Vahe Keushguerian — Armenia’s Wine President
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Vahe Keushguerian is a true to life trump card for modern Armenia. It’s almost as if he was summoned by Noah himself to open the Ark of Armenia’s unique wine to the world, and resurrect winemaking in his home country. But that isn’t even his most interesting attribute. Vahe Keushguerian and his all-star team have managed to create wine with an extremely high quality in a very limited period of time.
Keushguerian’s various projects have influenced the lives of many great wine producers in Armenia — from well-established operations like Tierras de Armenia CJSC, to smaller estates in the more remote regions of the country. In addition to winemaking, Mr. Keushguerian has also made significant contributions to science and education in his research of local grape varieties. Surely, we cannot cover all his projects in a single article. More importantly, we wanted to dive deeper into the individuality of this visionary of Armenian winemaking in the 21st century.
By no means is «wine president» an official position. Rather, it is a quality. Vahe Keushguerian has shown the world like none other that the wines of Armenia are in a league of their own. Georgian, Italian, French… none of them can be compared to domestic Armenian wine, simply because the latter is so rare. For anyone who wants to feel and understand wine better, it is a wonderful find.
— Vahe, are you aware of your new position?
— Yes, they’ve told me I’m wine president of Armenia now.
— What a great opportunity to meet a president without all the formalities! How did you come into wine, and what is your source of inspiration?
— My first really good wine was a Chianti. It was so different from all the wine I had tried before it in Italy, and even ever, for that matter! I was 19 back then, and I remember my first sip: «wow, this is an awesome wine!»
— Do you remember its name?
— It was a wine my friend’s grandma made in Italy. She was making Chianti, and we were drinking almost a liter every day. It is such a vivid memory of Italy for me. Then I moved to California.
— So it was in Italy where you had your first revelation. What region were you in?
— I was in Gela, Sicily. We used to drive around the bodegas, buy 1.5 liters of wine for five hundred lira… You know, friends, a guitar, some wine… Every day, every day…
Then I went to America, started working in different restaurants, and attended a restaurant college. Both at work and during my free time I was drinking different wines.
— What were you working as?
— I was a waiter and bartender.
— Like a true president.
— In college, I started as a waiter, and in 1985, I opened my own restaurant.
— Yes, this is the path of a real president! All jokes aside, this title wasn’t given to you on a whim… you made it all this way on your own.
— Exactly, I didn’t inherit it or anything. I’m a proletarian president! (Laughs.) The restaurant was in Berkeley, California. It was very Mediterranean: wines from Tuscany, Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine… it turned out to be one of the most popular restaurants in California.
— Were the waiters there Italians?
— No, Americans. It was during the Renaissance of American restaurants, with new American cuisine, the slow food movement, and the rise of Alice Waters with her Chez Panisse, which opened one kilometer away from us, plus many other restaurants, like Santa Fe Bar&Grill.
So I learned a lot about this business and wanted to go beyond and do something new, so I went into the wine business. I purchased a small wine importing company, and we started bringing in French and Italian wines, but mostly Italian. I was shipping in a lot of famous Italian wines. I mean, they are famous now, but back then no one knew what they were about. Wines from Piedmont, Tuscany, Brunello, and other places.
— Did you pick out these wines yourself?
— Yes, I traveled across Piedmont and other regions. Then I flew back to California and brought the wines with me, presented and spoke about them and on winemaking… I was so enthusiastic and inspired. In those days, there was no Gambero Rosso by Stefano Bonilli, the man who opened up multiple wine producers to the world. Many of the wines I was buying later became popular. In 1994, I moved to Italy, turning it into a part of my life, an adventure in and of itself. I was very romantic back then: I loved those mountains, the cypress trees, Tuscany… I knew I had to be there!
I wanted to live out my dream! I didn’t want to live in San Francisco and dream of Tuscany — I wanted to live in Tuscany!
— And be closer to the Etruscans…
— Yes, in Florence… But I must say this was a sort of recession period for wine. I was a broker, an agent, and I sold Italian wines to America, but I was dreaming of creating wine myself. Back in those days, the production of wine and grape was very low. It was a low period for Italian wines, and Italian wine and grape were incredibly cheap.
