Voskevaz winery (Armenia)

 


Voskevaz, Aragatsotn region 
Voskevaz is foremost the name of a village in this wine region north west of Yerevan, the mame means something like "golden bunch"

which hints at the deep roots of viticulture in the area. The Aragatsotn region has a minimum altitude of 950 meters, making it an ideal wine region with hot sunny days and cooler nights. 
The namesake winery was created in 1932 in the heart of the Soviet decades (incidently on the very year Stalin began his genocidalsolution against Ukranian farmers). During the Soviet years the winery which was known under the name "Voskevaz wine cellar" (Воскевазский винный завод) was specialized in fortified wines and was a leading producer in the small republic for consumption in the Soviet Union. The wine kombinat was then privatized in 2004 and purchased by an Armenian investor, David Hovhannisyan, who renamed it Voskevaz and took a more qualitative approach regarding the range of wines made there. The winery had (and still has in some regards) this cooperative style that you find in large Russian wineries that have been started under the era of the Soviet Union. This is possibly the oldest established winery in modern Armenia and from what I tasted a very interesting one, especially for its reds.
Don't be put off by the outward appearance of the winery, its mix of remaining Soviet-kolkhoz architecture with an odd amusement-park fancy decoration, there are several historic layers in the buildings, and I understand that the winery has also been trying to attract and entertain Armenian visitors and families in order to develop a nascent wine tourism. That's why there's this offbeat, exotic feel, something like a Knott's Berry Farm lost in the middle of Armenia. Winemaking is certainly not bound to apparences and I think we have here one of the most valuable and innovative wineries of the country.

A winery building dating from the Soviet years (1930s')
Our small group of visitors (we were the guests of the Wine & Vine Foundation of Armenia) were greeted at the door by the young Russian winemaker Alexey Sapsay, who is in charge of the vinification and developing projects at Voskevaz. He confirms that this is the oldest continuously operating winery in Armenia and that in the Soviet years it was producing mostly fortified wines and Sherry, which became like everywhere else less popular, that's why in its recent rebirth the winery has been reorienting towards classic still and dry reds and whites, focusing mainly on the local Armenian varieties, using also Armenian oak when they do some élevage for their wines.
Speaking of the grapes I read that the wineries relies on several wine regions, there's the Aragatsotn region north west of Yerevan, the Armavir region west of Yerevan, and the Vayots-Dzor region in the south. They rely on growers in these regions, they change sometimes their sourcing but they have acore of contracted growers. Winemakers Alexey Sapsay could provide an exact figure for the total surface but he said that given that they got this year 400 to 500 tons of grapes and that the yields are usually 7 tons per hectare you can do the math, the surface is something between 60 & 70 hectares. For the longer trips, they transport the grapes in boxes only, and they have the trucks take the road at night so that it's cooler, with the grapes arriving at Voskevaz at 1am or 2am. 
You can see on the left the type of landscape in the vicinity of the village of Voskevaz, it's very scenic with mountains in the far and few trees. On the right, a remain from the Soviet years, some sort of cultural center in the center of the village with a name in Armenian and in Russian.

A wing of the winery being reconstructed
Winemaker Alexey Sapsay explains us that the renovation of the facility has been going on since its privatization in 2004, with also this wine-tourism operation involving a refurbishing of the structures with fancy decoration. I don't feel totallyenthusiastic for this facet of the winery to be frank, but I understand that wine tourism can attract families and that it's part of the rebirth of wine culture in this country.
We have to remember that Armenia has shifted to vodka consumption during the Soviet-Union years and that it has to recenter on wine, which is really part of its cultural heritage. At Voskevaz, they'll hold special events in some of the buildings (like weddings or corporate events I guess), as well as Art exhibitions. The brother of the owner is an artist who lives in the United States and he visits every year for 3 months to help redesign the buildings. Every thing is hand made and they rely on the artisans of the area. The idea is to creat a wine village where there will be fun and Art as well. 
Picture on right : the weighing station in the courtyard of the facility, its use is to gauge the volume of grapes sold by the respective growers.

Karas, the ageless traditional fermenter in Armenia
The region at large has been making wine for ages, be it in Georgia, in Armenia and in Turkey. Much of neighboring Turkey is by the way a land grab taken from Armenia during the Turkish-Armenian war in 1920, which happened just a few years after the Ottomans killed 1,5 million Armenians. Whatever, the wine culture is certainly at least 6000 years old in the whole Transcaucasia region, and we have in mind this oldest documented wine facility of Areni I which is a well-preserved 6100-old archeological site with similar vessels buried in a deep cave in the mountains of Armenia. One of these karases on the picture dates from the late 19th century, they've all athentic and have been recovered in the region and transported with care here.

