It took an Armenian wine to help me focus on what I like about Virginia wine.
The wine was a red blend from Karas, which bills itself as Armenia’s largest winery and which began exporting to the United States this year. It was delicious, polished and elegant, and a terrific bargain at $16. Fruit-forward, with juicy flavors and moderate tannin, it was a great example of what’s become known as the international style — a wine that could come from anywhere, with fruit more important than place.
To be honest, I don’t know what Armenian wines should taste like. This was the first I’d tasted from the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus region. Armenia may be new to our market, but it’s not new to wine: Recent archaeological finds dating back more than 6,000 years give Armenia a claim to the title of world’s oldest wine-growing region. Armenia’s main wine district, where Karas is located, is called Armavir, near Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah planted grapevines after the flood. So Karas has religious cachet, too.
Perhaps I was hoping to taste history instead of modernity. Karas is definitely a modern winery. Founded in 2003 by an Argentine businessman of Armenian heritage (the family owns two wineries in Argentina as well), Karas boasts nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards planted primarily to European grape varieties. Winemaker Gabriel Rogel hails from Mendoza, in Argentina. He has help from Michel Rolland, the famed Bordeaux winemaker who consults for dozens of wineries around the world. Well financed and well advised, Karas makes delicious wine. Its white wine and sparkling wines, including a sweet muscat bubbly, are nearly as good as the red.
The Karas red is a blend of syrah, tannat, cabernet franc, petit verdot and montepulciano, all European varieties, with just a sploosh of an indigenous Caucasian grape called khndoghni. According to the encyclopedic “Wine Grapes,” khndoghni, or khindogni, is native to the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and usually made into sweet fortified wines. I couldn’t tell what it added to the Karas red, other than a marketing hint of national authenticity.
This is not to criticize the Karas wine, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s beautifully made and a great value for the price. But it tastes like it could have been made anywhere, and that got me thinking about Virginia. The best Virginia wines excel because they manage to suggest where they are from.
Armenia is an ancient wine region trying to harness modernity. Virginia is an evolving wine region seeking its voice. Not long ago we described the best Virginia wines by what they were not: They were not skunky, with flavors of dirty socks or other unsavories. Today, the best Virginia wines show a distinct sense of character, even of “place.” Wineries such as Linden, Ox-Eye and RdV were founded on land chosen for wine grapes, in contrast to vineyards planted on vacation farms. Others are trying hard to squeeze a sense of place from their land. As Virginia’s industry grows, we can expect more wines coming from vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley, especially on higher land with steeper slopes, terrain best suited to express terroir. Maryland and Pennsylvania will follow with wines that also express a sense of place.
Virginia is crafting a style for itself somewhere between the Old World earthy elegance of Bordeaux and the New World fruitiness and power of California. That’s not just a cliche of geography, with the Mid-Atlantic halfway between Bordeaux and Napa. Combine New World ripeness with Old World style, and you have something distinct and invigorating. Along with the wineries I mentioned above, Black Ankle and Boordy in Maryland, and Allegro, Galen Glen and Va La in Pennsylvania are among the leaders in this effort to create a regional wine style.
My odd reflection on Armenia vs. Virginia helped me focus on another point we don’t usually dwell on. Terroir depends on us as consumers, because we have to recognize it. And that means we have to taste enough wines to get to know the expression of place. Burgundy fiends can wax poetic on the distinctions of various red wines from the Côtes de Nuits because they’ve tossed back enough wine to distinguish a Gevrey-Chambertin from a Marsannay. Many wine drinkers are content with a tasty inexpensive pinot noir, chardonnay or cabernet.
And we’re beginning to recognize a local style and terroir because we’re drinking more local wine. The wines are improving in quality and expression, and we are more receptive to them. In a few years, as more wines from the Caucasus become available, we may be extolling Armenian terroir.
For now, I’m happy to kick back with a glass of Karas and try to taste the khndoghni, but I’m more intrigued to sip a local blend and taste the land.