First date with Azerbaijan wine
When talking wine, most people think of Western-Europe when referring to Old World, yet few seem to know that further east lies an even older world when it comes to wine growing and making. Forget Greece or Italy, grapes have already been cultivated a few thousand years ago next to the Caucasus Mountains.
Although the first viticultural activities are said to date back to an area which is now northern Iran, Caucasian countries like Georgia and Armenia surely contributed to the birth of serious wine making. Dramatic landscapes, planted with indigenous grapes carrying unpronounceable names like Mtsvane or Rkatsiteli, where winemakers still use ancient vinification techniques (e.g. qvevri, large clay vessels buried in the ground, meant for fermentation and maturation of grapes, even for whites resulting in unusual tannic white wine).
The trouble is, most of these wines don’t make it to our neck of the woods. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get a chance to taste several red and white wines from Azerbaijan. Now, I dare you to name three things Azerbaijani. No worries, I struggled too and could only come up with the capital Baku, loads of oil and the national football team that is currently trying to qualify for the World Cup 2018 in Russia.
The wines on the tasting table were from Aspi Winery, a company founded in 2007 with Italian oenological input and the country’s second largest producer. With so many indigenous grapes to choose from, it’s a pity Aspi decided to plant international best-sellers like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Aspi claims they want to make authentic wines with distinctive features, but I wonder where they’ll find an audience for Azerbaijan Chardonnay or Merlot, competing in an already overcrowded market.
Is there an audience for Azerbaijani Chardonnay or Merlot?
The vineyards are located at 400 meters altitude in the Savalan valley in the Gabala district, where viticulture was once dominant during communist times. With relatively fertile soil, sheltered by the Caucasian Mountains and tempered by the Caspian Sea, conditions do seem ideal to grow quality grapes. Money was no object setting up the winery, stuffed with state-of-the-art equipment and currently running at only 30% of its capacity. Big plans apparently at Aspi.
Enough of all the trivial background info, what’s in the glass?
First in the glass a 2014 Chardonnay. Anticipating a fresh, crisp sip, my taste buds fled screaming at the ridiculously high alcohol level of 15%. An unexpected gout-de-petrol, slight petillance, lack of aroma’s and extremely short finish made it altogether a rather unpleasant first encounter. Where’s the fruit? Was the winemaker suffering from hangover while concocting this vinous nightmare?
On to the next glass, a 2014 Riesling. I should have been warned by the identical technical sheets for both Chardonnay and Riesling, but again this was a disappointing glass. The alcohol was kept at 12,5%, but alas no flavours only teeth-attacking aggressive acidity and loads of gout-de-petrol.
Could the 2014 Viognier save the white wine range? It did show a bit of complexity but was still miles away from even an entry-level Languedoc Viognier.
Where the reds any better?
The Cabernet Sauvignon unfortunately had TCA. The Syrah (also spelled as Sirah) promised loads in the nose, but failed to deliver in the mouth. What’s left was a burning sensation from the 14,5% alcohol level. The wine was simply out of balance across the board.
Aspi’s flagship wine, the Limited release is a blend of Alicante Bouchet (30%), Grenache (30%) and Syrah (30%). Unclear what the remaining 10% should be. This 2012 vintage was barrel aged in new French oak for 12 months. It has a definite sweetness that might come from a sort of ripasso technique briefly mentioned on the website, which is not further explained in the technical sheet. Could the mystery 10% of other grapes play a role here? This is the first glass that doesn’t go straight into the spittoon. Though hardly material for a second date, it is not unpleasant company on a winter’s evening. Until you read the price tag. This unusual blend retails for a whopping € 20. That is serious money for a not so serious wine. Come on, guys.
Calories on the label
A novelty, at least for me as I haven’t encountered it on any other bottle consumer so far, is the amount of calories mentioned on the backlabel. Very informative, but rather superfluous as long as the wines keep lacking quality for consumption.
Even though they just started at Aspi, they should seriously step up their game to justify all the investments in vineyards and winery. Let’s see if I can get hold of a newer vintage. For now, Azerbaijan will not make it to our dinner table.