Authors: Olga Sgibneva, Tatiana Kotova
Karas Wines is one of the most interesting wine brands of our generation. In a relatively short period of time for a wine estate, the Tierras de Armenia CJSC brand has managed to achieve impressive world-standard results. This was made possible thanks to the efforts of an outstanding team of specialists headed by the great Michel Rolland, who personally collaborated on the creation of Karas wines. The main investor and owner of the project is Eduardo Eurnekian, Armenia’s national hero and one of the most successful businessmen in South America. Karas Wines is an international brand in every aspect. Their range focuses on time-tested international varieties of grape, which produce their own unique results in the soil of Armavir Province.
The Tierras de Armenia CJSC wine estate was founded in 2003. This area is incredibly favorable for grape cultivation, as it lies in the western part of the Ararat Plain, resting between the three principal mountains of Armenia: Ararat (the symbol of Armenia and a source of pride for the entire nation), Aragats (the highest mountain in the country at 4,090 meters), and Mount Ara. By the way, Mount Aragats is sometimes referred to as «the volcano that flipped its lid» (quite literally, actually: once during an eruption, the peak of the volcano blew off, and now you can see the aftermath in its flattened top).
The estate produces wine under the Karas Wines brand, which stands for yet another layer of the Armenian legacy as a symbol of its winemaking traditions. A «karas» is in fact an ancient clay vessel, traditionally used in Armenia to make wine. However, despite its signature name, the estate does not use this method in production, opting instead for modern technologies. The company has everything needed to make world-class quality wines, where karas plays the role of a symbol expressing the link between the culture and traditions of this land with modern times, the results of which are worthy of their ancestors’ respect.
Author of the project — Eduardo Eurnekian
The owner of the project and its inspiration, who has started a new era of winemaking in Armenia, is Mr. Eduardo Eurnekian, a native of Argentina with Armenian roots. Eduardo Eurnekian is famous as one of the largest businessmen and investors in South America. His company includes airports in Argentina and other countries, a bank in Armenia, a post office, and other endeavors. He is also known for owning vineyards in a magical corner of Argentina — Patagonia, the land of volcanoes, lakes, and deserts. His bodega with the unforgettable name Del Fin del Mundo («From the End of the World») is well-known and loved in Argentina for its wines. A talented team of professionals and consultants from Argentina work their magic here daily, including the amazing Michel Rolland, whom many consider the top oenologist in the world. Mr. Rolland has put all his experience and skills into Karas Wines.
Sure, today the wines of Patagonia are becoming more popular each year, but 20 years ago this bodega was a pioneer of winemaking in the region. Back then, very few people in Argentina believed the project would ever succeed: many considered cultivating vines in such a remote area and then bringing the result to the market was too risky. Nevertheless, a thorough research of the soil and climate, combined with a smart choice of grapes (Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay) and a professional vinegrowing and vinification team helped the bodega carve out its niche on the market.
Eduardo Eurnekian meticulously carried over his years-long experience managing winemaking estates and their personnel in a complex region to Armenia, with its volcanic soil, alpine vineyards, complicated climate, and national love for wine and grape — a factor that unites Patagonia with the Ararat Plain.
Quite unsurprisingly, Tierras de Armenia CJSC is led by an Argentinian team and CEO Julian de Aguila, with senior David del Basso serving as the head of the factory. The estate benefits from the artistry of not one, but two amazing winemakers. The curator of the project is Michel Rolland, a living legend of oenology. More than 10 years ago, monsieur Rolland visited Armenia for the first time at the company’s invitation, where he analyzed the terroir and agreed to collaborate on the development of Armenian wines. Today, Michel Rolland claims that the wines of Armenia are among his priorities, on par with France and Argentina.
