A Cradle of Viticulture: Tracing the Legacy of Azerbaijani Wine
Azerbaijan, once regarded as the Land of Fire for its massive supply of oil deposits, may just earn the moniker of the Land of Wine with the way its wine industry is going. Over the last few decades, the international wine scene has been rife with talk about the exquisite quality of Azerbaijani tipple. While the Eurasian country may not have placed in the list of the top 15 wine-producing countries of 2014, it has certainly made its mark in history for being one of the cradles of viticulture.
The Birth of an Ancient Wine Trade
Azerbaijan’s long history of winemaking can be traced back to the ancient times. How ancient? Now, that one’s up for debate. See, most scholars believe that the country’s wine industry began in the 2nd millennium BC. This was after archaeologists discovered wine storage vessels and stone fermentation jars containing wine from that period. These artifacts were found in Goygol Rayon, Khanlar, Galajig, Kültepe, and Qarabaglar, indicating wide-scale wine production in the region.
However, according to an article in WineBusiness.com, recently unearthed artifacts suggest that winemaking in Azerbaijan could date back to the 7th millennium BC. This was after Dr. Patrick A. McGovern discovered evidence of early winemaking in Shomu-Tepe, near the country’s region of Tovuz. If, indeed, this is legitimate evidence of wine production in the country, Azerbaijan could well be the second oldest wine-producing region in the world, just after Georgia.
By the 7th century BC, stories about the country’s verdant vineyards were already percolating in Europe. Travelers and historians like Herodotus, Homer, Columella, Al-Masudi, and Ibn Hawqal all mentioned the Caucasus region’s flourishing wine culture in their works.
The enclave of Nakhchivan and the rayon of Tovuz were of particular interest to these historians. According to reports from the 10th century Arabian geographer, Al-Muqaddasi, the former produced the sweetest wines. While the latter is known for its ancient use of tartaric acid to grow vines.
Another notable quality of Tovuz was that it was one of the most well-known wine regions in the early 19th century. After German vignerons migrated to the area in the early 1800s, they began employing new viticultural techniques that improved the quality of local wine. Within a few decades, wineries in Tovuz were producing wines that could rival the products of their European counterparts.
Medicine for the Middle Ages
The country was placed under Islamic rule in 651 AD, during the Muslim Conquest of Persia. Despite the dietary law that prohibited alcohol consumption, alcohol production in the country continued. In fact, records from the 14th century mention grape harvests in Tabriz of nearly 150 tons.
Many believe that wine wasn’t banned in the Middle Ages because of its purported ‘healing qualities.’ During this period, wine wasn’t like the swill we swig today. In terms of taste and consistency, ancient and medieval wines were a lot like honey, syrupy and heavily concentrated. To become drinkable, the tipple had to be diluted with water. During the 13th century, scholars like Yusuf ibn Ismail al-Kutubi believed that wine was a tonic that could strengthen both body and mind. According to him, it prevented many ills, including cardiovascular diseases, colds, headaches, and even depression. Many of Shah Suleyman Safavi’s royal physicians in the late 17th century, also prescribed wine as a remedy to fatigue.
Wine production continued during and after Iranian rule, which officially ended in 1813, and Russian Rule, which spanned the years from 1813 to 1917.
The Communism Wine Boom, and Wine Ban
On April 28, 1920, Azerbaijan officially became a Soviet Socialist Republic after its government surrendered to the Bolsheviks. Up until the mid-1980s, the local wine trade flourished under Communist rule. In fact, in the 1970s, there was a movement to drastically increase wine production. Under a series of decrees from the Cabinet of Ministers, local vineries received government funding.
The government also allotted around 70,000-80,000 hectares for vine growing and wine production. By 1982, the Azerbaijani wine industry was raking in the rubles with grape production at 2.1 million tons and sales at 100 million rubles per year.
However, all this changed in 1985, when former-General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, instituted a ‘dry law’. Although alcohol consumption wasn’t completely prohibited, people who were caught intoxicated in public were arrested and prosecuted. Thousands of hectares of vine area were destroyed. And while crime rates in the USSR did go down, the wine industry also suffered a blow as production and sales weakened.
An Industry in Recovery
After the fall of Communism in Azerbaijan in 1991, the country has been slowly rebuilding and modernizing its wine industry. Today, the country has about 10 wineries spread out in its five main winegrowing regions—Tovuz, Shamakha, Ganja, Gabala, and Ismaily.
Most of the country’s vineyards are found in the Kur-Araz lowlands, the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, and the regions of Ganja, Nakhchivan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The economic zones of Shirvan and Ganja-Qazakh have also become hubs for contemporary winemaking. These cities are famous for their 17 wine grape varieties, and their exceptional Pinot Noirs.
Since 1991, Azerbaijani wines have also won 27 prizes from various international fairs and competitions. Today, local wine is being exported to nearby Russian, European, and more recently, Chinese markets.
The Geography of Wine
The combination of Azerbaijan’s mountainous topography and close proximity to the Caspian Sea allows for diverse vine growing conditions throughout the land. Climate, soil composition, rainfall, and altitude vary between sub-regions. What is consistent about the land, though, is that over half of the country’s vineyards require irrigation due to periodic summer droughts, while about 10 percent (%) of vineries require winter protection.
A Wealth of Wine Grape Varieties
Azerbaijan is currently home to over 20 grape varieties. We say ‘currently,’ because according to historians, there was a point when the country had over 450 wild grape varieties being used for winemaking. While the numbers may have dwindled over time, the Eurasian country is still rife with indigenous vines, like the White Shani, Black Shani, Marandi, Khindogni, Derbendi, Bayanshire, Nail, Ganja Pink, Tebirizi, Gamashara, Agdam Kechiemdzhei, Misgali, Madrasa, Bendi, Zeynabi, and the Arna-Grna. While other widely used wine grape varieties in the country include Pinot Noir, Kishmish Moldavski, Rkatsiteli, Aligote, Pinot Blanc, Viorica, Doina, Podarok Magaracha, Matrassa, Ranni Magaracha, and Pervenets Magaracha.
A Sampling of Azerbaijani Wines
Despite its wealth of indigenous wine grapes, some of the most popular Azerbaijani tipples are actually European classics. The country’s collection of fine wine includes the following wine cellar favorites:
Cabernet Sauvignon – Some people would say that the Cabernet Sauvignon epitomizes red wine. We wouldn’t go that far, but we will agree that there’s a reason for this tipple’s unstoppable popularity. Through its masterful combination of heavy fruity flavors and the fire of black pepper, this wine recommends itself to almost all types of red wine lovers.
Pinot Noir –Nicknamed the heartbreaker grape, the Pinot Noir is one of the hardest vines to grow and wines to make. But when done right, it becomes a smoky, sweet, and tangy treat that blossoms on the palate.
Pinot Blanc – With its soft fruity notes of lemons and pears, and delicate floral aroma, the Pinot Blanc is a light and highly drinkable tipple that’s best paired with baked fish, crisp salads, and roasted fowl.
Rkatsiteli – Rounding up our list of Azerbaijani wines is the dry and sweet Rkatsiteli. Though the grapes are naturally acidic, the underlying tartness of the wine is balanced off by its rich fruity flavor and heady floral aroma.
The Future of the Azerbaijani Wine Trade
According to a report by Eurominitor International, the future of the Azerbaijani wine industry is looking pretty bright. Though growth has been marginal in the last few years, it has been continuous as well. The weakening sales of vodka in the region also helped in boosting the local wine trade.