Monday, March 23, 2015

Tasting the Wines of Savalan from Aspi Winery, Azerbaijan

Tasting with Timur & Jahid of Savalan Wines
January 2015 - Before visiting Azerbaijan, I did an Internet search for Azerbaijani wineries and discovered that Aspi Winery ( is one of the most sophisticated in that they have a website in four languages. The other wineries either didn’t have websites, or they were not in English. Furthermore I was distressed to learn there was no “Wines of Azerbaijan Association,” to assist me in scheduling appointments.

Fortunately Timur Mamedov, Commercial Director for Aspi Winery, was extremely responsive. He answered my email almost immediately and invited us to a tasting of wines at their business offices in downtown Baku. Since it was winter and time was limited, it was not possible to drive to the vineyards and winery outside the city. We were joined in the tasting by Jahid, the Marketing Director.

Background of Aspi Winery and the Savalan Wine Brand

Aspi Winery was launched in 2007 by the privately held conglomerate of Aspi, which also sells glass and helicopters. They built a brand new state of the art winery with a production capacity of 1 million bottles, but only produce about half that much currently. The winery is located in the mountainous region of Gabala at 400 meters (1200 feet), in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. President Ilham Aliyev actually visited during the grand opening of the winery.

They have named the wine, Savalan, to honor the Savalan Valley in which the winery is located. The valley is nicknamed “sleeping beauty,” because it protects the people and plants that reside there from harsh winds, and is blessed with the beautiful river, Turian Chay. Currently they produce 18 different wines that feature brightly colored labels to distinguish the different varietals, and proudly display a stylized version of the mountainous valley in which they are located.

Climate and Viticulture Practices of Aspi Winery

Vineyard in Azerbaijan
Aspi farms 340 hectares of vineyards along the slopes of the mountains. The region of Gabala is an ancient wine making region, which has a dry sunny climate with highs up to 40 C in the summer days, but with a drop to 27 C at night. Afternoon breezes and the higher elevation also moderate the temperature a bit. Winters can be cool with average temperatures dropping to around 0 C at night, and occasional snow. The soil is a mix of clay and small pebbles, and is currently not irrigated, but they are considering adding drip irrigation. Trellis systems are generally VSP with short double guyot.

They have planted 22 different varietals, with a focus on classic grapes, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, and Syrah, with a few exceptions such as Alicante Boushet, Aleatico, and Marselan. They are also experimenting with unique blends, such as Grenache, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet in their Limited Release Reserve, which won a Bronze medal at the 2014 International Wine & Spirit Competition.

Winemaking and Sales at Aspi Winery

The winemakers, Mr. Daniel D'Andrea and Ms. Eliza Vagnoni, are from the Friuli region of Italy. Much of the equipment and grapevines are also imported from Italy, as well as oak barrels from France.

Current sales are in Azerbaijan and Russia, which a focus on fine wine shops, restaurants, and upscale grocery stores. “We do not want sell to shops that do not have good temperature control for wines,” said Timur. “If a shop places wine in a hot window and a customer buys it doesn’t like the taste, then it reflects poorly on the brand. We are focused on producing the highest quality Azerbaijani wines.” He mentioned they have plans to begin exporting to Europe and the US.

Tasting Ten Savalan Wines – A Surprising and Fun Experience

In a tasting of 10 wines, alcohol levels were surprisingly high ranging from 13.5 to 15%. Despite this, the nose was quite fresh and exuberant on the majority of the wines, especially the whites such as the unoaked chardonnay, riesling, viognier, traminer, and muscat. I’m assuming some of this could be a result of the Friuli winemaking experience and style.

On the palate all of the wines exhibited a distinctive touch of minerality with a hint of saltiness and/or nuttiness mixed in the more subdued fruit profile. Acids were all natural, and in some cases not that high. The reds all had an expressive nose with ripe berry profiles and higher alcohol levels. A few had astringent tannins with some tart characters, but others had broader, velvety tannins with well integrated oak. Highlights of the tasting for me were:

2013 Savalan Semi-Dry Traminer – a semi-dry white wine with a fresh floral nose and light apricot and citrus on the palate. Well-balanced with a high acid cutting through the semi-sweet fruit, and a medium-long finish.  A great aperitif wine for sipping before dinner, or perhaps as a light dessert wine with fresh fruit.  89 points

2012 Savalan Marselan-Syrah  - a dry red wine, dark ruby in color, with an expressive mixed berry and spice nose, and a surprising creamy palate with rich milk chocolate, smooth tannins, and a long finish. Good to drink on its own, or match with cheese, duck, or other hearty poultry.  90 points

2012 Savalan Limited Release Reserve – a dry red wine with an opaque red-purple color this was a unique blend of 1/3 each Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Alicante Bouschet which was co-fermented and then aged in French oak for 12 months. With a 15% alcohol, this wine had a bold nose of spice and complex berries, but was very approachable on the palate with sweet velvety tannins, medium-plus acid, and hints of dark chocolate cherries.  Though a little too high in alcohol for some, this New World style wine would fit in well with the current “Red Blend” craze in the US.  91 points

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