Michel Rolland visits the estate 1 or 2 times every year to fine-tune blends and give recommendations regarding the vineyards (sugar content, humidity, etc.). Mr. Rolland works in collaboration with the company’s chief oenologist, Gabriel Rogel. Gabriel is from Mendoza, graduated from the Juan Agustin Maza University with a degree in Oenology, and gained impressive experience in winemaking at a very young age in his work at an analytical laboratory, where he was concerned with the vinification of sparkling wines, and collaborated in the creation of premium wine for Flechas de los Andes.
Gabriel Rogel has been working and living in Armenia for four years as he manages the entire winemaking process, making decisions on vinification, and paying special attention to the quality of grapes.
Karas Wines planted its vineyards in two stages — in 2005 and 2007. They occupy a total area of about 450 ha. The rest of the territory (the company owns over 1,300 ha of land in the Ararat Plain) remains empty. It used to be a military firing range, where people still find blind shells here and there to this day.
The initial plan was to keep expanding the yield and surface area of the vineyards, but they recognized that there was no need yet for such a large amount of grapes. Today, the estate uses the grapes they cultivate for their own needs, and also sell it to other companies, including to make brandy, juices, and even jams. The company has its own fruit orchard and greenhouses to support its own needs.
The land extending in the direction of Armavir is made from loam and clay soil, volcanic with lots of rocks. The first buildings and fences here were even made from stones dug out from the land where the vineyards now stretch. The soil is still filled with rocks, but this is actually a benefit for vine cultivation.
All the vineyards of Karas Wines are located not on the slopes where water runs freely, but on level ground. Historically, this area was used for irrigated vineyards, and irrigation in general is a specific historical feature of winemaking in Armenia. The areas where grapes grow well typically lack precipitation. Karas Wines was the first of its kind in Armenia to implement drip irrigation.
Water is supplied from the Akhurian Reservoir via two specially dug-out pools. One of them provides a natural flow, while the other uses pumps. The irrigation system of the estate is controlled by a computer, and can even be managed from a smartphone. Every section is separated into areas with Wi-Fi antennas, and the valves can be turned on and off automatically or manually. This technology is fully unique in Armenia.
The estate strives to recreate the most natural conditions for its vines without the use of chemicals or pheromones to protect against moths. Another feature and struggle of the local terroir is the occasional hail storm, which can ruin a grape harvest completely. That is why all vineyards here are covered with an anti-hail net.
The company takes great care of the health of its vines. Until recently, the vineyards of Armenia had never known phylloxera. The first cases were registered on the Ararat Plain a couple of years ago, and now the locals are working together to prevent its further expansion. Despite the fact that phylloxera has not yet reached Armavir, all vines here were grafted on certified clean rootstock to avoid possible risks in the future.
At the entrance and exit, all cars also have to pass through rows of small pools. This is a sanitary control method to prevent any potentially harmful agents from making their way onto the vines.
The estate works with 28 different grapes, predominantly the international varieties French Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay; Italian Montepulciano and Ancellotta; 2 types of Malbec (from Argentina and France); Georgian Rkatsiteli, and others. Interestingly, Karas Wines is exclusive in its cultivation of Malbec in Armenia, which is not surprising, taking into account their impressive team of experts from Argentina and deep understanding of this grape.
Meanwhile, the internationally well-known Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have not yet reach a major scope here. Michel Rolland is one of the few who truly know when these grapes will reach their full potential for the Karas Wines collection.
Autochthonous Armenian varieties still remain on the company’s «possibilities» list. They experiment with Khindogny, a grape from Artsakh (a historical area of Greater Armenia, currently part of Nagorno-Karabakh), and the select variety Kangun, which translates from Armenian as «steadfast.» This grape was selected specially to make brandy, but also shows itself well in blends, which are preferred over varietals at Karas Wines.
Blends make up the basis of Karas Wines, expressing their philosophy of production and desire to fully reveal their terroir, guided by the brilliant Michel Rolland’s hand, who personally composes each blend. Each grape variety demands a special approach with every new season. If a year was not successful for a certain grape and instead «let it down,» that variety will not be used in any blends. For example, this was once the fate of Malbec, which Michel Rolland excluded from several vintages of basic red wine, but preserved it in blends for reserve wine.
