#WomenMakingWine 2023 pt 1 ft. Aimee Keushguerian, Pioneering Armenian Wine Producer

Welcome back to my third annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to winemakers, and even CEOs and Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.

First up, let’s travel by glass to Armenia to meet Aimee Keushguerian, winemaker and founder of Zulal Wines. Aimee established Zulal in 2017 and has been capturing the spirit and terroir of Armenian wine ever since. Fun fact: Zulal means “pure” in Armenian and that’s the perfect descriptor for Aimee’s wines. She works with rare indigenous grapes like Koghbeni from Tavush, Nazeli, Movuz, Tozot, and Karmir Kot from Vayots Dzor and Sireni from Artsakh to name a few. I had the privilege of tasting Areni and Voskehat which are signature Armenian grapes. These are quality wines that are incredibly unique and worth seeking out. There’s an emphasis on sustainable winegrowing at high elevation and the combination of extreme climate and volcanic soil gives Zulal wines their distinct character. Throughout its history Armenia has grown over 400 different varieties, but today only about 30 are grown commercially for wine and brandy. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the key styles of Armenian wine which you can find under the Zulal wine label.

Areni is a thick-skinned grape that grows in tight bunches and produces a medium-bodied red wine with bright acidity. It delivers bright red fruits like bing cherry, plum, pomegranate, and strawberry with undertones of black peppercorn. It’s a perfect balance of fruity and savory. If you’re into Pinot or Gamay, give this one a try. Zulal Areni is grown in the Vayots Dzor region on volcanic and limestone soil. Vines here sit at around 1,750 meters or about 5-6k ft in elevation. This is such an exciting wine to sip and incredibly captivating for $22.

Voskehat is Armenia’s signature white wine grape. It’s dry and ranges between light to medium bodied with acidity that refreshes the palate after every sip. It’s giving delicious apricot and peach blossom flavors with herbs, florals, and citrus. Zulal Voskehat is sustainably grown in the Vayots Dzor region atop volcanic and limestone soil at around 1,400 meters or ~4500 ft in elevation. Aimee ages this wine in stainless steel to maintain fruit purity. I have to callout that this wine comes from vines that are own-rooted and between 50-100 years old! I cannot believe this one retails for $19.

A little bit about the historic Armenian wine region…

Let’s first acknowledge the fact that Armenia is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world! Armenian wine is made in the Republic of Artsakh which is in the region of South Caucasus – also known as “the cradle of wine.” Traces of ancient winemaking date back some 6,100 years! Some historians have shared that after Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat, he planted Armenia’s first vineyard. How amazing is that? If you want to experience wine in spiritual way, this is a great place to start. To say that war has impacted the wine industry here would be an understatement. Armenian wine culture has faced many setbacks, but Aimee believes that Armenian wine is going through a renaissance…. And I trust her!

Without further ado, hear more from Aimee.

Me: What makes Armenian so special from your POV?

Aimee: “Armenia’s wine industry is currently going through a renaissance. In the last decade, we have seen century old vineyards being revitalized, new brands created, ancient varieties re-discovered, and an explosion of a modern wine culture. There aren’t many winegrowing regions that are having this big of an industry growth, so it’s a very exciting time to be here.”

Me: Out of all the delicious wines you make, is there a favorite release or a favorite food pairing you’d like to share with us?

Aimee: “Zulal was founded to experiment with rare and almost lost indigenous grape varieties. I recently released a limited edition wine crafted from the Armenian grape, Karmir Kot, which was the first single varietal, micro-vinification of this variety. Our genetic diversity of grape varieties is vast, but during the soviet times, due to the planned economic structure, our winemaking was essentially halted. Re-discovering old grape varieties is super exciting, and my main motivator to push the knowledge of our terroir foreword.”

Me: Can you share more about the terroir in which you are working with?

Aimee: “The Armenian terroir can be defined by four differentiating factors. Our ancient tradition of winemaking, indigenous grape varieties, volcanic soil, and high elevation vineyards. All these factors combined, create a terroir that is unlike any other in the world.”

Thank you so much, Aimee! Your story, perspective, and wines are truly worth celebrating. We look forward to supporting your brand and future releases.

If you are interested in tasting Zulal Wines here is the link.

Thanks for sipping with us!

@smashleythegrape | The Social Grapes LLC

Library Magic

You never drink the same wine twice.

