Armenia: The World’s First Winery

In January 2011, there was an announcement about a remarkable discovery at an archaeological site in the small Transcaucasian state of Armenia making Armenia, the world first winery. In an area nestled between eastern Turkey and southern Russia, which doesn’t typically generate a lot of global attention. The discovery of the ruins of the world’s oldest winery was disclosed.

The archaeological site is known as the Areni 1 Cave, and it was estimated that the recently discovered winery had been functioning between 4100 BC and 4000 BC. While historians already know about wine production elsewhere, this was the oldest site where wine was mass-produced as a form of proto industry.[1]

photo of light towards inside of cave

History of the Region

This small former Soviet state was close to the fulcrum of world civilization along the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and Eurasia. Between 4100 BC and 4000 BC, this area was at the very end of the Chalcolithic or Copper Age and was moving towards the beginnings of the Bronze Age.

This is remarkably advanced for the time, especially when we consider that parts of Western Europe such as France, Britain, and Northern Germany were still in the Neolithic Period, the last portion of the Stone Age, over 1500 years after this time.

As a result of this advanced development, people in the late fifth millennium BC in Armenia had begun to organize themselves into relatively large urban settlements ruled by the beginnings of what we would call political states. They also had increasing technological development, including using tools made from copper, which was smelted, rather than stone.

Armenia is considered the cradle of wine—where wine production, as we know it, was born.

As a result, the Chalcolithic people produced goods and built homes of greater sophistication than in earlier societies. This was all at a time when the wheel, advanced pottery forms, and primitive writing systems were still hundreds of years away.[2]

The Areni 1 Cave

The site of the Areni 1 Cave is indicative of this comparatively advanced technological development in Chalcolithic Armenia. The site is located in a cave complex in Armenia near what is now the village of Areni.

The cave complex has numerous passageways and caverns, which provided natural dwelling places for the Chalcolithic society, which existed here between the sixth and fourth millenniums BC. These people are classified as part of the Kura Araxes archaeological culture.

The site was used for both a settlement and as a burial site. A series of excavations began in the mid-1990s. These resulted in some extraordinary finds, including ceramic shards showing the construction of vessels for storage, pits indicating that the cave complex was divided into domestic sites where economic activity was carried out, a woven skirt made out of straw, and a leather shoe dating back to approximately 3500 BC.

Archaeologists were taken aback at the modern appearance of the piece of footwear. But the most impressive revelation, by far, was the discovery of what was a Copper Age winery.

Earliest Known Winery Found in Armenian Cave

Image: National Geographic

The Winery

This cave section featured plaster floors used as presses to crush grapes and extract grape juice. The juice then ran off from the floors to underground jars called karas. Chemical analysis of the site indicated that this was then fermented into wine, which was almost certainly used in burial ceremonies at the cave complex and most likely on other social occasions by the Kura Araxes people.

Remarkably, the people who lived here over 6,000 years ago had taken measures to convert part of their cave complex for mass-producing wine.[3]

While Armenia’s greatest claim to fame as a wine nation today probably lies in its being the homeland of the world’s earliest recorded winery, its role in viticulture at the crossroads between Europe and Asia has been great.

Through the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the region continued to be significant for grape cultivation. For instance, between the tenth and seventh centuries BC, the Kingdom of Van or Urartu became a significant trading power in the Armenian highlands.

A large number of their villages were rediscovered and excavated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thereby showing that canals had been constructed around the principal cities to irrigate extensive grape vineyards. As a result, Urartu was the foremost wine producer and trader in the Near East during the tenth, ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries BC.

This indicates that large wine storage facilities have been uncovered in their settlements. Huge containers called karas were built to store 1,000 liters of wine in each vessel in Teishebaini. The three largest storage facilities in this city alone could hold over 170,000 liters of wine at a time. These vats were stamped with details outlining the year the wine was produced.[4]

Given this centrality of viticulture to ancient Armenia, it is perhaps unsurprising to find it even features in the Bible’s most famous story of the area. Noah’s Ark. Given how important viticulture was to the culture of the people who lived here for thousands of years in antiquity.

It is unsurprising that one of Noah’s first actions after alighting from his Ark was to plant some grapes on the mountain which produced the wine he overindulged in.[5]

Moving ahead in history

New ages brought considerable changes. In the fifth century BC, the Greek social anthropologist and historian of the Persian Wars, Herodotus, described how much of Mesopotamia was being supplied with its wine by Armenian merchants who traded it down the River Tigris on circular, leather-covered rafts filled with large palm-wood casks of wine.

By this time, the wine merchants of the Armenian highlands had also begun to diversify into a wide range of other wines made from barley, beans, and other products. It did not lose this position as a major center of viticulture during Roman times and as a border state between the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the north-west of the Parthian Empire, and the Empire of Palmyra, where the Armenians were able to trade with both the Romans and their adversaries in the Orient.

Moreover, while the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe saw the Romans’ wine culture collapse for centuries after that. The Armenians enjoyed a stable wine culture through the Middle Ages.

