07 February 2012

The Ararat Distillery

European wine tours are funny things. You're almost never get the kind of access that you think you're going to.
We spent about an hour alone with a tour guide, being led through the aging facility at the Ararat brandy distillery in Yerevan. Forget fermentation tanks or distilling vats, bottling machinery or loading docks - this tour featured barrels. Some fifteen thousand silent, motionless barrels in various stages of dustiness. The smell was literally intoxicating.
We first encountered Ararat in Russia, where it's commonplace but expensive - something like the big brands of French cognac are in America. Of the five and half million bottles produced in 2010, 92% was exported from Armenia, most of it ending up in former Soviet countries (after Russia, the next two largest buyers are Belarus and Ukraine). What's interesting is that this brandy is still called cognac in those countries - or, rather, "коньяк."
The tour guide was insistent that this was because Ararat was being produced before the 1905 french law that began to regulate wine origins and protect regional names (Ararat was founded in 1887). In actuality, Armenian brandy is usually marketed in two ways: as cognac in non-WTO countries, and as brandy everywhere else. If Armenia were able to join the EU, as it hopes to, Ararat would have to give up the french name for good.
The distillery is immense - the guide joked that they should have taxis for the workers to get from building to building. Aside from the thousands of barrels and the stills themselves, there are also a bottling plant and a shipment center - most of the fermentation and grape processing is done in the provinces, closer to the vineyards. We were also told, somewhat cryptically, that the compound held "the largest laboratory in the country" and some kind of "stock market thing." Our guide looked at us for a moment and said, "you have this stock market in America?" We weren't quite sure what we were supposed to say.
The tour, though, focuses on none of the interesting aspects of the production process. We were shown, instead, probably the most boring part. When liquor is sitting in oak barrels, it is far from thrilling.
This, though, is a canny tactic. Had our guide shown us immense, stainless-steel tanks and mechanized corking assemblages, it would have felt... well, like a five and a half million bottle per year outfit. Instead, she focused on what might be considered the "quality" part. There was lots of talk about domestic oak, about replanting projects for that domestic oak, about the color of the wood, the "magical palate of the master blender," the blending process, the "resting" process and the smell of all the evaporating liquor.
"As our master blender says," the guide told us rapturously, "in this room, it always smells delicious, we never get sick and we are always happy." Strangely, there was almost no-one in the room.
There was also a long monologue about the foreign dignitaries who had visited, and about the french conglomerate - Pernod Ricard - who now owns Yerevan Brandy Company, Ararat's parent company. France figured very prominently in the tour, actually - it was almost as though this distillery were actually making real cognac.
That's the point - conflated with exclusivity, the name "cognac," even put down as "коньяк," really means something to a lot of people. Even if it isn't real, Ararat wants you to think that it is - or just as good as if it were. So there are lots of barrels on the tour, a display of old medals won in competition, soft lighting, a mythical master blender. There is a story about Winston Churchill calling Ararat's Dvin brandy his favorite (though this is probably untrue).
But how does it taste? Seated at a table at the end of the tour, we were each given three snifters of brandy - Ararat's 6 year "Ani," 10 year "Akhtamar" and 20 year "Nairi." With the liquor, we were given chocolates and a small speech about coloration and viscosity. The guide played with a glass of her own, but never took a sip.
The thing is, Ararat is really good. We liked it the very first time we had it and tasting it again only made us appreciate it more. It's very smooth, very tasty, with a wonderful oak taste that doesn't feel over-tannined. In the echelons of mass-produced brandy, Ararat doesn't deserve to be a knockoff - it's the real thing.
Which makes me wonder whether calling it "brandy" instead of "cognac" would be such a bad thing. Why is cognac automatically better?
It's a question, maybe, of an inferiority complex on the part of the Armenians. They make a delicious blue cheese that they call "roquefort" and decent sparkling wine that they dub - what else - "champanski." Armenia doesn't think its food is good enough to deserve its own name.
This is the country that not only developed the apricot, but bred the first sweet cherries (it's true, all apricots and edible cherries are derived from breeds first grown here). It makes fantastic lavash bread, delicious cherry oghi (homemade vodka) and nut-rich cakes. And, of course, a few great brandies.
This barrel, set aside on a little stage, contains a 1994 vintage that wont be opened until a lasting peace agreement has finally been made in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Seeing it there in the midst of all the other thousands of casks, we were reminded suddenly of where we were. This isn't France or even Russia. This is a small, struggling, young country that is still freshly removed from independence and war. Most people have no idea where Armenia is or what to call its liquor. So it makes sense to hedge a few bets, to keep a name that's worked, to try to feel proud of what is being made - and not to worry what it's called.

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