Have you ever heard of Azerbaijani wines? Well before the communist domination of the 20th century and the massive uprooting of the vineyards in the 1980s, in fact as early as the second millennium BC, Azerbaijan already possessed one of the most prosperous wine industries. At the foot of the Caucasus, let’s discover one of the most beautiful vineyards we have visited, in what was the cradle of world viticulture.
Azerbaijan is a country full of surprises. A destination we knew nothing about before going there; and that we are not ready to forget, as its landscapes are incredibly beautiful and its vineyard promising.
But first of all, it is essential to know where the country is on a planisphere. Something that is not necessarily easy, I have to humbly admit. A former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan extends from the Caucasus mountain ranges to the Caspian Sea, crossing both Europe and Asia. To the north, the country is surrounded by Georgia and the Ukraine, to the south by Iran and to the west by Armenia.
For the record, the country is rich in oil, with diesel costing 0.35 cents per liter at the gas station; which was the cheapest fuel in the history of the project for our motorhome!
Arriving from Georgia, we drove east on big and newly built asphalt roads, towards the city of Gabala, where we were to visit our first vineyard.
Previously highly industrialized and operating exclusively on a model of productivity and maximum yield under the Soviet regime (exporting its wines to Russia, Belarus and the Baltic countries), the wine industry seems to have modernized and turned towards quality since the fall of communism and the restoration of Azerbaijan's independence in 1991.
Excellent news for the country, following its accession to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) in 2013, and a clearly stated goal for Azerbaijan: to regain its reputation in the global wine market.
According to the local authorities, there are currently about ten wineries in the country, sharing together about 10,000 hectares of vines. We had the chance to visit two of them.
Our journey of discovery started with Savalan estate in Gabala, in the north of the country; where the ancient capital of the Caucasus used to be (1).
A sublime vineyard, planted in 2007 on the edge of the canyon, facing the snow-capped mountains of the region. Largely planted on the other side of the canyon, it is only accessible with a 4X4 car.
It is a real adventure to visit the vineyard: we had to drive along a tiny road, step over a precarious bridge overhanging the river, then climb along the canyon on a narrow path, before reaching the estate gates. The mix of colors between the emerald green of the vines, the red of the mountains and the white of the snow-capped peaks, left us speechless.
In total, Salavan has 350 hectares of vines planted on poor clay-sandy soils. The grape varieties are international: mainly Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling in white; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Marselan, Montepulciano and Mourvèdre in red.
"The climate of the region is of the continental type, with hot and dry summers, where the temperatures are sometimes close to 40°C (requiring specific irrigation), contrasted by cool nights, conducive to good quality of grapes", Jahangir Shafizade, Savalan’s General Manager, explained.
The wines are well made, even if very technical; with a special mention for the premium Syrah, which developed delicate aromas of black fruit, spices and wildflowers.
Savalan estate plans to open a panoramic restaurant within a few months. For the connaisseurs of local cuisine and unique panorama, the experience promises to be spectacular.
It is in the region of Ismayilli, in the center of the country, that we discovered Chabiant winery. A land of wild and unspoilt nature, with winding roads and quaint villages, where goats, sheep, geese and chickens roam freely.
Perched on top of a hill, Chabiant sits atop the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus, at 750 meters above sea level.
A terroir seemingly interesting for the cultivation of vines, with a good balance between warm and sunny days, contrasted by cool nights, offering all the required conditions to produce fine wines. However, everything has to be redone here, from rebuilding the cellar to replanting the vineyard…
"The cellar and the vineyard, which date back to the communist era, were abandoned and found in a very bad condition when I first visited the site two years ago", Andrea Uliva, the Italian oenologist of the estate, who arrived at Chabiant in 2016 (just after its acquisition), with the mission of reviving the property, remembers.
Step by step, with a lot of analysis and mastery – not to mention courage and a touch of positive craziness – Andrea and his team rolled up their sleeves and started to clean the buildings and to take stock, keeping only what can be used and selling the rest, in order to buy new equipment.
Of course, much remains to be done, but Chabiant is on track. "Rome was not built in a day", Andrea said laughing, conscious of the gigantic task still to be accomplished by starting the renovation from scratch. His objective: to revive the local viticulture and its traditions.
How? By grafting the property's 257 hectares of vines with local grape varieties, such as Madrasa in red and Bajan shira in white.
A task as capital intensive as it is labour intensive, which will enable Chabiant estate to build a new image and identity to establish a strong reputation on the international wine market.
"Under the communist period, the varietals were all mixed in the vineyard, which was of little importance because the emphasis was on quantity", he added. And to add: "Today, we go to the opposite, returning to rigorous management of our vineyards."
A very good example of safeguarding the local viticultural heritage. This, combined with important innovations in the winery – such as a delicious blend of Saperavi and Madrasa, partly vinified by carbonic maceration (2), like a Beaujolais Nouveau – shows that the Azerbaijani vineyard is full of charm and must be taken seriously.
Thank you to Savalan and Chabiant wineries for their warm welcome.
(1) Gabala is one of the oldest cities in Azerbaijan. Formerly known as Kutkashen, Gabala seems to have been the former capital of Caucasian Albania and would have existed as early as the fourth century BC.
(2) Carbonic maceration consists of placing whole bunches, neither destemmed nor crushed, in an airtight tank saturated with carbon dioxide, advantageously replacing thermovinification, thus obtaining wines suitable to early consumption: light, crunchy and fruity.