Millennia ago, long before the Caucasus region was divided up into nation states, people living here were cultivating grapes, and pretty soon they had the great idea of crushing them to make wine. One of Noah’s first impulses after surviving the flood was to plant a vineyard... And to drink rather excessively of the wine that it yielded. According to a sincerely believed local legend, Noah’s post-ark settlement was founded at what’s now the Azerbaijani city of Nakhchivan – where there’s even a tomb site of Noah that you can visit.
Biblical myths aside, an everincreasing body of archaeological and micro-botanical research does indeed suggest that wine was made in considerable quantity in ancient times at sites along the Arpachay River, a valley in Nakhchivan’s Sharur District. Several sites suggest an even older knowledge of wine by the Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture, partly named after the Shomutepe archaeological site near Agstafa in West Azerbaijan. In Goygol District, jugs bearing wine residue have been unearthed dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, and in the North West region of Gabala, a wine cellar was discovered from the 1st-3rd centuries AD. Evidently, the South Caucasus region is one of the oldest centres of winemaking anywhere on the planet.
In the millennia that follow there’s plenty more evidence of viniculture, seen in both archaeological sources and in the pages of historians, including Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and several later Arabic writers. Viniculture is generally thought to have experienced a decline following the Arab conquest of Azerbaijan in the 7th century and the subsequent spread of Islam, but various forms of thick honey-like wine continued to be produced and consumed mainly for medicinal purposes, but also for pleasure among the region’s ruling classes in the Middle Ages.
We fast forward to the early 19th century and the town of Goygol, then called Helenendorf. It was founded by settlers from Germany, excited to begin a new life in the Caucasus in light of the chaos caused by the Napoleonic Wars at home. The first group of 1,400 settlers left from southern Germany in 1816, the famine-plagued ‘year without summer’. Having overcome a series of difficulties, they planted new vineyards and, by the early 1860s, Christopher Vohrer incorporated Azerbaijan’s first fully-fledged commercial winery company. Goygol Winery still cites this as the starting point of their major wine enterprise.
In the Soviet era, Azerbaijan’s production increased dramatically, though often favouring low-quality sweet wines. The republic was one of the USSR’s top wine producers with brands such as the ‘Agdam’ port style fortified wine becoming extremely popular throughout the Soviet Union. Even one of the famous wine regions was Karabakh, especially Aghdam and Fuzuli. Production reached a peak in 1984 when over 2 million tonnes of grapes were harvested in Azerbaijan from some 275,000 hectares of vineyards, thus making winemaking the republic’s most profitable industry. However, Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, beginning in May 1985, led to the destruction of most of the vineyards so that after Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, it took another decade before it was able to start rebuilding its wine industry.
After independence, a series of government initiatives, starting in 2002, led to wide-scale replanting with a greater emphasis on quality over quantity. Wineries essentially started all over again, helped by expert winemakers from Italy and Moldova, as well as Azerbaijan’s wine experts from the Soviet period. The introduction of popular, internationally recognised grape varieties has also helped in crafting wines with global export appeal, while the use of Caucasian endemics allows for experimentation with more regionally specific niche products. The transnational project Iter Vitis Caucasus Wine Route also connects Caucasian countries.
Azerbaijan’s wineries make extensive use of well-known grape varieties, including Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Muscat and Saperavi. But there are also several important pan-Caucasian and local varieties. For now, many of those are little more than historical curiosities, though there is a new drive to revive some old strains. First, it’s well worth familiarising yourself with the following varieties that are commonly used in Azerbaijani wines.
MADRASA (red) - This grape is also variously known as Matrassa, Madrese, Gara Shire, Siray and several other names. Round and waxy, the blue-black grapes are sweet and very juicy, grown especially in Shamakhi District where a wine-growing village shares the grape’s name. Predominantly used in coupage with other varietals, it tends to produce tannic, richly coloured red wines but also citrusy rosés with a long finish.
SHIRVANSHAHI (red) - Local people living in Kurdamir District and the valley of the Kura River have grown this grape for centuries. It has a dark colour and is mainly used for Kagor-type sweet dessert wine (Russian Orthodox Church wine) and late-harvest wines, high in residual sugar. It goes especially well with desserts, cakes and all sorts of sweets. The most popular wine produced from Shirvanshahi grapes is called ‘Kurdamir’. Hamashara Another indigenous grape variety, Hamashara is named after an ancient city in Jalilabad District, where this grape is traditionally grown in local villages. In the 1960s-1970s in Jalilabad 30-40 per cent of all grape plants consisted of this variety. Yet it is only grown in a few other regions of Azerbaijan. The bushes grow fast and the grape clusters are large, round, reddish black and covered with a thin layer of wax. The skin is thick but not strong while the flesh is crunchy.
KHINDOGNI (red) - This local variety is included in the ‘List of Standard Varieties’ recommended for cultivation in the country. Khindogni grapes are very dark in colour and it is one of the oldest indigenous sorts of Azerbaijan, dating back several millennia. Wines from this grape are high-quality and possess a beautiful colour and pleasant fragrance.
BAYAN SHIRA (white) - Also known as Bayan Shire, Shirei and by other names, this variety grows quickly and is resilient to drought, making it a popular grape to grow in less irrigated zones. Traditionally, its reputation was not especially glowing as a single varietal but, treated with care, some contemporary wineries have managed to tease out crisply mineral white wines with lingering lemon notes. More often the grape is used as a blend with Rkatsiteli, adding a pleasantly citrus acidity.
MISGALI (white) - Misgali is a local sort whose name means ‘measuring unit’ in Azerbaijani. It has a high and stable productivity and is especially suitable for producing table wines.
ARNA-GIRNA (white) - Arna-Girna is a local variety mostly cultivated in the regions of Sharur, Sadarak, Babek and Ordubad in small quantities. Mostly used for table and dry wines, its aroma is a bouquet of fresh tropical fruits while the taste is well-structured, with pleasant savoury notes and a long mineral finish.
RKATSITELI (white) - Originally Georgian but also one of the most popular white-wine grapes in Azerbaijan, Rkatsiteli ripens slowly with a potentially high sugar content and a taste that’s fresh and juicy, creating wines that can become heavily fruity and mildly tannic when matured in oak. Though somewhat sensitive to drought, the vines are seen as helpfully phylloxera resistant. The name means ‘red horn’ in Georgian.