The Wine Grapes of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan’s wineries make extensive use of well-known grape varieties, including Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Muscat and Saperavi. But there are also several important pan-Caucasian and local varieties. For now, many of those are little more than historical curiosities, though there is a new drive to revive some old strains. First, it’s well worth familiarising yourself with the following varieties that are commonly used in Azerbaijani wines.
MADRASA (red) - This grape is also variously known as Matrassa, Madrese, Gara Shire, Siray and several other names. Round and waxy, the blue-black grapes are sweet and very juicy, grown especially in Shamakhi District 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.
SHIRVANSHAHI (red) - Local people living in Kurdamir District and the valley of the Kura River have grown this grape for centuries. It has a dark colour and is mainly used for Kagor-type sweet dessert wine (Russian Orthodox Church wine) and late-harvest wines, high in residual sugar. It goes especially well with desserts, cakes and all sorts of sweets. The most popular wine produced from Shirvanshahi grapes is called ‘Kurdamir’. Hamashara Another indigenous grape variety, Hamashara is named after an ancient city in Jalilabad District, where this grape is traditionally grown in local villages. In the 1960s-1970s in Jalilabad 30-40 per cent of all grape plants consisted of this variety. Yet it is only grown in a few other regions of Azerbaijan. The bushes grow fast and the grape clusters are large, round, reddish black and covered with a thin layer of wax. The skin is thick but not strong while the flesh is crunchy.
KHINDOGNI (red) - This local variety is included in the ‘List of Standard Varieties’ recommended for cultivation in the country. Khindogni grapes are very dark in colour and it is one of the oldest indigenous sorts of Azerbaijan, dating back several millennia. Wines from this grape are high-quality and possess a beautiful colour and pleasant fragrance.
BAYAN SHIRA (white) - Also known as Bayan Shire, Shirei and by other names, this variety grows quickly and is resilient to drought, making it a popular grape to grow 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, adding a pleasantly citrus acidity.
MISGALI (white) - Misgali is a local sort whose name means ‘measuring unit’ in Azerbaijani. It has a high and stable productivity and is especially suitable for producing table wines.
ARNA-GIRNA (white) - Arna-Girna is a local variety mostly cultivated in the regions of Sharur, Sadarak, Babek and Ordubad in small quantities. Mostly used for table and dry wines, its aroma is a bouquet of fresh tropical fruits while the taste is well-structured, with pleasant savoury notes and a long mineral finish.
RKATSITELI (white) - Originally Georgian but also one of the most popular white-wine grapes in Azerbaijan, 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 horn’ in Georgian.