Winemaking in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is a country of fascinating surprises. The dazzling 21st-century architecture of Baku. The glitzy ski resorts of Shahdag and Tufandag-Qabala. The Silk Route gem-city of Sheki… And, yes, the wonderful wine. But, you might ask, isn’t Azerbaijan a Muslim country? Well yes, the majority of Azerbaijanis practice a low key form of tolerant Islam. But this is very proudly a secular, multi-cultural country, a place of passionate Caucasian spirit, and one of the cradles of world viticulture.
While some families do make their own wines – notably in the culturally unique village of Ivanovka or in Gazakh region – most of Azerbaijan’s production comes from larger companies with access to a wide variety of vineyards allowing the conditions for a similarly wide variety of grape types to be grown and in turn facilitating some imaginative blending.
Wine History in Azerbaijan
Millennia ago, long before the Caucasus region was divided up into nation states, people living here were cultivating grapes. And pretty soon they hit on the sterling idea of crushing them to make wine. one of Noah’s first impulses after surviving the flood was to plant a vineyard… And to drink rather excessively of the wine that it yielded. According to firmly believed if unprovable local legend, Noah’s post-ark settlement was founded at what’s now the Azerbaijani city of Nakhchivan –there’s even a tomb-site of Noah that you can visit there. Biblical myths aside, an ever-increasing body of archaeological and micro-botanical research does indeed suggest that wine was made in considerable quantity over 6000 years ago at sites along the Arpachay River in a valley that straddles the border of Armenia and Nakhchivan’s Shahrur region. Several sites suggest an even older knowledge of wine by the Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture, partly named for the Shomutepe archaeological site near Aghstafa in what today is western Azerbaijan. The findings seem to show unambiguously that the south Caucasus region was one of the oldest centres of wine making anywhere on the planet.
The catalyst for new wave of European-style wine making here was the arrival of destitute settlers from Germany to areas of Azerbaijan that had been recently annexed by Imperial Russia. In 1816, Europe had been suffering the fallout of the just-concluded Napoleonic wars when it was simultaneously hit by a ‘year without a summer’. Crops failed to grow as the sun was blotted out from the sky. For fearful peasants this seemed to be the coming of the end of days: there were no geologists to explain that the real problem was dust clouds in the atmosphere caused by volcanoes half way around the world. Pious Christians expecting the imminent second coming of Jesus, seem to have been excited by an invitation from Tsar Alexander to head towards the land of Noah and 1400 families left from southern Germany that year to head east. For the tsar, the idea of having hard working Germans in his newly conquered borderlands made sense as a form of control over potentially restive locals. Relatively few survived the harsh journey but those who made it turned Helenendorf into a burgeoning agricultural centre. And it was there in 1860 that Herr Vohrer incorporated Azerbaijan’s first fully fledged commercial winery company. Goygol Winery (Vineqro) still cites this as the starting point of their own business.
In 1920, after a brief period of independence, Azerbaijan was re-conquered by Russia and became part of the USSR, but the love of good wine continued. Wineries were nationalised but wine production increased considerably especially from the 1970s. In 1976 Azerbaijan founded an institute of winemaking, and Soviet academics worked on breeding new grape varieties to make the most of Azerbaijan’s very varied terrain. Harvests peaked in 1984 when Azerbaijan’s grape crop topped 2,000,000 tons, around 30% of the whole USSR total, albeit much of that being used to make semi-sweet sparkling wines of less than sparkling quality. The next year, everything changed with the rise to power of Mikail Gorbachev as Soviet leader, his anti-alcohol drive which resulted in the rooting out of a huge proportion of Azerbaijan’s grape vines during the later 1980s. The results were disastrous for wine-making. The economic and political dislocations following independence in 1991, added further woes and for two decades the industry languished with minimal investment. However, following a series of government initiatives starting in 2002, wide scale replanting has been accelerating with a greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Wineries essentially started all over again helped by expert winemakers from Italy, Moldova and elsewhere. Reconstruction of processing facilities has generally been achieved by importing top quality French, German and Italian technologies. The introduction of popular internationally recognised grape varieties has also helped in crafting wines with global export appeal while the cultivation of lesser known local grape types offers the chance to experiment with more adventurous, niche wines. All in all it’s an exciting time for wine in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s wineries make extensive use of well-known grape varieties including Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Pinot Blanc. But there are also several important Pan-Caucasian and local varietals. For now, many of those are little more than historical curiosities, though there is a new drive to revive some old strains. However, it’s well worth familiarizing yourself with the following varieties which are commonly used in Azerbaijani wines:
RED – Saperavi. More commonly associated with neighbouring Georgia, Saperavi produces intense, deeply coloured, full-bodied reds that often have the rich, velvety qualities of a new-world Malbec. The intense colour explains the grape’s name which translates from Georgian as ‘the dye’. In Azerbaijan, blending varying proportions of Saperavi and Matrasa can achieve mildly tannic dry reds with berry and black-cherry notes.
