Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ancient Wine in the Land of Fire - Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre
January 2015 - It had been 18 years since my first visit to Baku, Azerbaijan in the Spring of 1996, when I was working for Amoco Oil. My memories were of a black city covered in grimy oil and soot, dinners of caviar and sturgeon, and sweet reds wines along with gritty white sparkling wine. Arriving again in Baku for 10 days from Dec. 26, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015 was like walking into a futurist city. Everything was clean and sparkling, and there were many new buildings with amazing architecture like the Fire Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. A long pedestrian walkway wove along the shores of the Caspian Sea, dotted with palm trees, fountains, and flowers, where black oil rigs used to be. Baku had transformed itself into a modern city - similar to Dubai, in some respects, with great oil wealth - but also managed to preserve its ancient culture and remember its wine heritage.

Seaside Walkway with Fire Towers
Today the abundant restaurants are filled with the fresh local flavors of the land, specializing in some of the tenderest lamb in the world accompanied by fresh herbs, pomegranate sauces, rice, naan breads, vegetables, fruit, and local cheeses. Some say Azerbaijani food is similar to Persian (its neighbor to the South) or Turkish (its neighbor to the West), but experts say it has its own unique cuisine, and I would have to agree. Probably one of the aspects I loved most about this country is that, though it is 93% Muslim, they still drink wine. Wine in part of their ancient heritage, because Azerbaijan is nestled along the Caucasus Mountains, which are the birthplace of wine, in the country of Georgia (their neighbor to the North). Today, much of the wine is still slightly sweet, but they are also making dry styles from classic European grapes.
Fire Mountain

Azerbaijan is called the “Land of Fire,” because as far as records go back in time, visitors described the flames that burst from the ground and never went out. These fires are from natural oil gases below the rocky surface, and it is still possible to visit Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) where the flames have burned for thousands of years.

History of Wine in Azerbaijan

While in Baku, I tasted many wines from Azerbaijan and was able to visit with two wineries. The people I met there told me that wine has been produced in Azerbaijan back to the second millennium BC. Proof comes from the archaeological digs of places such as Karabakhlar and Galajig, where stone fermentation and storage vessels were found with grape seed residue. Through the ages there have been frequent references to the high quality of Azerbaijani wine by ancient Greek, Arabic, and Roman scholars such as Homer, Herodotus, Al-Masudi and Pliny the Great.

Fire Temple Outside Baku
However, when I returned from Baku and was writing an article to publish regarding my winery visits, Jancis Robinson contacted me regarding her new book, The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition, and the section on Azerbaijani wine. She said she had been in contact with Dr. Patrick A. McGovern who mentions evidence of grapes and possible winemaking dating to the 7th Millennium BC at Shomu-Tepe in his book Ancient Wine. Shomu-Tepe is located near Tuvuz in the northern region of Azerbaijan near the Georgian border.  Therefore, I contacted Dr. McGovern and he confirmed this.

Consequently wine has been produced in Azerbaijan much longer than previously thought, and continued to develop over the centuries. Even with the adoption of Islam, wine continued to be produced in Azerbaijan, and in the 1820’s attracted foreign investment from German immigrants who established operations in the area near Ganja, and ushered in Azerbaijan’s modern winemaking era.

Major Wine Regions of Azerbaijan
It was only in the 1980’s under Soviet rule that Azerbaijan’s wine industry was halted for a nearly a decade by Mikhail Gorbachev’s edict against drunkenness. In an act similar to America’s Prohibition, thousands of acres of vineyards were destroyed in the USSR. However with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has slowly been rebuilding its wine industry.  Today there are five major winegrowing regions: 1) Shamakha, 2) Ismaily, 3) Gabala, 4) Gandja, & 5) Tuvuz (see map).

The Azerbaijani Wine Industry Today

Following are several statistics on the wine industry in Azerbaijan today:

  • Wine Production:  5 million liters (555,000 cases) in 2012, according to the Wine Institute
  • Wine Consumption: 10.24 liters per capita in 2012; very similar to the US at 10.42
  • Population: 9.5 million, per
  • Vineyard Acres: 30,000
  • Number of Wineries: 17, according to the winery people I met with in Baku

  • Major Grape Varietals: Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Matrasa, Saperavi, Rkasiteli, and Muscat
  • Wine Styles: slightly sweet, including the reds, though there is a trend towards producing dry wines to pair better with food
  • Common Wine Brands: Savalan, Yaramida, Fireland, Caspian Sea, Ivanovka, Rubai 

Growth of Azerbaijan Wines

Wine  in Azerbaijan Grocery Store
Currently the growth trend for Azerbaijan wine appears to be positive within the country, though increasing at a modest pace. This progress is due to government support, improved wine quality, and a slump in vodka sales. Also, according to Euromonitor, more young and middle aged people in the country are consuming red wine. I was able to find wine in every restaurant I visited, as well as the bars, grocery stores, and even small convenience shops that seem to be on every corner.

Though many may be surprised that a predominately Muslim country produces and consumes wine, one of the cultural aspects Azerbaijan prides itself on is tolerance. Not only are there many Christian churches and Jewish synagogues mixed among the Islam mosques, but there is a wide acceptance of Western clothing with women wearing all of the latest styles, and shops such as Tiffanny’s, Gucci and Zara doing a booming business. The expat community is strong, and the economy, in general, is doing well, though the recent drop in oil prices is hurting them somewhat.

Last Wine Dinner in the Old City of Baku

Dushbara Soup
On my last night, we had dinner at a restaurant serving local cuisine in the Old City of Baku. This is an amazing warren of small streets filled with shops and restaurants and surrounded by the ancient fortress walls. The famous Maiden’s Tower, dating from the 7th century AD, is also located here.

Azerbaijani Women Drinking Red Wine
I had ordered the delicious local soup called Dushbara to start. This is made with small lamb dumplings, broth, spices, and fresh herbs. Next I ordered a green salad, and then grilled lamb chops with cilantro scented rice. My wine choice was a glass of semi-dry Rkasiteli to start, and then a glass of Matrasa (also called also Madrasi), the Azerbaijan signature red grape varietal that can be made either dry or semi-sweet. My glass was the dry style, with the black plum and earthy notes I was expecting. It was perfect with the lamb, and as I glanced around the restaurant I was pleased to see a table of four Azerbaijani women in their 20’s sitting near me. They were talking, laughing, and toasting with wine glasses filled with red Azerbaijani wine.

Watch a short video about my trip to Azerbaijan


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