Everything you need to know about Azerbaijani wine

From well-rounded vintages to specialist bars, plus a winemaking history dating back millennia, homegrown wine is interlaced with local Azeri life. Here, we speak to those in the industry about what makes Azerbaijan a hotspot for wine tourism.

Published 13 Aug 2021, 16:09 BST
Savalan Aspi Winery is located in Gabala, northern Azerbaijan.

Savalan Aspi Winery is located in Gabala, northern Azerbaijan. 

Photograph by Azerbaijan Tourism Board

For the first-time visitor, Azerbaijan abounds in surprising discoveries — and few are as unexpected as the booming wine industry, with its selection of grapes, fascinating history and undulating seas of emerald-green vineyards backed by white-topped peaks.

Wine has been produced in this part of the world for millennia. The earliest evidence of grape winemaking comes in the form of pottery jars containing residual wine compounds, dating back to around 6000 BC. They were discovered in the villages of Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, then part of the Shulaveri-Shomu culture, which occupied territory in the South Caucasus. Fragments of the oldest-known wine press and fermentation vats, dating back to 4000 BC, were detected in the valley of the Arpa River, which waters Azerbaijan’s Sharur region. In 1860, German colonists in Helenendorf (now Goygol) founded what’s now the country’s longest-running winery. And by the 1970s, large swathes of Azerbaijani foothills sported scenic vineyards. In the 1980s, however, over 80% of Azerbaijan’s vines were ripped up in Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol drive, and some native grape varieties were almost annihilated.

Fortunately, winemaking has rebounded with vigour over the past decade. Both small-scale, family-run wineries and state-of-the-art industrial complexes are once again producing powerful rounded reds and crisp, fruity whites. The country has three major wine-making areas: expect robust, earthy tones from the mid-altitude terroirs of north-central Shamakhi, home to the indigenous Madrasa red grape; soak up the history in western Azerbaijan’s Lesser Caucasus zone, cradle of the country’s viniculture traditions; and sample the distinct minerality of wines from the Caspian coast, whose grapes are planted at lower elevations and on salt-rich soils.

Such is the boom in winemaking that Azerbaijan has proposed a new system of eight smaller appellations, to include potential wine regions like semi-arid Nakhchivan, lush Lankaran in the south and Karabakh, with its own distinctive wine history.

Nasimi Sadigzade is the founder of Nasimi's Wine Tours, offering wine tours in Baku, Shamakhi, Aghsu, Ismayilli, Qabala and Ganja.

Photograph by Azerbaijan Tourism Board

Nasimi Sadigzade, founder of Nasimi’s Wine Tours
 

What should the world know about Azerbaijani wine?
Our wines have a specific story of struggle, from the seventh-century Arab invasions to 1985, when Gorbachev ordered the destruction of vineyards. We had to start over at the beginning of the 21st century, meaning every sip of wine you have in Azerbaijan is a sign of never giving up, of new beginnings and of our passion.

What’s your favourite wine?
We have some really nice wines made from international grape varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet (Savalan’s 2016 take on the latter is fabulous). But it’s my duty to highlight favourites made from our local grapes, like Chabiant’s dry red Madrasa (the 2016 vintage), Terra Caspea’s Madrasa and Chabiant’s Bayan Shira (2017’s dry white). AzGranata’s Rubai dry red Madrasa (2014) is an amazing option if you want great wine at a surprisingly cheap price.

Where are your favourite wineries around the country?
That’s a tough one. The Chabiant winery has created a great ecosystem that benefits locals as well as visitors. AzGranata has an amazing tasting hall with its own little museum. Goygol Sherab is Azerbaijan’s oldest, founded by German settlers in 1860; it also has an amazing cellar, which is the biggest in the country. Savalan was the first domestic winery to really introduce quality wines to the post-independence Azerbaijani market. Firelands is unique for its proximity to the Caspian Sea, which gives its wines a remarkable minerality. And Shirvan, the country’s first certified organic producer, offers wonderful views, a tasting room and a restaurant.

What local dishes do you like to pair with wine?
I prefer wine with cheese, but our national meal — aubergine dolma — goes well with local Madrasa reds. Afterwards, try an Azerbaijani pakhlava with a Savalan Merlot dessert wine. winetours.az

Ivan is the owner of Kefli Local Wine & Snacks in Baku, which offers an extensive list of vintages. 

