I just hit my head on the world’s oldest wine cave.
Son of a B! tch, I’ve been in Armenia for one day, and I'm bleeding from the head in the world’s oldest wine cave. No need to worry, I'm on a tour, and a barely 5 ft. tall Russian Babushka(grandmother) is trying to put a bandaid on my head. I wanted to tell her the band-aid won't stick to hair, it's just a flesh wound, but if you have read my Borjomi story, you know how these things go for me. Standing in the cave with a band-aid stuck in my hair, I am slowly learning Russian, and I get occasional pats on the back to make sure I'm still okay. Thank you, I mean “Spasibo” “Blagodaryu '' I say in my terrible Russian. For a second, she seemed pleased by this; then gestures that I should eat.. You are too skinny. Later I will become Babushka's personal photographer; Jenn will take this one, I say to her. Net Net (No No)...Ty(you), Babushka says, pointing at me. Apparently, I’ve made a new friend, or she thinks I’m her child.
Jenn and I decided to go on a tour to the world’s oldest wine cave, Areni-1, called “The Bird Cave.” The site takes its name from the nearby village of Areni. According to archeologists, the site is the oldest most reliable proof of wine-producing in the world at 6,100 years old; it is more than one thousand years older than the next closest discovery. Found in 2007, it includes wine vats, clay pots presses for the grapes, preserved vines, grapes, pretty much everything needed to produce wine. Besides being the oldest winery, they also discovered the oldest leather shoe and the oldest fragments of a human brain. Yes, a human brain!
I looked to emulate my new biblical hero “ Noah,” drinking the world’s oldest wine, at the world’s oldest known winery, in a cave sixty miles from Mount Ararat in Armenia. Don’t call me a wine snob but a vintage 6,000-year-old is what’s on order for today. If you missed it in Sunday school, the bible says, “Noah descended from Mount Ararat, he planted the first vine and made wine from it”. A legend states, a goat discovered the secret of Noah’s winemaking, ate the wild grapevines, and started pushing other animals around due to his drunkenness. The wine was so delicious Noah couldn’t resist and got drunk with the goat. He also parked the ark on top of Mount Ararat after the great flood in the bible, but I believe this was unrelated to the wine drinking.
If you have heard of Armenia, it may be because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or god, help you, the Kardashians but the country is much more than that. Armenia is an old and fantastic place with a rich history. It is situated on a plateau, north of Iran, south of Russia, and east of Turkey. It holds a strategic position and has pretty much been fighting to maintain its independence from every empire you can imagine, Alexander the Great, the Romans all the way up to the Arabs, Ottomans, and Russians. Armenia holds the distinction as the first Christian country in 301 AD and has many biblical references, historic sites, and association with Saints. Check out the story of Gregory the Illuminator; we climbed down into his pit! These all require a story on their own, but today we are talking about one ancient site in particular and the history of wine. Now, back to the cave.
It’s enormous, with high rocky walls that turn into narrow passages and lead to expansive open areas. You can see the area roped off below as it’s still a working site that The Armenian Institute of Archeology and UCLA are excavating. Burials have been uncovered at the site, so it could be that wine-making had something to do with the afterlife. Keeping your ancestors happy with unlimited wine doesn't sound like a bad plan to me.
If you thought the Greeks or Italians invented winemaking, have we got a story for you. The consensus is that wine production or viticulture originated in Armenia and the country of Georgia to the north. There is a whole science dedicated to ancient alcohol that my high school advisor neglected to inform me on. It sounds like an exciting field, especially because it’s not just studying but also regrowing the grape and bringing extinct varieties back to life.
Where viticulture originated is, of course, not an exact science but do not tell an Armenian or Georgian that. They both tell us they cultivated wine first. Sometimes in the spirit of world peace, they compromise and say one produced the grape first, but the other was smarter and turned it into wine. Jenn and I just agree with whatever country we happen to be in,”, and the locals seem happy and always refill our wine glass. By the way, Georgian and Armenian wines are excellent, so they both won no matter how it happened in the long run. It looks like sharing with others is the best policy.
After the Cave site, we went to the nearby Hin Areni Winery to try the wine and brandy made with that ancient grape variety. We began with wine tasting and to my delight, my Russian babushka was right next to me, and boy did she not hide her opinions. She would taste a wine, spit it back out into the glass, and gesture to me in disgust. What wretched swill only six thousand years old come on, guys break out the good stuff! She may have been speaking Russian, but I could understand perfectly, as could everyone on the tour and the winery staff; language was no barrier. The wine tasting in Armenia involves large portions and generous refills, so Babushkas' responses only became more hilarious the more she and we had to drink.
Taking a sip of some high-end Armenian brandy and then gagging, pointing at her throat, and then trying to pour the rest in my glass right in front of the winery owners. Soon after pointing at a young worker to give her a different one, which she also felt was unsatisfactory; it just became funnier because they all tasted great. I didn’t realize Russian’s were such wine connoisseurs. Do they even make wine in Russia? As Jenn and I looked around, it seemed more and more of the tour group was dropping out of the wine tasting. They had all had enough, but our Lithuanian friends Pijus and Augusta, and we were still going strong. America and Lituaniania were the last two standing, there may have been one Fin, but we don’t talk about him.
On the way back to our van Babushka had me take a few more photos for her and continuing to speak to me in Russian. It’s easier to understand after Armenian wine, and I believe it was either life advice or wine advice she was bestowing on me. Jenn and I were feeling no pain at this time, and it had been a fantastic day. How much did this incredible Armenia wine cost per bottle, you may ask? $3.00!! We decided to buy several bottles with every intention to ship them home, but when we inquired about the cost, we were informed it would be around $200. Sorry family, but we made the decision to just drink the wine ourselves! It was really tough, but we figured you would understand.