A vat room
The winery facility had the feel of a place with a long continued operation, with both recent and older tanks, some, like the bulging thick-metal tanks obviousy dating from the mid_20th century. It was not as flashy a facility as what a wholly-new winery can offer, but we know that old facilities also do a good job as long as there's a captain at the wheel. Most of these vat rooms were pretty fresh from what I remember, with thick walls and partially underground.
Speaking of the winemaker, he started with graduating from the Food Industry Institute in Moscow (МГУПП), an Soviet-fouinded university (1931) with a wide range of departments including one focused on vinification. He studied 5 years there, graduating from there in 2011. While studying there he soon realized that Moscow was not the ideal place to learn about winemaking the right way, and he thought he had to travel somewhere else for that. So he went to several wine regions in Russia for training, in the Kuban region and also near Rostov-on-Don, another wine producing region, plus he also travelled to France, and these experiences made him more passionate for winemaking. At the time he heard about a European-funded program where international students could apply for a two-year master program which was held in 3 countries, France, Spain & Italy. He was accepted for the two-year cursus, followed courses at the ESA in Angers, then in Valencia, Spain and Bologna Italy. He then got a training in a renowned Priorat domaine, Mas Martinet, where he made with Jose Luis Perez lots of experiments in the vineyard as well as in the chai, and he learnt much more during his stay at Mas Martinet than in the wine schools, this was 2013 and early 2014 and he made his first wines there. 
Read his bio and and an insightful interview of Alexey Sapsay (in Russian) on this page.
 
Another vat room
He decided then to pursue a Ph.D. in Bordeaux and he presented a research project there but couldn't find funding for it, so he decided yo find a job in the wine production. After having the opportunity to visit Armenia and see how things were going there, he got this opportunity to work for Voskevaz and accepted the job. Before that there had been an Italian enologist doing the vinification at Voskevaz, and then an Armenian, and he himself stated to work here in 2014. He followed the harvest and the vinification and immediately began to do some experiments here, introducing for example the vinification in karas, these amphorae that had been used for ages in Armenia. One year after, the resulting wines were a success, especially for a first try that could be finetuned, and this first wine, an Areni Noir made in karas won a gold medal at Mondus Vini (the wine was matured in both the karas and Armenian oak barrels).
 
Barrel cellar
Alexey Sapsay also teaches about winemaking in Russia, in Kuban or also in Sebastopol (Crimea) where the Moscow State University’s Academic Council opened its Black Sea branch, the Wine Lab, with the aim of providing training in winemaking. The EC embargo against Russia may prove providential as it has opened more opportunities for Russian wineries and given them precious time to build up their know-how and experience. 
In Sebastopol they have a sommelier training course and also courses intended for winemakers and other production pros. He says there's been quite a few people who trained there already, the courses for the winemakers lazst usually from one to three weeks, it's pretty intensive. The last time he went there to teach was last august and he'll go back again this november, with another 3 weeks including viticulture, winemaking and marketing. Speaking of Crimea, we didn't have time to speak lengthly about it but he said the wine landscape is opening and there'll be more wineries in the future, especially small, artisan ones (I read that in his interview actually) that will supplement gradually the big ones.
 
Karas cellar
Alexey Sapsay initiated this revival of the use of karases, beginning to work with them here in 2014, a first for an registered winery in this country, compared to neighboring Georgia where they've started earlier to reintroduce their big qvevri pots into mainstream wineries. Here they don't have anymore the knowledge regarding the composition of the clay. This is an important issue because the quality of the wine depends of the nature of the clay. There would need to be some kind of applied-forensics digging into the terra-cota pots in order to find out the clay composition and how these pots were baked. 
The first year in 2014 they only made a red, an Areni (5000 bottles) in a karas, then in 2015 they made a white which came out pretty nicely and so now they are in the way to expand the production in karas, this year they'll make 6 tons of each color.
They found the first karases in an other domaine that was part of the winery before, at the time of the Soviet Union, they weren't used because of their small volume, the Soviet-era wineries focusing on big volumes and not micro-cuvées, so actually they hadn't been used for about 100 years, but at least they were whole and intact. And they also collected a few other ones that were in the backyards of local owners of the area, usually the local farmers kept them but without being really interested in their value, they'd keep making wine for private or semi-private use but they'd also use more convenient tanks and vats, made from plastic for example, which are easier to clean and to move. Alexey Sapsay says that people in Armenia keep making wine, including for special occasions like weddings, making the wine in a karas, sealing it and then opening the vessel for the special occasion of the weddin. He says that he stumbles upon good surprises sometimes, like in 2015 when he visited a local who had made an Areni (a red) with an exceptional quality, it was sulfur-free, it was a bit sweet with the fermentation that had stalled, it was not bottled and this man would drink it with his family & friends in the matter of a few months during the winter months. People make wine this way everywhere in Armenia in the countryside. These karases are pretty big, you even can get inside if needed, for example to clean it (see this page with winemaker Alexey Sapsay inside one of these clay vessels).
 