Next to my house there were 20 ha of Chianti, and if you were a farmer, the price of the grape was lower than your expenses. And the owner told me: «If you want to be a farmer, I’ll let you do it for free.» So I got into a free-of-charge lease. I built a small winery that later grew into a plant, and began making different wines like Chianti, Merlot, and Chardonnay.
— What an interesting road you’ve taken — from a waiter and restaurateur through a sommelier, all because you started learning about wine! Then you dabbled in wine sales and arrived at the source: the need to make wine yourself. That’s a real presidential race if I’ve ever seen it!
— Yes, I have had a good career…
— Now I want to talk a bit more about Armenian wines. I think I have the general picture all worked out. However, can you give me a recommendation of the best wine in each wine region of Armenia from your perspective?
— That is tough, because Armenia doesn’t have that many regions, but each has so many good winemakers! In Karabakh, I would have to say Anush Kataro (especially their Khndokhni). In Armavir, I’d say Karas Wines, and even though they use international grape varieties, they do it better than anyone else. In Aragatsotn Province, I can highlight ArmAs, Van Ardi as a boutique producer, and Armenia Wine with their red Tariri as a large winery. There is a lot going on in the wine world there. Then Voskevaz with their Karasi Collection, or wines made in amphorae.
In Vayots Dzor, I can definitely emphasize the Areni grape. They have great producers there, like Zorah Wines, Yacoubian-Hobbs, and Koor. In Areni, I’d like to single out Hin Areni.
As concerns the Ararat region, I won’t say much. It’s too hot there. The region is mostly used for cognac grape. But perhaps I misunderstood you… are you asking about the bigger wineries?
— I mostly mean quality.
— I can also mention Idjevan, a large producer in the city of Idjevan (center of Tavush Province, northern Armenia). They have the potential for white wines and, dare I say, elegant red wines. But the climate there is complicated. It is quite humid, so they can’t acquire the sugar or alcohol content like in the valley.
— Can you think of any other regions?
— The Meghri subregion (Meghri district) in Syunik Province, the southernmost part of Armenia on the border with Iran. They have a totally different climate where anything can grow. They used to make a noteworthy white dessert Arevik wine, but not anymore. They have the potential, they have autochthonous grapes and old wineries, but no one is brave enough to start a business there. I think that’s what I might do next.
As for the regions, this is it. In the future, something more might crop up in Karabakh’s regions — Martuni, Gadrut, Askeran — but that’s a question for another time. Still, they will only be subregions.
— How can you comment on the issue of young and old vineyards in Armenia?
— Old vineyards mostly belong to the Soviet era from the 1960-70s. There are some very ancient spots, but they’re few in number. There is hardly any phylloxera is Armenia, so several very old vineyards have managed to survive as well.
— But in order to obtain good wine, vines must be at least 15-20 years old.
— That is true in general, but as concerns commercial production, you can have a quality vine in just 8 years. If you cultivate vines without irrigation, you can likely reach a very high quality level in about 20-30 years. But this happens extremely rarely.
— If there are a lot of vineyards, the old ones must be preserved.
— Sure, that’s exactly what we’re after. The problem is that old vineyards do not produce a lot of grape. Until recently, winemakers got the same price for any grape of any age. Perhaps, Arman Winery could ask for more because they are good judges of vine age. But still, the majority of producers are not interested in these nuances. Today the situation is changing, because we go to the producers and say: if you give us the best Areni, we’ll pay 30-40% more. We collaborate with a number of major producers like Yacoubian-Hobbs and Koor, so where others pay 2 dollars, we can offer 5, 10, even 15…
— All the wines produced with your support are made with grapes of a decent age.
— But this also indicates the fact that the full potential has not yet been reached. Yes, the vineyards are old, but they sometimes lack the proper care. I’m sure they will only get better over time, as the quality of grape continues to grow.
— I rated some Karas Wines as 94-96 out of 100. Their wine truly does have a very high quality.
— Karas Wines have famous international varieties and a very good area for winemaking. Their quality and winemaking process are quite complex.
— I gave your Koor wines 93 out of 100, and 94 out of 100 to Kataro.
— You’re right, I agree with that assessment. We know where the grape comes from, how it was cultivated, and we know how it is made into wine. This makes our products a clear reflection of where we’re coming from and what we’re working with.