Photograph by Azerbaijan Tourism Board

Ivan Uvarov, owner of KEFLI Local Wine & Snacks, Baku
 

Which wines are the most popular in your bar?   
A lot has changed in the past couple of years. Many expats have left, and there are almost no tourists due to Covid-19 restrictions. As a result, we’ve refocused on local guests. Firstly, I’m happy to see locals drinking more dry wine. Over the past two years, the consumption of dry wine has surpassed that of sweet ones — and that’s a big leap forward for Azerbaijan. However, pomegranate wine is still leading the way. In the past, it was a favourite among tourists from Russia and Ukraine, but now it’s mostly popular among Zoomers — those who are just starting their wine journey. Five years ago, young Azerbaijanis tended to avoid rosé, but now it’s increasingly popular, even in winter. In general, Azerbaijanis are raising the bar when it comes to their expectations of wine.

If you could only have one type of Azerbaijani wine, which would it be?
I don’t want to offend anyone, but if I had to choose only one white wine, it’d be a Chabiant made from the indigenous Bayan Shira grape. It’s light, versatile and perfect for enjoying daily. For a red, I’d pick a Savalan Nobel. It’s very Azerbaijani — masculine, rough and straight-cut.

Which Azerbaijani wine would you recommend for a first-timer?
Try wines made from indigenous grapes, like Bayan Shira (white) or Madrasa (red). We have a very well-preserved 2010 Madrasa made by Absheron Sharab. For something rarer, try an Azerbaijani port wine, like Agdam made from Rkatsiteli grapes; it was a legendary wine brand in the former USSR.

What are your favourite Azerbaijani wine-and-food pairings?
Kebabs pair amazingly well with local Sauvignon Blancs. It really is a mind-blowing combination!

What makes Baku great for wine-lovers?
As Azerbaijan is a mostly Muslim country, tourists are often surprised to discover such a long winemaking history and a mass culture of wine-drinking. Before around 2016, it was hard to find a good range of local vintages. Recently, however, wine is everywhere in the capital. In downtown Baku alone, there are at least a dozen wine bars and specialised wine restaurants. And good local wine has become a symbol of the new generation of Azerbaijanis who want to live in their country and drink what’s produced on local soil.

Aygun is chief sales manager of Savalan Aspi Winery, located in the valley of Savalan in Gabala.

Photograph by Azerbaijan Tourism Board

Aygun Ataeva, chief sales manager of Savalan Aspi Winery
 

What makes the Savalan Valley area in Gabala a great place to produce wine? 
In terms of terroir, Azerbaijan’s Savalan Valley is almost identical to southern Italy’s wine-growing regions. At an altitude of around 400m above sea level, the Savalan vineyards occupy a kind of peninsula, surrounded on both sides by mountain rivers and protected from dry winds by the Caucasus Mountains. A fine balance of rainfall, sunshine and suitable temperatures mean the grapes ripen perfectly. 

What are your favourite Azerbaijani wine and food pairings?
I like to experiment. You can’t imagine how perfectly a Savalan Riesling works with grilled vegetables. Savalan Canyon red wine is ideal with dolma (meat-stuffed grape leaves), while a somewhat austere Savalan Alicante Bouschet red goes well with kebabs and sadj (large skillet for using a variety of local dishes). But our Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite — I can drink it anytime, anywhere and with any dish.

What type of visitor experiences or tours does the winery offer?
Our winery is close to a popular mountain resort area that’s often labelled ‘little Switzerland’. Visitors staying there can easily stop by our factory and tasting salon — and we even host festivals, birthdays and weddings. We also have a Savalan tasting centre in the heart of Baku, next to the Heydar Aliyev Center, where we host wine tastings and trainings and organise special gastronomic events.

Do you export your wines to the UK?
We’re hoping to soon, but for the moment, you can find our wine exclusively at London’s TDQ Steaks.

With its reverence for local products, Kefli hits the sweet spot between specialist Azerbaijani wine advocate and understated, fashionable cafe.

Photograph by Azerbaijan Tourism Board

Three wine bars to try in Baku
 

1. Enoteca Meydan
Within the UNESCO-listed Walled City of Baku, you’ll find Enoteca Meydan — part wine shop, part tasting bar. The owner is an expert winemaker, and you’ll find some of his own creations amid a brilliant collection of Azerbaijani drops. A great place to learn about local wine. 

2. Kefli Local Wine & Snacks
With its reverence for local products, Kefli hits the sweet spot between specialist Azerbaijani wine advocate and understated, fashionable cafe. Wine-lovers leaf through the extensive list of vintages, hip locals chat over inexpensive regional options and a blackboard displays the ever-changing selection available by the glass. 

3. Room Baku
In the capital’s central nightlife area, Room Baku offers high-quality food and the atmosphere of a jovial wine bar. The wine list includes offerings from around the globe, plus selections from five of Azerbaijan’s better-known producers. Its quirky outpost at Baku airport, meanwhile, is a marvellous spot at which to savour one last glass while you’re waiting for your plane home.

For more information, visit azerbaijan.travel

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