More karases standing on their tiptoes
Asked if his own experiments in Spain were dealing with so2-free wines, he says yes, they worked on this issue too, they did make wine without using any additives, relying on a different enological approach and keeping oxygen at bay not only in the fermenters but also in the barrels, keeping them always full. He says that when he arrived at Voskevaz he noticed that there wasn't a heavy use of SO2 in this winery, but there's also the issue of the pH of the wines which is often high in Armenia because it's a hot country, meaning that the acidity is low, and if you don't use SO2 you may soon have micro-bilogogical problems in the wine. To counter that issue this year in 2016 they started the harvest a bit earlier and they set up a refrigerating untit to cool  the grapes and thus limit the need of SO2 (they add just a bit after the pressing) and eschew the reacidification.
From what I understood they have the fermentation start in karas and then continue in barrels, they want to keep the wine fresh and delicate that's why they move the wine to barrels after a couple of weeks (maybe 3 weeks for reds). They're using the karas pots for whites and reds as well, of course only for a few cuvées, they don't have a big capacity with all these karases. For the white they use the Voskehat variety but with a little bit of skins, like for 1 ton of juice they use 50 kg of skins in order to cover the surface and make some sort of protecting cap on the top, in addition to adding tannin to the wine and allow a better ageing in bottles. They use selected yeast for the fermentation but he says that they also conducted trials with native yeast, they had some reduction issues which they thought would make them change their mind but later the wine stabilized nicely, so they'll repeat the experiment. Also, when a karas doesn't start fermenting they can use the one next to it to kickstart the process. 
They don't plan to fill the room under the pots with earth, the way you see them here is the traditional way they were set in cellars in Armenia, they wreen't buried and they're secure this way.
 
Tasting a few wines
We then were treated with tasting a few wines in the winery's reconstitution of an old Armenian inn, with wood panelled walls and traditional decoration.
__ Voskevaz Rosé Areni Noir 2014. Round and rich, 12 % alc. The first vintage he made a rosé here. Direct press (with pneumatic press), destzemmed grapes, pressure at 1,2 bars maximum and the rest is blended with the red.
__ Voskenaz Voskepar (white) 2014.  13 % alc. Fermentation partly in casks partly in tanks, then blending of the two. Made with Voskehat, a classic  white variety here, he says, not overreaching in terms of aromas but has usually a good balance. The wine was a bit over the ideal serving temperature but fared pretty well nonetheless. Grapes purchased to farmers. This year because of the hail damages in the region they had to source these grapes elsewhere. Armand Melkonian, a sommelier from Nice France (who also writes a blog) was with us in this trip with his son for his first trip in Armenia (his parents and grandparents had left armenia during the genocide of 1915) and his comments were helpful during the tastings, for this wine he said he noticed it was well made, balanced, well-constituted and onctuous. They use Armenian oak, barrels made in Nagorno-Karabakh by Varanda, Alexey Sapsay says that a researcher told that its oak quality is close to the one of Allier, France, where the best cooperages source their wood.
 
Nuraz 2015
__ Voskehaz Voskehat Vieilles Vignes 2015 (en Français dans le texte), a white again, old vines (more than 60) trained in goblet, Vinified in Karases then aged 3 to 4 years in barrels as explained above. Lots of sorting by hand for this wine (grapes). The price per kg they pay for the grapes to the growers vary from 25 USD cents to 70 USD cents. More elegant than the previous white. 12,5 % alc Sells for 15 USD, he  says.
__ Voskevaz Nuraz 2014, a first red. Made from Haghtanak & Kakhet grape varieties, the former having been created in the 19th century with Sazperavi and another variety. Very nice wine, The nose is super too with dust, dry leaves. The mouth is very feminine, subtle, great mouth and palate touch. Armand lso loves this wine. It ids powerful but so well integrated with silky tannins, really good job. Was fermented in stainless-steel tanks and then some wood. Selling price he says is 6 USD with tax, a good deal for this quality.
__ Voskevaz Areni Noir Vieilles Vignes 2014. Areni grapes sourced in the Vayots Dzor region with 120-year-old vines at an altitude of 1600 meters. Karasi Collection cuvée, meaning also vinified in karas, then barrels. oaky aromas, harsher on the tongue, tannins less integrated I would say. Could be too young at this stage. Small red fruits aromas. Alexey Sapsay says that the upper, quality cuvées were introduced in the winery in 2014 and that they'll progressively decrease the entry wines share of the production, shifting the focus to their quality cuvées. Speaking of the weather and yields this year, he says that because of the hail the picked volume was 70 % less, the growers of course don't like it but as a result this will be better for the quality of the wines overall. He says it's virtually impossible to have the growers reduce their yields voluntarily, it has to be forced upon them. 
Read also this Russian blog post about a semi sweet red exported there (we didn't taste the full range). 
Well-document article (in Russian) about Voskevaz.
 
A citroën 2CV on the winery grounds !
That was a surprise for me when we walked into the winery, to spot a vintage Citroën 2CV in perfect condition sitting there on the side. I thought initially it belonged to winemaker Alexey Sapsay as he lived a while in France for his wine studies and training (in Anger and also in Provence from what I remember) but it actually belongs to the owners and landed here as a gift, I don't know more about it...Maybe someone exchanged it against a UAZ-452 (my obsession). Speaking of these odd-looking all terrain vehicules, I saw recently that some companies sell them in Western Europe, I should ask, they're not expensive, like 3000 € for a renovated one.