RED – Madrasa (also variously known as Matrassa, Madrese, Qarashira, Siray and by several other names). Curiously for a wine grape, the name means Muslim religious school. Round and waxy, the blue-black grapes are sweet and very juicy, grown especially in the Shamakhi region where a wine-growing village shares the grape’s name. Predominantly used in coupage with other varietals, it tends to produce tannic, richly coloured red wines but also citrusy rosés with a long finish.
RED – Tavkveri Literally meaning ‘hammerhead’ due to the berry’s flattened upper, Tavkveri is a light but tangy red that blends well with Saperavi. An Azerbaijani cross-breed between Tavkveri and Matrassa has been named Gyandzhevi in honour of Ganja the main city in central Azerbaijan
RED – Shirvanshahi. Shirvanshahi is a local very valuable wine sort. Local people have grown this grape transportable (to grow on other gender of trees) since ancient times. The high sugar productivity sort is successfully grown in wine mid-season in Kurdemir district, neighbouring regions and in the valley of Kura River. No clones of this variety have been described so far. Grapes are mainly used for kagor-type dessert and late harvest wines, with high sugar residual. It perfectly matches with any sort of desserts, cakes and all kinds of sweets. “Kurdemir” is the most popular wine made from it.
RED – Khindogny. It is a local sort of Azerbaijani wine that is sufficiently widespread and included in the ‘List of Standard Varieties’, recommended for cultivation in Azerbaijan. The clone was obtained as a result of people’s selection. No clones have been described so far. Khindogny has berries a deep dark skin. History of one of the most popular sorts of Azerbaijan dates back to 300-500 years ago, and some even to several millenniums ago. High quality wines with good colour and pleasant fragrance are made from Khindogni.
RED – Meleyi. Meleyi is the local clone of Nakhchivan. Dark coloured table and dessert wines are produced from this late ripening and highly productive clone. It ripens in early October in Azerbaijani vineyards. Such wineries as Chabiant and Shirvan started back its cultivation and wine produced by Meleyi will be available within few years.
WHITE – Rkatsiteli. Originally Georgian but also one of the most popular white-wine grapes in Azerbaijan (around 30% of production), Rkatsiteli ripens slowly with a potentially high sugar content and a taste that’s fresh and juicy creating wines that can become heavily fruity and mildly tannic when matured in oak. Though somewhat sensitive to drought, the vines are seen as helpfully phylloxera resistant. The name means ‘Red vine-shoot’ in Georgian. Folk-myth holds that, after the Biblical flood, the first vines planted by Noah were Rkatsiteli.
WHITE – Bayanshira (aka Bayanshire, Shirei and other names). Grows fast and is resilient to drought making it a popular choice for growing in less irrigated zones. Traditionally its reputation was not especially glowing as a single varietal but treated with care, some contemporary wineries have managed to tease out crisply mineral white wines with lingering lemon notes. More often the grape is used as a blend with Rkatsiteli, the Bayanshira adding a pleasantly citrus acidity.