This was mostly due to the fact that the Kingdom of Armenia, under the rule of Tiridates III, became the first country in the world to recognize Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. Where Christianity went, wine culture became a staple. Armenia retained its long-established tradition as one of the centers of viticulture in the Near East throughout the Middle Ages.[6]

Modern times brought a more challenging period. The Persians, Russians, and Ottoman Turks dominated Armenia for centuries. The latter became gradually more oppressive towards their Armenian subjects between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. This eventually led to the Armenian genocide of the First World War.

As a result, the Armenian wine industry declined significantly during this period. However, revitalization began with growing Russian influence in the late nineteenth century. The Russian market produced much of the wine .

Armenian distilled wines began to gain an international reputation which they have retained to the present still making Armenia, The World’s First Winery. In particular, the Yerevan Brandy Company was established in 1887 by Vasiliy Tairov and his cousin, Nerses Tairan. Just thirteen years later, in 1900, the company’s Ararat brandy won the Grand Prix at the International Exposition in Paris.

The judges believed the brandy to be a French blend during the tasting and allowed it to apply the Cognac name to it, an honor which was not revoked even once it was learned that the distilled wine spirit hailed from Armenia.[7]

The Present

Today the Armenian wine industry is buoyant after a relative decline under foreign domination. Approximately 30,000 square kilometers of land in a relatively small country are under grape cultivation. The wine production has soared to over six million liters annually in recent years.

The landscape makes this difficult in some respects, as the arid summers mean that artificial irrigation is needed intensively. At the same time, the severe frost in the winter ensures that many vineyards also need winter protection.

Despite these impediments, the market for Armenian wine is growing considerably in countries like China. The Areni grapes, named after the cave complex in Armenia, which was the site of the world’s oldest known winery. Still producing the most prized Armenian wine today in the Vaiots Dzor region.[8]

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Further Reading:

Areshian, et al., ‘The Chalcolithic of the Near East and South-Eastern Europe: Discoveries and New Perspectives from the Cave Complex Areni-1, Armenia’, in Antiquity, Vol. 86 (2012), pp. 115–130.

David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization (London, 1970).

James Owen, ‘Earliest Known Winery Found in Armenian Cave,’ National Geographic, 12 January 2011.

Keith Wilkinson, et al., ‘Areni-1 Cave, Armenia: A Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age Settlement and Ritual Site in the Southern Caucasus’, in Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 2012), pp. 20–33.

This day in wine history

January 12, 2011National Geographic reported on discovering the world’s oldest winery at the Areni 1 cave complex in Armenia following excavations and archaeological work, which the National Geographic Society had partially funded. The winery in question dated to approximately 6,000 years ago and was developed sometime between 4100 BC and 4000 BC when Armenia was still in the Copper Age or Chalcolithic Period.

This was not the earliest center of viticulture to ever be discovered. Still, it is the earliest winery where wine was mass-produced using presses and facilities to produce large quantities in one site. Thus, Armenia holds the title of having been host to the world’s first known winery.[9]

April 23, 1938 –Vasiliy Tairov died at the age of 78. A Soviet and Armenian viticulturist, he studied winemaking in France, and in 1892 he founded a winemaking journal in the city of Odesa in southern Ukraine. However, he is most well-known for opening, along with his cousin, Nerses Tairan, the first brandy factory in Armenia in 1887.

The Yerevan Brandy Company, as they named it, quickly established a significant name for itself. For instance, the company’s Ararat brandy won the Grand Prix at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris. The judges were seemingly unaware that the vintage was Armenian and thought it to be French.

When they learned that this distilled wine hailed from the Transcaucasian region, they were impressed. They allowed the company to term it Cognac, a title reserved for French brandies of distinct quality. Tairov and Tairan’s efforts ensured that while Armenian wine has had varied fortunes on the international stage in modern times. The distilled wine from Armenia is one of the world’s most revered brandies.[10]

References

[1] James Owen, ‘Earliest Known Winery Found in Armenian Cave’, National Geographic, 12 January 2011.

[2] David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization (London, 1970), pp. 58–84.

[3] https://www.worldhistory.org/Areni_Cave/ [accessed 23/5/22]; G. Areshian, et al., ‘The Chalcolithic of the Near East and South-Eastern Europe: Discoveries and New Perspectives from the Cave Complex Areni-1, Armenia’, in Antiquity, Vol. 86 (2012), pp. 115–130; Keith Wilkinson, et al., ‘Areni-1 Cave, Armenia: A Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age Settlement and Ritual Site in the Southern Caucasus’, in Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March, 2012), pp. 20–33.

[4] David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization (London, 1970), pp. 99–100.

[5] David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization (London, 1970), pp. 67–68; Devora Steinmetz, ‘Vineyard, Farm and Garden: The Drunkenness of Noah in the Context of Primeval History’, in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 113, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 193–207. 

[6] ‘Armenia’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge, 2002), p. 30.

[7] Harry Jewell Sarkiss, ‘The Armenian Renaissance, 1500–1863’, in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December, 1937), pp. 433–448; https://en.araratbrandy.com/history/ [accessed 24/5/22].

[8] ‘Armenia’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); https://en.vinex.market/articles/2017/01/13/armenian_wine_production_soars_by_nearly_a_third [accessed 23/5/22].

[9] James Owen, ‘Earliest Known Winery Found in Armenian Cave’, National Geographic, 12 January 2011.

[10] https://en.araratbrandy.com/history/ [accessed 24/5/22].

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