— Are these wines sold on the Russian market?
— Yes, Artur Sarkisyan’s New Wine Company supplies them.
— On to the next topic: when I was introduced to Armenian wines, I was taken by two aspects in particular. The first is that these wines cannot be compared to anything else, they are unique. I mean, of course, among quality wine. Still, there is one «but»: these good Armenian wines are a killer for sommeliers! They are wonderfully complex and require their own special approach. That’s why any sommelier planning to present these wines must be specially trained. They cannot be evaluated within the usual framework.
It is quite curious how they reveal themselves, how they play… I’m speaking first of all here about the native varieties. Several times during my travels I’ve made mistakes. I’ve ended up needing some time to figure out how to approach a particular wine. If you give these wines to your average consumer, they won’t understand them or their true value.
Even a minor change in temperature shows the same wine in different ways, and a sommelier must understand that… Of course, I hope Artur Sarkisyan can teach sommeliers in Russia the proper serving methods here. This is all really interesting, but also demands a lot of effort from sommeliers.
— Why do you think most people won’t understand this wine?
— There are three types of people who drink wine. The first group sees wine as something to drink with food, others drink because it’s alcohol, while for the third wine exists for their enjoyment. Those who drink it for the alcohol can simply switch over to something else. The problem lies with consumers who drink wine with food or the third group… you can always work your way around food, but if a person wants to enjoy wine, they must face a secret, or the need to decipher a cultural code.
There is this one famous oenologist, Donato Lanati. He says that you must not smell, but observe wine first. If you can just see it, you will be able to perceive its aroma completely. In this case, I would say that a consumer needs to listen to Armenian wine first. And if you do not want to dance the kochari, at the very least listen to the song of the duduk before drinking Armenian wine!
— You’re absolutely right! Wonderful! To tune yourself to the drink and feel its spirit. Yes, of course!
— You know, I visited a famous winemaker in Argentina, Arnaldo Etchart. He makes wine in collaboration with Michel Rolland. In my opinion, he has the best Malbec in Argentina. When I first visited him, he was sitting there with a friend drinking wine. He didn’t pay a bit of attention to me. I was walking in circles, waiting… Then at some point he looked up at me and asked: «Why are you here?» And I said: «To taste wine.» So he asks: «Have you read Borges?» And I said: «Of course!» So he says: «Then have a seat and let’s get to tasting!»
It’s the same thing here — you might need to start a dance school first to teach people to dance the kochari! Here’s what I think: if you drink Armenian wine carelessly, you’ll miss a lot. Some people say you need the right glass for a wine to unfold properly. The same goes for Armenian wines: if you don’t pay attention, you just might miss their essence entirely.
The best comparison is to gaze at Mount Ararat. First it might be covered in clouds, then it opens up, now it’s sunny, now it’s in shadows… But it’s still the same old Ararat. The same goes for perceiving good wines. So here’s my idea: either Armenian wine will be one of the rarest in the world, or it will lose the marketing game and face the same fate as Georgian wine.
— I hope to God it turns out to be the first!
— What a wonderful… Not talk or interview, but rather contemplation we have going here. Under your sun. I’d like you to address a couple of words to anyone out there planning on trying Armenian wines. What do you want to say to them?
— As a winemaking country, Armenia has so much excitement to offer. Just like our long history, some of the grapes we use today — Voskehat, Khatunm, Areni — have been perfecting themselves for thousands of years. They have passed through the hands and selection process of countless winemakers. Our domestic winemaking industry has deep roots and an ancient history. That is why we must treat it like our legacy that we share with other wine lovers across the world.
The second reason for the uniqueness of Armenian wines is its highland, volcanic soil terroir. This unique land, in my opinion, is the key to making great wine. The only thing we bring to it today — the young generation — is our passion, including mine and our oenologist Arman Manukyan’s, plus the desires of countless others like us. It is our desire to use this treasure to make something beautiful!
Our priority is creating beautiful wines. Money is far from the end game now. We study the soil, seek out unique grapes, travel from region to region, conduct research… if I wanted to make money, I would have stayed in Italy and sold Pinot Grigio!
But now I work with Paul Hobbs, Michel Rolland and other celebrities who come here with big ideas, see Armenia at its finest and fall in love with its winemaking and vineyards. We collaborate closely with farmers, villages, and the local authorities.
