In the Mountains of Karabagh

A war–ravaged former Soviet region tries to recover its winemaking roots

By Matt Kettmann

(Wine Spectator Magazine)—-A skinny sprig of Khindogny grapevine–freshly plucked from warm and nourishing soil–is clinging to life on a short knob of rootstock. The sprig–growing inside a dark barn where the smoky air is pierced by rays of light shining through walls riddled with bullet holes–symbolizes hope for the future of the isolated and war–torn region known as Mountainous Karabagh.

Stuck in geographic and political limbo between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan–Karabagh’s ethnic Armenian population is trying to revitalize the ancient traditions of winemaking that were almost destroyed by a bloody war for independence from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

As he spins the sprig of Khindogny–a variety traditional to the high southern Caucasus Mountains–Vladimir Zakiyan’s eyes well up with tears. He speaks in a village called Kheramot–which was destroyed during the war and occupied by Azeri soldiers for nearly two years before being liberated by Karabaghi troops. "We started from zero," says Zakiyan. "This village lost 31 young men and had a lot of people injured. It was destroyed to the ground. … We started to rebuild our lives. Everybody can destroy–but not everybody can rebuild."

Inside the formerly bombed-out barn in Kheramot–where wood fires keep the temperature warm to accommodate early vine sprouting–Zakiyan shows how the Karabagh grape shoots are being spliced onto rootstocks from the United States that are resistant to phylloxera. The voracious root louse has recently devastated native Karabagh grapevines and threatens to eliminate entire strains of endemic grape varieties.

But the young vine represents a collaboration–of foreign aid and local perseverance–that could eventually put the region back on the world wine map. The boisterous in–country director of the Fresno–California–based nonprofit Armenian Technology Group (ATG)–Zakiyan is aware that the struggle has just begun. "It’s not a time to be proud," he reminds the local villagers. "Our reconstruction is still in progress. But maybe in some time–we’ll be proud."

But pride is strong among Armenia’s–an ancient people who–in the early part of the fourth century–became one of the first to proclaim Christianity as a national religion. An Armenian tale recounts how the biblical Noah walked down from the slopes of nearby Mount Ararat–where the Ark had come to a rest after the Great Flood–and ventured into what is today Armenia–where he planted the seed of the world’s first vineyard. In so doing–he established the lands between the Black and Caspian seas as a winemaking epicenter.

One of the region’s viticultural fonts is called Artsakh by the Armenia’s–who have populated its remote–mountainous terrain for the past two millennia. Situated in the misty mountains of the South Caucasus–Artsakh is an ancient place of both natural beauty and almost constant war. Farmers of this bucolic enclave became adept at growing high altitude–friendly varieties in fertile soils at some 3,600 feet.

Local lore has it that the people of Artsakh–benefiting from a climate cooler–wetter and more variable than that of their more arid lowland neighbors–were known to produce the best fermented grape juice around and to keep barrels and jugs full even during the repeated invasions of Turks–Mongols–Persians and Russia’s.

In the 1920s–the Soviets took control. The mostly Armenian Artsakh–officially renamed Nagorno Karabagh–which translates to "mountainous black garden"–was separated from Armenia as a result of Stalin’s machinations–becoming part of Azerbaijan. In the following decades–grapes from the mountainside vineyards of Karabagh supplied the Soviet Union with red wine and brandy. Eventually–14 wineries made wine from the 200,000 tons of grapes harvested annually.

All of that changed in 1991. With the Soviet Union in its death throes–the mostly Armenian population of Karabagh voted to become independent. War between Azerbaijan and Karabagh (backed militarily by Armenia) quickly ensued. For three years–the battles raged–killing close to 30,000 soldiers and civilians and ravaging the countryside. Agricultural fields–including acre upon acre of grapevines–were destroyed or left unusable due to unexploded ordnance and mines.

Though 1994 brought a cease–fire–it did not bring closure. The war is officially unresolved–and the Mountainous Karabagh Republic sits in international limbo as diplomatic talks continue. Following the war–the economy collapsed. It looked as if one of the world’s first major winemaking regions was lost forever–a doom hastened by the onset of phylloxera in the late ’90s–which nearly finished the job the war had begun.

But Armenian pride wouldn’t let that happen. Today–as the future of Karabagh is debated by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as ambassadors from the United States–France and Russia–grapevines are growing once again.

The road to Karabagh’s wine country mirrors the reality faced by the struggling republic: It’s uphill and rocky once you leave Stepanakert–the slow–paced capital of Karabagh. It traverses a breathtaking landscape whose features range from snowcapped peaks to rolling pastures in luminous shades of green. It can be hard to remember that one wrong step could prove deadly–inasmuch as many meadows are minefields and the seemingly quiet villages are littered with shrapnel.

About an hour’s drive from Stepanakert–the road passes the relatively bustling town of Karmir Shuka–which means "red market" in Armenian. At one end of town stands an impressive steel gate adorned with an oversize cast–iron cluster of purple grapes. How fitting: It’s the entryway to the wine– and spirit– processing plant owned and operated by Karabagh Gold–one of only two alcohol–producing companies still operating today.

This gritty factory is no wine boutique–and visitors–especially non–Armenia’s–are few. Yet the workers proudly relate the history of the factory–which was founded in 1927 to process mulberry wine (a celebrated elixir in the region) and was operational as a producer of various spirits–wines and brandies until the war began. It reopened after the 1994 cease–fire and managed to maintain production until 1998–when the postwar economy faltered and phylloxera hit.