Grapes are picked exclusively by hand, and harvesting starts in late August (for sparkling wines), and continues up through the end of October. The factory has several rooms home to stainless-steel fermentation tanks with temperature control for white and red wines.
In 2015, they produced 460 thousand bottles of wine, and a full million in 2017, while the total capacity of the factory is rated at 3 million bottles of high-quality wine. Wine ages in barrels from 3 types of oak — American white, French, and the local Artsakh oak, also known as Karabakh oak. In the past, barrels of Karabakh oak were used for cognac spirits in the production of brandy. Wines aged in Karabakh oak acquire mild cream and almond notes thanks to the high content of furfural in the wood.
All varieties age separately in different barrels to fully flesh out the best individual features of each. Michel Rolland mixes the year’s best varietals into blends, or as they sometimes say in the New World — «marries» the blends of Karas Wines. Not every wine meets his selection criteria.
The wines of Karas Wines
The first red vintage of Karas Wines hit the shelves in 2010, with an issue of just 50,000 bottles. The company considered it a big risk, but customers loved the wine and it was sold out in less than a year. It was literally flying off the shelves! That’s when they made the decision to build a winemaking shop right among the vineyards and «pivot» their efforts from wine, making the switch from brandy and spirits to high-quality wines. The first white wine was crafted later, in 2013-2014.
The factory is still young and growing, and its wine history is in the process of being written, but its collection is already formed with its crown jewel: the red Karas Reserve 2013.
It is a blend of Syrah, Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Montepulciano, and Malbec. The basis of the blend is Syrah, which was grown from vines imported from France. The wine is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, and the bottles are sealed with natural Portuguese and French cork.
After opening the bottle, leave the wine to breathe twice — first in the bottle and then in the glass. Then you can enjoy its dark cherry color and complex bouquet, woven from shades of cherry, blackcurrant, and blueberry, supported by tones of chocolate, spices, and fresh-baked bread. The wine features the potent mature taste of black berries with nuances of oak with soft tannins, well-balanced acidity, and a pleasant, long-lasting after-taste with notes of spices. Of course, it is still too young to be evaluated. We suggest circling around to it in 2020, when it reveals its full potential.
Today, the collection of Karas Wines consists of red wines Karas Classic Red and Karas Reserve Red; several kinds of white, including Karas Muscat and Karas Classic White; and sparkling wines made using the Charmat method. The majority of its wines are blends, with the exception of the sparkling semi-sweet Karas Dyutich, made entirely from Muscat Ottonel, and the Karas Muscat wines.
The blends of red Karas Wines are composed of 3-6 varieties, with a composition and proportions that change from year to year. They are typically variations made with Syrah, Montepulciano, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Khindogny (an autochthonous grape from Karabakh).
Karas Classic Wine is also an assembled wine, which consisted of Kangun, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Rkatsiteli in 2015. Chardonnay imbued it with a beautiful minerality, Kangun added oiliness, while Rkatsiteli provided lightness, whipping up a playful wine like a well-organized orchestra, with the effect of aged champagne and the after-taste of bread crust.
The sparkling Karas Wines Extra change every year as well: first it united Folle Blanche, Colombard, Chardonnay, and Kangun, while 2017 saw a vintage without any Kangun. We would like to specially mention its fragrance of green apples, fresh yellow fruits, and light wild flowers with citrus tones. The wine breathes and unfolds gradually.
The estate has big plans for the future, including to create varietals from Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, work more with the autochthonous Areni and Khindogny, and expand the company’s presence on the world market. This is how step by step they are bringing to life the philosophy of Tierras de Armenia CJSC, by introducing the world to Armenian wine and making Armenian wine a contender on the global stage. Thanks to this goal, the authors of the project are already making very interesting wines for us to enjoy even today.