WHITE – Mtzvani (Mtsvane, Sapena). Literally translated from Georgian as ‘green’, there are actually two genetically distinct Mtzvani varieties, the more common in Azerbaijan being Kahetian Mtsvane. The vine is widely grown in Georgia’s Alazani Valley for qvevri home-made earthenware-amphora ‘straw’ wines. The grapes have a mild, intriguing sourness and a useful frost resistance such that a late-harvested crop can produce strong, fortified ice-wines. In recent years, limited quantities of Mtzvani cultivated in Azerbaijan have been used to add complexity to blended whites, notably giving some tropical fruit flavours to Rkatsiteli-Bayanshira wines.
WHITE – Arna-Guirna. Arna-Guirna is a local sort of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. It is mostly cultivated in Sharur, Sadarak, Babak and Ordubad districts, in very small quantity. This late ripening universal sort has high and stable productivity and is mostly used for table and dry wines. Its aroma is a bouquet with scents of fresh tropical fruit and taste is well-structured, with pleasant savoury notes and a long mineral finish.
WHITE – Misqali. Misqali is a local sort Azerbaijani sort. The word “Ìisqal” is of Azeri origin and means measuring unit. It is a universal sort with high and stable productivity, suitable for the production of table wines.
While Azerbaijan doesn’t have strictly defined viniculture regions like France’s AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) system, most major wine producers fall geographically along three main ‘routes’ that fan out from Baku. North along the Caspian Shoreline; west through ‘Shirvan’ along a beautifully varied road that follows the foothills of the Greater Caucasus; west on a more southerly route through the centre of the country via historic Ganja.
Is Azerbaijan the 2nd Oldest Wine Region? (Liz Thach)
Most experts agree that the cradle of winemaking most likely resides somewhere in the Caucasus Mountain region where vitusvinifera grapevines grow naturally in the foothills and valleys. However, the exact birth location of winemaking is in some dispute. Various archeological digs point to Georgia, Iran, Turkey, and, more recently, Azerbaijan.
Georgia claims to be the oldest wine region in the world due to wine residue found on the inner surfaces of 8000-year-old jars in the village of Shulaveri. At the Hajji Firuz site in northern Iran, Dr. Patrick A. McGovern’s team found wine residue in jars from 7,400 years ago. More recently, a team of international researchers in the Henan Province of Central China discovered wine residue from 9,000 years ago, but not of vitusvinifera grapes.
Though Azerbaijan does not claim to be the oldest winemaking region in the world, it could be a contender. Indeed Dr. Patrick A. McGovern mentions evidence of grapes and possible winemaking dating to the 7th Millennium BC at Shomu-Tepe in his book Ancient Wine. Shomu-Tepe is located near Tovuz in the northern region of Azerbaijan near the Georgian border.
In the Middle Ages, it was known among the rural population that some wines were also used against tiredness and relaxation. For instance, in the court of Shah Ismayil Safavi, royal physicians recommended wine to alleviate tiredness. Other sorts were utilized as medicine. In his writings in 1311, historian and scholar Yusuf ibn Ismail al-Kutubi notes that small doses of wine can strengthen the sense of organs and the whole body, and melancholy, depression and bad mood, while water-diluted wines are a good medicine against fever and cold. Wines produced from rose petals were used against headaches, heart disease and stomachache.
Fresh grapes are capable of high taste and nutritional product. Full of ripening fruit in the vineyard 65-85% water, 15-25% glucose and fructose in the form of sugars that can be misappropriated by the human body is easy. 1 liter of grape juice is 480-1280 kcal of energy, which is equivalent to 20-30% of the daily food ration.
Wine and wine products are known since ancient times to be curative. Given the importance of therapeutic endoterapiyada very promising wines. Grape juice acidity (pH-2633) to the pH of gastric juice (2-2.5) years. This is also to ensure the normal functioning of the human body is the gastrointestinal system. On the other hand, easily assimilated grape juice, sugar muscular system, especially the valuable nutrients to the heart muscle. Grape Juice and Juice bactericidal effect in the prevention of infectious diseases are caused by the human body can be used successfully.