Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh Revives Wine Trade

The Armenian-held territory is trying to restart a once lucrative business.
By Ashot Beglarian

Farmer Sasun Mirzoyan from the southern Martuni district in Nagorny Karabakh recently decided to go into the wine trade - but discovered it needs a lot of up-front investment.


"To plant one hectare of vines, you need 500 frames worth around 70,000 drams (approximately 120 US dollars)," Mirzoyan said. "A tractor owner will charge you 200 drams plus half a litre of fuel to plough one standard seed bed 100 m long.


"Deep ploughing, or tractor trenching, will set you back another 50,000 dram. Re-ploughing is 5,000 dram and 30 litres of fuel (around 15,000 drams). You can plant some 2,000 plants on a hectare. One plant costs five dram."


Grape-growing has traditionally dominated agriculture in Nagorny Karabakh, an upland territory with fertile soil. During the Soviet era, Karabakh harvested up to one ton of grapes per head of its population, but the protracted war with Azerbaijan from 1991 to 1994 played havoc with the vineyards, reducing the harvest to a fraction of that figure.


Rural families still produce their own alcohol at home, using home-made equipment. Mostly they make "tutovka", the fiercely strong mulberry vodka that is Karabakh's most famous drink. But increasingly farmers are turning their attention to wine again.


"Two or three years ago, everyone made tutovka," said Onik Grigorian, a farmer in Martuni. "Now we are trying to resuscitate a tradition from 20 or 30 years ago, when we exported our quality wines such as Martuni, Chartar and Gishi far outside the region, and they were really in demand abroad.


"Things have changed since then. The collective farms are gone, and everyone has to fend for himself."


Grigorian planted a hectare with vines a year ago, and has another two years to wait until he can harvest grapes. "I feel optimistic," he said. "I make sure I grow my grapes to high standards of agriculture. It's expensive, but the promise of good harvests and steady profits is very attractive."


To encourage farmers like these, and help combat rural poverty, the agriculture ministry of the unrecognised republic has devised a plan to revive and expand viniculture across Karabakh. But according to experts it is an expensive proposition: to secure good harvests and profits for the future, the investment required can reach 6,000 dollars per hectare.


Obviously the farmers do not have that kind of money, so the ministry says it plans to grow up to a million grapevines every year, and give them to farmers free of charge starting next year. In addition, farmers are being encouraged to take out loans from a small-business development fund. This year alone, farmers have received some 40 million drams in loans.


Benik Bakhshian, Karabakh's agriculture minister, says the government is also working on a programme to support the families of soldiers killed in the Karabakh war by allotting them one hectare each of vineyards, potentially a solid source of income. The government plans to allot some 3,300 hectares of vineyards overall.


Gurgen Gabrilian from the village of Khnushinak is a success story, having worked in the wine business for more than five years and made good profits from it.


Asked why he has done well, Gabrilian replies that it's all down to "hard work and love for what you do". But the village administration also helps a lot by lending equipment and technical support. "All that's left for us to do is to harvest and sell our grapes."


The producers are now slowly trying to win a market for their wines, brandies and vodkas. The quantities produced are still very low.


"Our harvests have a long way to go before they reach the Soviet-era level of between 180,000 and 200,000 tons of grapes annually," said Samvel Akopian, co-owner of the alcohol producing firm Artsakhalco and chairman of Karabakh's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. "We only harvest about 4,000 tons a year these days."


The aim is to boost production to 100,000 tons annually. There are now two modern wineries in the Martuni district alone. A local distiller, Karabakh Gold, has recently signed a long-term contract with the Yerevan Cognac Factory, currently owned by France's Pernod Ricard. The famous Yerevan factory has already purchased 82 per cent of Karabakh's white cognac grapes this year.


But as soon as one problem is overcome, a new one crops up. Karabakh farmers are worried about the threat of the phylloxera blight that once ravaged the grapes of France. Karabakh grapes are particularly vulnerable to the disease. So the wine-growers are calling for phylloxera-resistant grape varieties to be planted in the territory and are importing new varieties from the United States.


Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert.