Zorah Karasi 2014
Author: Vasily Prytkov
Wine: Zorah Karasi 2014
Region: Rind, Vayots Dzor Province, Armenia
Grape: Areni Chorny
Wine type: dry red wine
Technology: classic Armenian
Alcohol content: 14%
Volume: 0.75 L
Recommended serving temperature: 16°С
Potential: 12—15 years
Winemaking in Armenia dates back thousands of years. Yet it is at once among the youngest and most ambitious branches in the global industry. Indeed, it has such high potential that we can confidently predict a boom in the consumption of Armenian wines in the world within the next ten years. But for the now the bottle remains unopened, and the world wine market knows next to nothing about Armenian wines, as they are unique and require our concentration, focus, and an attentive ear…
Time works in favor of Armenia. Although competition on the market is high, Armenian wines are sure to find their niche in the nearest future thanks to the top-quality products coming out of the country’s best estates. Yet in any event, this development still may take years and depend on a variety of factors, regardless of the efforts of a single winemaker or even group of companies. However, today we already have the chance to enjoy wonderful wines reflecting this unparalleled tradition to its fullest.
Zorik Gharibian’s Zorah Winery in Vayots Dzor, southern Armenia, occupies a special place in this new order. Its Zorah Karasi wines made from ancient Areni Chorny grape are pioneers of the new generation of Armenian wines, and have already made a name for themselves globally. Today, people order Zorah wine in Michelin restaurants all over the world, from Europe to the Americas and Australia, and Bloomberg listed Zorah Karasi Areni Noir in the top ten wines in the world.
Zorah Karasi is an homage to the 6,100-year-old wine tradition of Armenia. It ages in traditional clay vessels — karases — which give it its name, Karasi (Armenian for «from a karas»). This wine represents the legacy of its country, simultaneously telling the very first chapter of wine history here and setting the stage for the next.
The story of this wine began many years ago, when Zorik Gharibian made his first visit to Armenia. The beauty of his ancestors’ land made a strong impression on him. During his travels across the regions, Zorik realized that Armenia possessed a profound wine culture, it just needed a little push after its recession in the Soviet era.
His idea first began to take shape in 2000, and even though Zorik never made the conscious decision to stick to traditions, he decided against buying a vineyard in Tuscany, and instead turned to his ancestral roots, to Armenia. He wanted to restore the national values of winemaking here and create truly complex wines that would unveil the magic of this land to the whole world.
This is how a native of the Armenian diaspora in Italy with a successful career in fashion launched a project in his historical motherland, which has since played a crucial role in the rise of the wine industry in Armenia. He founded Zorah to establish a new standard of quality and demonstrate the enormous potential of Armenian wine. His company has opened the doors for a flow of investments into the wine industry of the country. After almost ten years of hard work, the winery produced their first wine in 2010.
Zorik Gharibian’s dream to make wines that possess this unique «genius loci» became an intrinsic part of the winery’s philosophy. With every new vintage, Zorah Winery pushes the potential of Armenian wines forward, and won’t stop until they become some of the best in the world.
The first Armenian wine aged in special clay amphoras, known domestically as karas, was made here at least 6,000 years ago. Gradually, this tradition spread throughout the entire Mediterranean, and now we see uses of various clay vessels in the production of wine as a basic winemaking technique in many cultures.
The specialists at Zorah have spent a lot of time and effort resurrecting and preserving the ancient methods used in their country for ages. By using these amphoras, they pay homage to their neighbor, the ancient winery in Areni-1 cave. This source of inspiration can be seen from their estate, reminding them every day of the unique legacy of Armenia. But more importantly, it is a reflection of the desire shared by the entire Zorah staff to make wine that speaks their native tongue and translates the feeling of something alive, made from the earth—of the living and breathing clay that nourishes and nurtures a true drink of life. «Just like the earth shapes the vine, clay forms the wine,» Zorik Gharibian believes.
In addition to the ancient karases hunted down by collectors around the villages, the winery also takes advantage of large modern temperature-controlled concrete tanks with a surface left intentionally slightly uneven. Such karas-like vessels allow the wine to breathe, making it more complex, elegant, and profound, while the large untoasted barrels used instead of smaller barriques improve tannins without adding unwanted oaky notes.
Zorah put together a brilliant team of experts from Italy, who are very enthusiastic about their work on the estate. Curiosity and a common dream pushed them forward to their dream of creating something truly unique.
Alberto Antonini, the famous oenologist, has been working at Zorah since day one. He is one of the leading wine consultants in the world, and former Chief Oenologist on the Antinori and Frescobaldi estates in Tuscany. Alberto Antonini provides consulting services for many different wine enterprises in Italy, the US, Argentina, South Africa, Romania, and Chile. Among his teachers, he names the great Andrey Chelishchev, one of the founding fathers of winemaking in California.
«Armenia inspires me. This is a land of amazing discoveries that take us beyond the New and Old World dynamic, straight into the unknown world of Antiquity. In my work it is extremely important to respect the local history and terroir, and make authentic, clean wine that fully expresses its origins,» says Alberto.
Antonini was the first world-renowned oenologist who believed in the potential of the terroir and autochthonous grapes of Armenia, and promoted them along with the traditional method of aging wine in karases from the very beginning.