— It is fascinating that since you have volcanic soil here, the local three-year grape is more like a five-year-old in Bordeaux. Volcanic soil speeds up mineralization.
— Right, there are two factors making the terroir of Armenia unique. First, it’s the soil and its volcanic rocks (tuff, basalt). This land is simply amazing! The second thing you need to keep in mind is that Armenia is located at the same latitude as Southern Sicily, Pantelleria Island. But here we are at least 1,100 meters above sea level, while in Italy the highest point for a vineyard anywhere is 750 meters. That’s the maximum! And their red wine more resembles a rose.
In Armenia, we’re anywhere from 1,100 to 1,500 meters above sea level (and as high as 1,800 meters in Vayots Dzor, Khachik village). That’s why we can stay ahead of Pantelleria, Burgundy, and Bordeaux, because the vegetation period here is much longer.
Areni reaches its peak in the first week of November, and of course you can keep it on the vine right up until this date. Here, a lot of people pay cash for Areni, they’re so eager to purchase it… so many vinegrowers harvest ahead of time. The vegetation period here lasts 210-220 days, while in Europe it’s only 140-150.
The longer grape stays on the vine, the better it becomes from the stress, and the more strength and potential it has. We harvest Areni in Khachik in the first week of October using traditional methods. It has a pH level of 3.0. That is very low, which is truly amazing! This way, you get more mature phenolic acids, but you don’t have the excess sugar. The balance this creates is simply ideal! We use this grape to make highland sparkling Keush with the classic champagnization method. At higher altitudes, Areni achieves the right qualities for sparkling wines.
In the Ararat Plain, harvest days can come as early as in September. You can even start the process in August for sparkling wine, but then the grape won’t suffer the negative stress factors that make it stronger.
— Right now we’re trying your wine made from Garandmak. What region does that come from?
— Ararat Plain, the Armavir subregion. It is a white wine from Norapat village. In the past, there were almost 300 ha of this variety growing there. In the Soviet period, it was used to make brandy, but now not very much of it is left. In Armenian it means «fat-tailed lamb» because its bunches resemble a fatty tail.
— What a body it has! And it tastes so fresh for a 2014 wine. Is it on the market?
— No, we’re working on that right now. At the moment, you can’t find Garandmak wine anywhere.
— So in a way, you’re pioneers.
— Yes. But you show them a bottle of Garandmak, and next year it’s already a sensation. Everyone will start making it. The same thing happened to Voskehat. Back then, no one made wine from Voskehat. It was instead distilled and used for vodka. Now the price has shot up along with its popularity.
— Does that mean you’re leading all of Armenia behind you under one banner?
— Winewise, that might be true. Right now we’re considered «opinion makers.» When we just started, no one even considered our varieties. Now after us, everyone is talking about autochthonous grapes… They used to cut these vineyards down, but now they’ve suddenly become patriots. We call them the «new vinegrowers.» Like, you know, the «New Russians» (Russians that made a name for themselves in the 90s after the breakup of the USSR).
Another rare variety we use is Chilar. It grows in the Ararat Plain, at the foot of Mount Aragats. It is a white variety, also sometimes known as Skhtoruk, which means «garlic,» because its berries resemble tiny cloves of garlic. Our people often named their grapes after comparisons they made with them.
— What a curious color this Chilar has. And the fragrance! Are you the first to use it too?
— Yes, it’s not being sold on the market yet. In the past, it was used to make the famous Jerez-like Oshakan. In the Soviet era, there was no wine that could top it.
— In my opinion, Chilar is a wine for professionals.
— It is very rich, goes well with cheese…
— I spoke to this one 80-year-old winemaker from a wine institute, and he kept telling me that it is incredibly hard to make good wine from white grape. I travel a lot and see that indeed, there are very few good white wines. They are extremely hard to make. To say nothing of the fact that yours is 100% natural. You don’t speed up the process, which is officially allowed. I think it’s important for you to preserve it. You let white wine pass through their full production cycle. As a result, you can drink the wine at any temperature: it becomes deeper and unfolds with a wonderful aftertaste. Meeting such a wine is a joyous moment for any wine connoisseur!