting by our Neolithic ancestors, occurred 10,000 years ago at the summit of Hasan Dag mountain. A number of vineyards where Udo sources his grapes are located on Hasan Dag's lower slopes.
(One of Udo's vineyards, with Hasan Dag in the background. The vines are mostly unidentified, of undetermined age, and grow untrained as low bushes in the volcanic tuff)
Udo took us to a number of very ancient archeological sites in the area, as well as his cellar, where we saw his partially buried fermentation and ageing amphora. He sourced and renovated them himself; some are hundreds of years old, and some date to Roman times. (Their clay walls are thicker than their Georgian counterparts.)
(with Udo and his amphora)
We then repaired to his portico, where we tasted through a number of his spectacularly pure and stable wines - which are unlike anything I've tried before - while reviewing a series of articles on the current state of wine history and archeology (some of which offer stimulating alternate perspectives on domesticated wine's ultimate origins).
(Reviewing current wine history studies with Udo)
In the Old Georgian language, the month we know as 'October' was literally known as 'Grape Harvest Month'; we are now back in Georgia, and have already begun to follow up with the wine harvests of our friends and colleagues. Onward, and gaumarjos!