Groth Winery & Vineyards

Have you ever sipped the same vintage of the same varietal produced by the same winemaker and somehow it tastes like nothing you’ve had before? I’m a firm believer that there is philosophy in wine and that tasting can be subjective and influenced by experience. Recently my husband and I took a trip up to Napa Valley for business and pleasure. I was scheduled to take my Level 1 WSET exam which happened to coincide with two events at wineries where we are members. I experienced two very different tastings at each respective winery. One event was fun and educational, because that is what I was looking for going in. The other was emotional and dare I say spiritual? There was an exact moment at event #2 that summoned the philosopher in me which completely took me by surprise.

Nickel & Nickel Winery

Our first wine event was an “Open House” at Nickel & Nickel Winery which was an opportunity for members to get together to enjoy some of the greats and maybe sample some new things as well. On the morning of I was reviewing my notes in preparation for the exam later that day. Aromas and flavors in wine were dancing around in my brain along with principal grape varieties and their classic characteristics by region. I was in full-on education beast mode as we made our way to the shuttles. The event transpired in the place where all the magic happens with each station setup along the production line. We sipped chardonnay by steel tanks and savored pinot near the cork lab. We’ve come to know the staff and enjoy seeing familiar and friendly faces each time we visit. The wine is always exceptional and the combination of an amiable ambiance and unparalleled vintages continues to draw us in. As we tasted our way through current-release single-vineyard wine, I took my time and analyzed the glass. Was there spice? If so what kind: baking or pepper? Are there notes of vanilla coming from oak? Is the wine high in acidity? What about the tannins – how smooth or structured were they? Did my notes align with the experts pouring for us? In addition to looking for these components I was doing my best to pair food with wine using the WSET standardized pairing chart. When food is salty a wine will taste less dry and bitter, more balanced in acidity, and full in body and flavor. If there is umami (aka savory foods) this will increase bitterness, dryness, and acidity while making wine less sweet. The result was me hovering over the cheese table for an embarrassing length of time. In my defense, there was an array of different cheeses to pair – from creamy goat to aged gouda-ness (see what I did there) and sharp cheddar. My stomach was having the time of its life while my brain and critical thinking was put to work.

Open House 2019 at Nickel & Nickel Winery

Event number two was a Library Tasting hosted at Groth Family Vineyards. The founders of Groth Vineyards & Winery are Judy and Dennis who have been rooted in the wine industry for almost 40 years. To this day, the production is family owned and operated in the heart of Oakville. We were welcomed with a glass of their most recent Sauvignon Blanc direct from the tanks since the wine hadn’t even been bottled yet. This was followed by an opportunity to sample a new undertaking that will only be available for their wine club: a rosé of merlot with the palest of hues and the richest of flavor. Historically Groth offers three varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was incredibly special to taste a brand-new release before it hits the market and provide honest feedback to the Cellar Master. While we loved the wine, of course, the experience made it even more enjoyable. I’ll just go ahead and say it, that welcoming will be tough to top! I was full of gratitude and feeling the buzz of cheer all around me. We continued to make our way from table to table tasting their Oakville and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons from 2006, 2009, and 2011. We’ve tasted the same varietals and vintages a few times, all in different settings, and with different people. But, there was something about sipping the 2011 Reserve Cabernet in the cellar with my husband surrounded by barrels while overlooking the vineyards that elevated the wine to a new level. We were there for my WSET exam and at that moment I was reminded of how incredibly supportive my husband is. We also had so much to celebrate – the hardworking vintners, viticulturists, winemakers, and wine community filled with likeminded enthusiasts. I swirled, sniffed, sipped and repeated. I gave the wine detective in me the afternoon off and let my hair down! The wine was silky smooth with layers of green bell pepper that nearly dropped me to my knees.  This was a moment that lasted forever, but in the best way. It’s a moment I will always remember and one that elevated my wine tasting.

Groth 2009 Cab & Reserve Cab

In the end my faculty of reason and perception of wine tasting was annexed by emotion and passion. Approaching these events with two drastically different mindsets left me feeling incredibly balanced, surprisingly. Like in winemaking, balance in life is vitally important. When it came time for the exam, I was steady and ready to pour myself into this next phase of appreciating and learning about wine.

Groth Winery & Vineyards

Thanks for sipping with us!

The Social Grapes

IG: @smashleythegrape