This downward spiral speaks to the dramatic decline of grapegrowing in the entire region over the last two decades. In the 1980s–Karabagh had more than 42,000 acres of vineyards. Today–the total acreage under vine is less than 3,000–and grape harvests are down to less than 5,000 tons.

In 2002–Karabagh Gold’s investors purchased the factory and took advantage of the new government’s economic policies–which provide investment incentives and tax breaks as the means of invigorating a stagnant economy still under blockade from both Turkey and Azerbaijan. Production started again after extensive repairs–with 400 tons of grapes–namely a white Georgian variety called Rkatsiteli and the domestic red grape Khindogny–collected from neighboring villages.

In 2003–the company began cultivating wheat to make vodka–which now constitutes most of Karabagh Gold’s output–and expanded production to include pomegranate wine–blackberry wine and the traditional mulberry blend. Most promising was Karabagh Gold’s signing in 2003 of a contract to sell grapes to the Yerevan Brandy Company–which is owned by the large French firm Pernod Ricard.

The new bottling plant for Karabagh Gold is a few dozen miles away in Martouni–separated from that district’s war–ravaged capital of the same name by a large minefield. Inside–the very busy Vladik Alibabyan–who graduated nearly 20 years ago from Yerevan’s Agricultural Academy with a specialty in winemaking–plays consummate deal maker–constantly barking orders to his various assistants and jabbering on his cell phone.

Between sips of the semisweet white Rkatsiteli and of the dry–jammy red Khindogny–which he prefers with barbecue–Alibabyan explains that last year–only 3,000 tons of grapes were processed by Karabagh Gold–but the goal is to reach 20,000 tons soon.

"We aren’t being controlled by the number of grapes," he explains–visibly frustrated that he sells exponentially more vodka than fine wine. "It’s the market demand." But with the involvement of Pernod and the marketing potential of the rare and tasty Khindogny grape–Alibabyan is confident that the balance will shift.

Karabagh’s only other winemaker represents the sort of collaboration that could lift the region out of its current depression. It’s a partnership between the Karabaghi–owned company Artsakh Alco and Zakiyan’s California–based ATG. Artsakh Alco is headquartered just a few miles east of Stepanakert in the town of Askeran–a community framed by an ancient fortress that has repelled numerous invasions–including Azeri advances in the most recent war–and survives as a symbol of Karabagh’s strength.

Like Karabagh Gold’s factory–Artsakh Alco’s facilities–initially constructed in Stalin’s era and rebuilt around 2000–with production beginning in 2001–aren’t finely polished. Yet the science of wine is taken seriously here–where lab coat–wearing technicians work under the watchful eye of winemaker Karian Akopian. She–like Karabagh Gold’s Alibabyan–graduated from the Agricultural Academy in Yerevan–the capital of Armenia.

Artsakh Alco makes a variety of alcohols–but Akopian–like Zakiyan–is most interested in making quality wines. When provoked–they each rattle off an impressive list of traditional Karabagh grape varieties–ranging from Khindogny to Haghtanak–a red whose name translates to "victory," and Kagun–a white. Artsakh Alco does not make any sweet wines–both in deference to Akopian’s tastes and because they don’t sell well.

During the war–the front lines were little more than a mile away–and Askeran was regularly shelled. The oak barrel–making factory next to the Artsakh Alco plant was a tank–repair warehouse–so it’s no wonder that hollowed husks of Russian tanks still sit behind the property. But these days–the imported technology on the premises consists of Italian bottling equipment–German hardware and French filters–all acquired in the company’s determined attempt to produce the best Karabagh wines.

East from Askeran–toward the current front lines–where sniper fire is often exchanged between young Azeri and Karabaghi troops–Zakiyan–flamboyant in a bright yellow shirt and grape–cluster bolero in a land stylistically dominated by plain black suits–oversees ATG’s grapegrowing operations in Kheramot.

These young vines are then sold at half–price to villagers–around 50,000 were sold last year–or planted by ATG employees from Kheramot in a site once vineyard–then minefield–now vineyard again. The ATG vineyard was cleared by the Halo Trust–a British nonprofit involved in mine–and bomb–removal projects across the republic. Unfortunately–the ATG vineyard is a rarity; most of the cleared vineyards are being turned into wheat fields because–as one Halo Trust officer put it–"You can’t live off wine."

Zakiyan oversees an ATG winery in nearby Chartar as well. When fully operational–it will likely become the face of Karabagh wine for the growing number of tourists.

Yet even as the sun begins to shine on Zakiyan and his colleagues through the region’s thick fog–nature is unrelenting. The 2004 crop was almost totally destroyed by an unexpected spring frost–with temperatures dropping to 28 F in April. Close to 80 percent was lost. Will they bother picking the rest or just call the harvest a total loss?

"We will pick the grapes no matter what," says a smiling Zakiyan–his optimistic spirit as formidable a force as the weather and the constant challenges that hamper him and his countrymen. "The future of Karabagh is in good wine production. It’s our national tradition."

Matt Kettmann is the pop culture editor for the Santa Barbara Independent and a freelance correspondent for Time magazine. He journeyed to Mountainous Karabagh last spring.

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