Antonini’s philosophy at Zorah is natural non-intervention, a «less is better» approach that allows him to tease out the subtleties of the local land in his wines. As he puts it, «it is essential for this wonderful region, so filled with history, tradition, and quality potential, to play a central role in the world history of wine, and disrupt the currently dominating Bordeaux model, which standardized wine regions with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Individuality and authenticity are vitally important.»
Alberto’s creativity, open-mindedness and deep respect for the terroir and history of Armenia, as well as his strong belief in wines with «genius loci,» have allowed him to create wines filled with energy, purity, and vitality, complemented by a truly Italian sense of harmony and aesthetics.
Winemaker and agriculturist Stefano Bartolomei
The permanent curator for vinification and cultivation processes at Zorah Wines is Stefano Bartolomei. He has a hand in many important projects on the wine map of Italy, particularly in Tuscany. Stefano earned his degree in Agricultural Science at the University of Pisa, and continued on with a specialization in Integrated and Organic Agriculture at the University of Montpellier in France.
«When I first came to Armenia, I was enchanted by its terroir, its history, isolation, and endemic grape varieties that seemed all but forgotten by the rest of the world,» says Bartolomei. «It was clear from the start how ambitious the project was, but we were on a mission to turn great potential into great wines!»
After they set the goal to make wines that would express the land, vineyards, and culture of this country, Zorik and Stefano dedicated several years to researching the alpine plains of Vayots Dzor and the search for abandoned vines. The selection process took several years of thorough effort, but also revealed ancient vineyards that dated back centuries, some even with vines that were more than one hundred years old. Together, Zorik and Stefano bred new vines from these old Areni plants, and ultimately used them to plant the vineyards at Zorah.
«The paramount element of a wine is its vineyard. It is of the utmost importance to intervene in its natural development as little as possible,» believes Bartolomei. «The vineyard needs to be transferred directly to your cellar; let it be what it wants to be, not how you see it, if you really want to make unique wines that possess this spirit of a place.»
Zorah vineyards are located 1,400—1,600 meters above sea level in Rind village, in the very heart of Vayots Dzor, the oldest wine region of Armenia. In immediate proximity to them is the cave with the oldest wine production facility ever discovered – the Areni-1 cave.
This terroir is free from phylloxera, with a poor subalkaline sandy soil rich in limestone and large rocks. Vine stems here originate from ancient abandoned vineyards of the 13th century Noravank monastery, which was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1990s.
Summer here is long and dry, with an exceptionally bright sun, high daytime temperatures and cool nights. The vegetative season is rather long. The vineyards of Zorah follow the principles of natural cultivation and sustainable land use with minimum intervention.
The rare combination of environmental conditions, altitude, poor soil, significant differences in day and night temperatures (20°C), and late-October harvesting, make for a wine that best expresses the possibilities of this terroir.
The king of Armenian grapes and one of the oldest varieties on the planet, Areni, has been growing in Armenia for thousands of years. It has never been grafted, and it grows on its own roots. Areni is a 100% endemic grape in Armenia, with a DNA profile that isn’t found anywhere else. Elegant and fresh, thick-skinned, and resistant to disease, Areni has perfectly adapted to the high altitude and extreme temperature changes of its native Vayots Dzor.
Wine ferments in concrete, temperature-controlled vats on 100% natural yeast, thus providing micro-oxygenation similar to the same process in traditional karases, where the wine is then left to mature for about 12 months.
The company uses karases of various sizes. Zorah accumulated its collection of karases thanks to their thorough research of nearby villages. Some karases are buried in the earth, while other stand on the ground, giving different shades to the wine in them. After a very light filtration, the wine is then additionally stored in bottles for approximately 6 months.
The wine is the color of dark ruby, with a delicate aroma featuring notes of fruit, ripe berries, red cherry, and pomegranate. You won’t find the lightness of a Pinot Noir in its taste, which people often compare Areni to. It is a full-bodied wine with deeply complex structure. Its ideally balanced tannins remind of Italian perfection, the golden ratio, which the oenologists were able to express in this terroir wine. The taste centers around fruit and berry tones. The aftertaste is long-lasting, fresh, and filled with berries.
Alberto Antonini holds the title of one of the world’s top specialists in Argentinian Malbec, and we have every right to expect notably gastronomic wines from him. Zorah Karasi 2014 matches exceptionally well with meat hors d’oeuvre and the complex dishes found in Armenian cuisine. Another recommended pairing, hard cheeses and leavened bread, helps maximize all the shades of its taste.
Presenting an Armenian wine is no simple task. And presenting Zorah Karasi 2014 is even twice as hard. As the product of thousands of years of winemaking, you cannot treat it as just another good wine to accompany dinner. Sommeliers are faced with the task of presenting a wine that embodies the spirit of its country and the cradle of world winemaking. It bears repeating that the grape used to make this wine was taken from the vines of an old medieval monastery, and genetically speaking is as old as winemaking itself.
But at the same time, this wine is capable of speaking for itself. You don’t just sell history with this wine, you put on display an exclusive product representing the unique wine tradition of Armenia. This, by itself, makes Zorah Karasi 2014 a Great Wine.
97/100 Code de Vino