New discoveries from the world’s oldest vineyards
John Wilson: In Armenia and Georgia, wine was traditionally aged in clay amphorae
Traditional ceramic vessels for making wine in a village in Georgia. Photograph: iStock
Armenia and Georgia would both claim to have the oldest wine industry in the world. I am not qualified to judge – although I suspect that, vines not respecting national borders, they developed simultaneously. It seems very likely that the wine vine, vitis vinifera, originally came from this region, and winemaking certainly dates back 6,000 to 8,000 years.
The use of clay amphorae to ferment or age wine in contact with grape skins for an extended period has been a traditional part of village culture in both countries for millennia. In the 1940s archaeologists discovered a 3,000-year-old winery in Armenia, with 480 clay amphorae. It may not be a coincidence that both were among the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity, and both have monasteries everywhere.
Iranian-Italian-Armenian businessman Zorik Gharibian founded Zorah winery in an isolated valley close to Mount Ararat in southeastern Armenia in 2006. A few years later, archaeologists discovered a 6,000-year-old winery just two kilometres from his.
Using local grape varieties unknown outside of Armenia, Gharibian ages his wines in large old clay amphorae he found in Armenia. They are all three-quarters buried in the ground. This, he argues, means the wine gently circulates, while remaining at a steady temperature. The vineyard, at 1,400 metres, is so remote that ungrafted vines can be planted without fear of disease. Karasì is Armenian for amphora.
The use of amphorae never quite died out and has been revived by many producers over the past decade or so
Wine is an integral part of Georgian culture, as instanced in the famous supra, a traditional feast featuring toasts, poetry, singing and dancing that can last all day. Legend has it that Georgian soldiers wove a cutting of grapevine into their chain mail armour, so if they died in battle, a vine would grow from their heart.
Before the invention of glass bottles, most wines were stored and transported around the known world in clay vessels. The use of amphorae never quite died out and has been revived by many producers over the past decade or so, not just in Georgia and Armenia, but around the world.
In the late 1990s Italian/Slovenian wine producer Josko Gravner brought amphorae back from Georgia and began using them in his cellar. His remarkable wine is available from independent retailers, selling for about €80. The practice spread and is used for both red and white grapes. As many of the white wines spend an extended period in contact with their skins, they are orange or amber wines too.
More recently concrete eggs have become the modern equivalent to amphorae, gently oxidising the wine while keeping the lees in suspension.
This week, I’ve chosen four wines made using clay amphorae – three from the oldest vineyards in the world.
Tbilvino Rkatsiteli Qvevris JSC Tbilvino 2017, Kakheti Region, Georgia
This is one of my favourite wines, and a steal at €15. It is aged on the skins in clay amphorae for six months. Fresh pear and apple fruits with subtle toasted almonds complemented by a lively acidity. Drink it by itself, with white meats or cheese.
From: Marks & Spencer, marksandspencer.com
Chinuri 2017, Iago Bitarshvili, Chardakhi, Georgia
Fermented and aged for six months on the skins in qvevri buried underground. Chinuri is the grape. Dried and fresh herbs with lively apple and pear fruits, and elegant tannins on the dry finish. Intriguing wine. Drink it with herby, lightly spicy chicken.
From: Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6; Redmonds.ie.
Voyeur 2018, Niepoort, Vinho Tinto de Ânfora, Portugal
A field blend of old vines fermented and aged on their skins for eight months. Light, fragrant and deliciously refreshing, with vibrant ripe, dark fruits and a seductive elegance. Outstanding wine. A roast of pork, baked ham or chicken salad would be good with this.
From: First Draft Coffee & Wine, Dublin 8, firstdraftcoffeandwine.com; 64wine, Glasthule, Co Dublin, 64wine.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, Co Dublin, mitchellandson.com.
Karasì Areni Noir 2017, Zorah, Armenia
Full-bodied with rich sour cherries, redcurrants and plums with a long dry lightly tannic finish. Try it with lightly spicy grilled lamb chops.
From: 64wine, Glasthule, Co Dublin, 64wine.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Fallon & Byrne, Dublin 2, fallonandbyrne.com; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6; Redmonds.ie; Wineonline.ie