Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Drink within a couple of years of release. The best quality wines can improve, and gain in complexity, for a decade or more.
Areni Noir (ah-REN-ee NWAHR), or simply Areni, is a largely unknown ancient grape variety that captures a truly unique aspect of human history, as it recalls the very origins of winemaking. It only came to prominence relatively recently, when a varietal Areni wine was nominated as one of the “Top 10 wines of 2012” by Bloomberg, who sampled more than 4,000 wines from around the world before reaching their decision. Areni is native to Armenia, which, together with the Republic of Georgia, is believed to be the birthplace of viticulture.
Located in the southern Caucasus, Armenia is a very ancient country, with deep traditions that go back thousands of years. Turkey borders it to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south. Legend has it that the people of Armenia are descended from Noah, whose Ark was said to have come to rest on the summit of Mount Ararat after the Great Flood. Mount Ararat was once in Armenia, but is now just across the border in eastern Turkey. The Bible states that when Noah descended from Mount Ararat, he planted the first vines and made wine from them. It is no surprise therefore that winemaking has always been an integral part of Armenian tradition.
The Areni grape is believed to come from the village of Areni in southwest Armenia, from which it obtained its name. In 2011 a remarkable discovery was made in a cave above the village. During excavations at the cave, which is known as Areni-1, archaeologists discovered the oldest known winery in the world. Analysis of grape seeds and stems found in the cave indicated that the winery was at least 6,100 years old. The winery was very well developed, which suggests that winemaking in this region began much earlier. In common with neighboring Georgia, traditional winemaking in Armenia is based on the use of clay amphorae (called karasi in Armenia and qvevri in Georgia), which are used for both the fermentation and aging of the wine.
These amphorae are buried just below the surface, with the opening left at ground level, as this ensures a constant even temperature in the vessel. This simple and totally natural winemaking process – no technology or additives are used – involves crushing the grapes and placing them in the amphorae, where wild yeasts on the skins of the grapes spontaneously start the fermentation process. After fermentation, the wine may be left in contact with the skins as it ages, or it may be transferred without the skins to another amphora. For more information on this process see the Saperavi grape in the Powerful style, as well as the glossary entries on “Natural Wine”, “Orange Wine”, and “Qvevri”.
The area under vine in Armenia is still relatively small, with much of the annual harvest going into the production of brandy. However, in recent decades there has been a growing level of investment from abroad, mainly from the large Armenian diaspora, in the development of modern wineries. The climate in Armenia is continental, with most vineyards located between 1,700 – 5,000 feet (520 – 1,520 metres) above sea level, where the temperature difference between day and night can be extreme. Areni does exceptionally well in these conditions. It is late ripening and its thick skin makes it quite disease resistant. It is also well adapted to growing at altitude and dealing with wide diurnal temperature variations, as well as winter frosts.
Areni has always been at the centre of the Armenian wine tradition and is the most important red wine grape in the country. While it is sometimes blended with other local varieties, in the most important wine region of Vayots Dzor, it is generally used to make varietal wines. The tannins in these wines are generally medium, and acidity is medium to high. The body is medium and can have a lovely silky texture. Aromas of red and black fruits, with hints of cassis and spices are followed by flavors of cherry, raspberry, mulberry and blackberry, leading to a slightly bitter, but very pleasant, finish. Oak can add additional vanilla and smoky notes. It is best to drink these wines within a couple of years of release, although the best quality wines can improve, and gain in complexity, for a decade or more. Some of these wines have been likened to a cross between two classic grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.
The Areni wine that Bloomberg included in their “Top 10 wines of 2012” was Karasi, produced by Zorah Wines. This wine is made using a combination of modern and traditional methods, with aging taking place in oak barrels, as well as traditional amphorae (called karasi in Armenian). Another interesting aspect of this wine is that the vines are grown on original rootstock (not grafted), as the vineyards are free of Phylloxera, which gives it great authenticity. Areni is currently only grown in Armenia, although we may well see other countries adopt this quality grape in the future.
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