Vayotz Dzor vineyards, Armenia / Photo courtesy Zorah
For many Armenian winemakers, making orange wine is personal. The process revives ancient traditions when almost every household made its own wine in a huge karas, or amphora made of terra cotta, and then sealed it with beeswax and buried it in the ground to age.
This is the method that Trinity Canyon Vineyards, located in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor region, adopted in 2014 to make its Ancestors’ Orange Wine. After conducting thorough research in nearby villages, Artem Parseghyan, Trinity Canyon’s winemaker, learned that orange wine was historically referred to as yellow or amber because the orange fruit wasn’t local. He also learned it was believed to have health benefits, according to the writings of 15th-century physician Amirdovlat of Amasia.
Ancestors’ Orange Wine uses Voskehat, an indigenous variety that’s at least 3,500 years old. Also called Golden Berry, Voskehat has a yellow-white or amber hue with small brown spots, and has aromas of fresh white fruits with hints of citrus and freshly cut grass.
To make his wine, Parseghyan ferments Voskehat in 100-year-old karas above ground, which he believes makes it easier to control the process, for anywhere from two or three days to two or three weeks. He then transfers the must, grape skins, seeds and juice to another, beeswax-coated karas that he buries underground.
“Clay gives special flavors such as minerality, earthiness,” says Parseghyan. “The shape of the vessel is important. It creates certain turbulence during the production process.” He believes the karas’ shape allows for subtler extraction of tannins from the grape skins and seeds.
Despite Armenians’ long history of using karas for food and wine storage, older vessels can be hard to find. Manufacturing karas halted from 1928 through the 1980s, during the years of industrialization enforced by the Soviet Union. Modern Armenian winemakers who want to use original karas to ferment their wines must seek them out, and clean and restore them.
Also located in Vayots Dzor is Zorah Wines, which bottled its first vintage in 2010. Founder Zorik Gharibian remembers how, a few years ago, he knocked down a wall in an elderly woman’s home in Yeghegitz village to find three enormous karases. (He later rebuilt her wall.)
He uses those reclaimed vessels to age wines like Heritage Chilar, an orange wine made with Chilar, another indigenous Armenian variety also known as Fox’s Tail because of its cylindrical-conical bunches. Heritage Chilar is fermented and aged in karas that Gharibian buries three-quarters of the way in the ground, as per 3,000-year-old traditions, with 60–90 days of skin contact and then nine further months in the bottle.
“After many years of working with the karases, I find this to be the best way,” says Gharibian. The portions buried in the earth keep temperatures stable, while the above-ground exposure “creates a disparity of temperature within the karas which creates natural movement in the wine while aging.”
Since all are handmade, each karas has a different size and thickness. Gharibian only uses natural yeast, and there’s very mild filtration before bottling.
Another winemaker in the region, Avag Harutyunyan of Maran Wines, dug through ancient manuscripts like the 14th-century text Girk vastakoc (Book of Farm Labors) to collaborate with others on techniques for karas use and maintenance.
Maran’s Malahi Amber wine is the result of genetic studies from the Institute of Molecular Biology of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, which identified a long-lost Armenian grape variety, White Areni. Maran Wines harvests these white wine grapes when they are very ripe, destems and crushes them, and then transfers them to ferment and macerate in karases for two to six months.
Khme Wines, a label that only produces orange wine, launched in Stepanakert, Artsakh in 2019. Khme, which translates into “drink up,” harvests its grapes from Amaras Valley in Artsakh and the Vayots Dzor region in Armenia. Its wine is made in 140-year-old karases and features indigenous varieties Voskehat and Khatoun Kharji as well as Rkatsiteli, a variety that was planted across the Caucasus during the Soviet era and mainly used to make brandy.
Reclaiming these varieties and production methods is significant, says Anush Gharibyan O’Connor, a wine consultant and executive director of GiniFest, an annual Armenian wine festival in Los Angeles. The new phase of orange wine in Armenia offers “something different, such as terroir, grape aging and winemaking techniques,” she says. It’s a novel approach with ancient roots.