Experts agree that the cradle of winemaking most likely resides somewhere in the Caucasus Mountain region where Vitus Vinifera grapevines grow naturally in the foothills and valleys. However the exact site of origin for winemaking is still in dispute, with various archaeological sites pointing to Georgia, Iran, Armenia, Turkey and more recently Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan which is located on the Caspian Sea just south of Georgia and east of Armenia, has a long history of winemaking. Through the ages there have been frequent references to its quality wine by ancient Greek, Arabic, and Roman scholars such as Homer, Herodotus, Al-Masudi and Pliny the Great. Prior to 20th century communist rule, Azerbaijan had a thriving wine industry dating back to the second millennium BC.
Azerbaijan's long history of wine production was found at archaeological digs of settlements in Kültəpə, Qarabağlar and Galajig where they discovered stone fermentation and storage vessels that included residue and grape seeds dating back to the second millennium BC. The Ancient Greeks were well aware of wine production in the area by at least the 7th century BC according to Herodotus. Later Strabo would comment in the 1st century BC about an Azerbaijani wine known as Albania.
Since the fall of Communism and the restoration of Azerbaijani independence, passionate attempts have been made to refresh the Azerbaijani wine industry. Today vineyards are found in the foothills of Caucasus Mountains as well and the Kur-Araz lowlands near the Kura River. Today Ganja, Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan have emerged as areas of wine production in the region.
Research has recorded more than 450 different categories of wild grapes found in Azerbaijan which had been used for winemaking throughout its history. Among the grape varietals used to produce Azerbaijani wine include Pinot Noir, Rkatsiteli, Pinot Blanc, Aligote, Matrassa, Podarok Magaracha, Pervenets Magaracha, Ranni Magaracha, Doina, Viorica and Kishmish Moldavski. Indigenous grape varietals to Azerbaijan include; White Shani, Derbendi, Nail, Bayanshire, Gamashara, Ganja Pink, Bendi, Madrasa, Black Shani, Arna-Grna, Zeynabi, Misgali, Khindogni, Agdam Kechiemdzhei, Tebrizi, and Marandi. The wines produced in ancient and medieval times, were not similar to contemporary wines; being thick and sweet as honey which people had to dilute with water.
Their culture of winemaking was enriched with the arrival of German immigrants to the region in the early 19th century. German immigrants from Württemberg were settled in Azerbaijan by the Russian tsar Alexander I circa 1817-1818 and enhanced the wines and cognac in the country, with investments into the wine production process, making it competitive with European wines.
Contemporary winemaking developed during the 1970's by Soviet authorities who preferred to increase the production of wine versus development of the grain industry. By special decrees of the Ministers, funds were allocated along with hectares of land for vineyards. The industry brought about 100 million rubles' annually, as most wines produced in Azerbaijan during Soviet rule were exported to Russia, Belarus and the Baltic, however, during the 1980's exports slowed due to Gorbachev's alcoholism prohibition campaign.
Today there are around a dozen wineries and vineyards producing wine in the country. Exports to other countries are steadily growing due to the quality of Azerbaijani wines. Most wines are currently crafted for Russian and European markets as well as new growing markets for Azerbaijani wine such as China.
The mountainous geography of Azerbaijan and its close location to the Caspian Sea creates a vast diversity of macro and microclimates - depending upon location as well as altitude, latitude and orientation and degree of slopes. While generally considered a continental climate, wine regions in Azerbaijani can see anything from moderately warm growing seasons with dry winters to very cool growing seasons with rainy, wet harvests and winter seasons with nearly 10% of Azerbaijani vineyards needing to utilize some form of winter protection. Nearly half of all Azerbaijani vineyards need some form of irrigation to help deal with periodic droughts during the warm summer months.
There are 5 major wine-growing regions: 1: Shamakha, 2: Ismaily, 3: Gabala, 4: Gandja, & 5: Tovuz. In 2012 Azerbaijan produced 5 million litres of wine, which is small compared to nearby Georgia’s 95 million litres. And despite being predominantly Muslim, Azerbaijan’s wine consumption was around 10 litres per capita a year.
Of the more than 12,000 hectares of primarily replanted vineyards, grape varietals include the classics; Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. As well as traditional varietals such as; Matrasa, Saperavi, Rkasiteli, Muscat and many others. Wine styles tend to be slightly sweet, including the reds, though there is a shift towards producing drier style wines to pair better with food.
Today you will to find Azerbaijan and other countries wines in many restaurants, grocery stores and smaller retail wine shops which are located throughout Baku. Perhaps in the future, Azerbaijani wine may also be found on shelves and wine-lists around the world.