Millennia ago, long before the Caucasus region was divided up into nation states, people living here were cultivating grapes. And pretty soon they hit on the sterling idea of crushing them to make wine.
An ever-increasing body of archaeological and micro-botanical research suggests that wine was made in considerable quantity over 6000 years ago at sites along the Arpachay River, a valley in Nakhchivan’s Sharur region. Several sites suggest an even older knowledge of wine by the Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture near Aghstafa in what today is western Azerbaijan. Evidently, the South Caucasus region is of the oldest centres of wine making anywhere on the planet.
But for the first major step in Azerbaijan’s modern wine development, we fast forward to the early 19th century and the town of Goygol, then called Helenendorf. It was founded by destitute settlers from Germany, excited to head towards the land of Noah following an invitation from Tsar Alexander. The first group of 1400 settlers left from southern Germany in 1816 and over the next few decades, despite an epic series of difficulties, they planted new vineyards. By the early 1860s, Christopher Vohrer incorporated Azerbaijan’s first fully fledged commercial wine company.
In the Soviet era, Azerbaijan’s production increased dramatically, albeit often favouring low-quality sweet wines, reaching a peak in 1984. Thereafter, however, Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol, led to the destruction of a huge proportion with large areas of vines uprooted. After independence, a series of government initiatives starting in 2002 led to widescale replanting with a greater emphasis on quality over quantity. Wineries essentially started all over again helped by expert winemakers from Italy, Moldova and elsewhere. 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.
In the first half of 2018 alone, exports were reported to have grown 80% following new deals to sell Azerbaijani wines in China. And since 2018, there is now a Baku Wine School for training advanced sommeliers. All in all, it’s a very exciting time for wine in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s wineries make extensive use of well-known grape varieties including Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Pinot Blanc. But there are also several important Pan-Caucasian and local varietals. For now, many of those are little more than historical curiosities, though there is a new drive to revive some old strains. However, it’s well worth familiarizing yourself with the following varieties which are commonly used in Azerbaijani wines:
RED – Saperavi. More commonly associated with neighbouring Georgia, Saperavi produces intense, deeply coloured, full-bodied reds that often have the rich, velvety qualities of a new-world Malbec. The intense colour explains the grape’s name which translates from Georgian as ‘the dye’. In Azerbaijan, blending varying proportions of Saperavi and Matrasa can achieve mildly tannic dry reds with berry and black-cherry notes.
RED – Matrasa (also variously known as Matrassa, Madrese, Qarashira, Siray and by several other names). Curiously for a wine grape, the name means Muslim religious school. Round and waxy, the blue-black grapes are sweet and very juicy, grown especially in the Shamakhi region 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.
RED – Tavkveri Literally meaning ‘hammerhead’ due to the berry’s flattened upper, Tavkveri is a light but tangy red that blends well with Saperavi. An Azerbaijani cross-breed between Tavkveri and Matrassa has been named Gyandzhevi in honour of Ganja the main city in central Azerbaijan
RED – Shirvanshahi. Shirvanshahi is a local very valuable wine sort. Local people have grown this grape transportable (to grow on other gender of trees) since ancient times. The high sugar productivity sort is successfully grown in wine mid-season in Kurdemir district, neighbouring regions and in the valley of Kura River. No clones of this variety have been described so far. Grapes are mainly used for kagor-type dessert and late harvest wines, with high sugar residual. It perfectly matches with any sort of desserts, cakes and all kinds of sweets. “Kurdemir” is the most popular wine made from it.
RED – Khindogny. It is a local sort of Azerbaijani wine that is sufficiently widespread and included in the ‘List of Standard Varieties’, recommended for cultivation in Azerbaijan. The clone was obtained as a result of people's selection. No clones have been described so far. Khindogny has berries a deep dark skin. History of one of the most popular sorts of Azerbaijan dates back to 300-500 years ago, and some even to several millenniums ago. High quality wines with good colour and pleasant fragrance are made from Khindogni.
RED – Meleyi. Meleyi is the local clone of Nakhchivan. Dark coloured table and dessert wines are produced from this late ripening and highly productive clone. It ripens in early October in Azerbaijani vineyards. Such wineries as Chabiant and Shirvan started back its cultivation and wine produced by Meleyi will be available within few years.
WHITE – Rkatsiteli. Originally Georgian but also one of the most popular white-wine grapes in Azerbaijan (around 30% of production), 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 vine-shoot’ in Georgian. Folk-myth holds that, after the Biblical flood, the first vines planted by Noah were Rkatsiteli.
WHITE – Bayanshira (aka Bayanshire, Shirei and other names). Grows fast and is resilient to drought making it a popular choice for growing 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, the Bayanshira adding a pleasantly citrus acidity.
WHITE – Mtzvani (Mtsvane, Sapena). Literally translated from Georgian as ‘green’, there are actually two genetically distinct Mtzvani varieties, the more common in Azerbaijan being Kahetian Mtsvane. The vine is widely grown in Georgia’s Alazani Valley for qvevri home-made earthenware-amphora ‘straw’ wines. The grapes have a mild, intriguing sourness and a useful frost resistance such that a late-harvested crop can produce strong, fortified ice-wines. In recent years, limited quantities of Mtzvani cultivated in Azerbaijan have been used to add complexity to blended whites, notably giving some tropical fruit flavours to Rkatsiteli-Bayanshira wines.
WHITE – Arna-Guirna. Arna-Guirna is a local sort of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. It is mostly cultivated in Sharur, Sadarak, Babak and Ordubad districts, in very small quantity. This late ripening universal sort has high and stable productivity and is mostly used for table and dry wines. Its aroma is a bouquet with scents of fresh tropical fruit and taste is well-structured, with pleasant savoury notes and a long mineral finish.
WHITE – Misqali. Misqali is a local sort Azerbaijani sort. The word “Ìisqal” is of Azeri origin and means measuring unit. It is a universal sort with high and stable productivity, suitable for the production of table wines.