A Bottle of History: Preserving Armenia’s Winemaking Tradition

It was the Armenia of the 1990s, or as locals recall - “the cold and dark years.”

Following the country’s independence, the whole nation was left with no electricity, no heat, no hope. Across Armenia,people were digging up their vineyards and growing wheat instead of grapes.The country has just declared its independence, war raged in Karabakh, and Turkey had imposed an economic blockade. People simply had to grow wheat to survive.

Everyone except Varazdat Pap. He was among the few growing indigenous grape vines in the village of Areni in Vayots Dzor Province.

The history of Varazdat Pap’s vineyard began 15 years ago. The future vineyard was a plot of bare land bare soil and had no irrigation. Nevertheless, he furiously got to work; to grow grapes, produce wine, and launch his own winery. “Everyone in the village was pretty sure I wouldn't succeed,” says Varazdat Pap, laughing.  “But years of hard work, patience, and passion for wine turned out to be the key to my success.”

The family roots of the 68-year-old winemaker, whose skin is tanned because of working in the vineyards for years, go back to the historic Armenian city of Nakhichevan, currently located in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

His ancestors had produced wine for decades and were among the first to introduce the distinct flavors of Armenian wine to the European market. Today, Varazdat Pap feels honored to continue his family tradition and revive the indigenous grape varieties in his small vineyard.

The Armenian communities of Areni, Rind, and Alashkert are the only three villages in the world that cultivate the Areni noir grape and produce wine from it.Varazdat Pap explains that the exceptional sweetness of the grapes is not just due to the high-quality ofthe seeds, but rather several environmental factors, including Armenia’s high altitude, clean water,climate, and soil.

Varazdat Pap is proud to be one of the carriers of the 6,000-year-old Armenian wine culture. A trace of a smile appears on his wrinkled face when he starts talking about the world’s oldest preserved winery located in the village of Areni.

He recalls that some of the indigenous grape varieties were lost during the years of Soviet Union when viticulture suffered because Armenian winemakers were forced to prioritize the production of cognac. However, he still believes that Armenia has the potential to be recognized on the map among some of the highly esteemed wine producing countries in the world.“The renaissance of winemaking has already started in Armenia; we just need to constantly remind ourselves that wine culture is part of our DNA and is deeply rootedin our history,” he says.

 Varazdat Pap explains that viticulture is one of the most time-consuming yet rewarding industries in agriculture because it requires extensive manual labor during the whole year. His sunken eyes, silver hair, hands covered with dark veins and blotched with sun-spots are the witness of Varazdat Pap’s life of toil. “I always say that I have 2,003 children: three sons and 2,000 grape vines,” notes Varazdat Pap. 

He believes that a plant is like a child and needs love and attention to thrive.

The preparations for cultivation start in early February and last until late October when the aroma profiles of a grape are ripe and strong enough.The timing of the harvest is vital because the sweetness of the grape guarantees the complex, balanced, and complete taste of the wine.

During the pressing process, Varazdat Pap separates the grape pit from the fruit, which has intense flavors and can change the taste of the wine. But even when the wine is ready, the winemaker’s job is still not finished, he says.

Wine storage is yet another complicated process, which requires specific conditions, including constant temperature, light, and humidity. If any of those criteria are not fulfilled, the level of acidity can easily increase, and the wine will turn sour. The longer the wine is stored in oak barrels,the quicker it loses its intended flavors,and the cheaperthe price becomes. According to Varazdat Pap, two years is the perfect aging time for Areni wine, and once it is bottled, the aging process stops.

For the past three years, Varazdat Pap has been working on his own wine brand, which he launched last year and named Luiza, after his wife. Without revealing the secret of the silky texture and perfectly balanced taste of the wine, he tells me that it combines five different grapes and is the result of a complicated process. “A good winemaker has to be like an experienced cook, have a special approach towards the making process,”he adds.

As Varazdat Pap opens the doors of the warehouse, the harmonious flavors of the wine seep through my nostrils. 

The winemaker explains the sensation. “Taking just one sip, the complex aromas of the wine explode in my mouth, and I simply forget all the daily struggles of my life. The result is worth the struggle.”

Lusine Sargsyan is a senior student majoring in the English and Communications BA Program at the American University of Armenia. She wants to pursue a legal career and contributeto improving the protection of human rights in Armenia. Most importantly, Lusine is passionate about writingthe individual success stories of Armenians.