Friday, September 28, 2007

Armenia: Impossible Is Nothing

Moscow News,â„–38 2007
By Anna Ozar

No, I am not talking about the weekend I had a bit too much to drink at a friend's birthday, but rather last week when I visited Armenia to report on the occasion of the anniversary of Ararat Cognac Winery. So I took a lengthy break from parties to prepare my liver for such a trip, then I packed my bag and left for Yerevan with a group of journalists from other magazines and newspapers.


Mount Ararat, which has experienced a long and tumultuous history, has long been a symbol of Armenia. Ararat fell under the control of the Armenian Kingdom under the Bagratuni Dynasty early in the ninth century A.D., which was annexed by Byzantium in 1045. But following the decisive battle of Manzikert in 1071, the territory fell under the yoke of the Seljuk Turks. But with the pendulum swing of historic events, Ararat again went over to Armenia until the dramatic geopolitical changes occurred in 1918. In the aftermath of World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the October Revolution, the area became part of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, but the republic's existence was short. With the invasion of the Red Army, the area became part of the Soviet Union. Following the Treaty of Kars in 1923, the area was divided up between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and the new border, which became internationally recognized, placed Ararat on the Turkish side.

Unfortunately, for many Americans, Europeans and Russians, Armenia is just a tiny landlocked nation hidden somewhere between some other countries, like Georgia and Iran. Most people would probably have trouble finding the country on the map. But the majesty of this land becomes clear as soon as you make your first steps on the land of Yerevan, Armenia's capital.

Though Mount Ararat is no longer a part of the country, you still feel it belongs to Armenians - you can marvel at its snow-covered peak from nearly every part of the city (for example, from Erebuni, which is a lovely hill in the centre where sits a half-destroyed citadel). Immediately after dropping off our bags at the Marriott, a bus took us to the foot of Erebuni. Then this group of smoking Moscow journalists had to climb the mountain to reach the citadel.

The trip to the top of Erebuni was the first big surprise courtesy of Ararat Cognac Winery. As we crossed some ancient walls and made it to the pinnacle, we found ourselves surrounded by Armenian waiters in white shirts. There we took seats at a long table where we were greeted with bottles of 20-year-old Nairi Cognac, There, during a brilliant Armenian sunset, I tasted real cognac. And for the first time in my life I felt the steps that cognac has on the senses: the first is warmth (unrelated to the alcohol itself), the second is the smell of oak in the air and the last is chocolate or at least some hints of chocolate. The Nairi variety is viscous and tender; it immediately became my favorite representative of Ararat.

The next day we set off for Jermuk, a picturesque town famous for its mineral waters that is 2,000 meters above sea level. On the way to Jermuk we pay a visit to the Noravank Monastery where the first and the last picture of God the Father was made. Actually, Christians are forbidden from making pictures of God himself, but Armenia was the first place where Christianity became an official state religion, so maybe they are allowed a bit more religious liberalism.

Jermuk greeted us with its cold and fragrant mountain air. After tasting various mineral waters we started to taste samples of Ararat Mixology, cocktails based on cognacs - one of Ararat's latest innovations. The favorite seemed to be "After Love" which carried a nice lime taste.

The next day, on our way back to Yerevan, we finally reached The Khor Virap (which in Armenian means "deep dungeon") monastery which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Armenia. It is where Gregory the Illuminator's imprisoned for 14 years before he converted King Trdat III to Christianity in the year 301, which made Armenia the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. The dungeon is a dark shaft in the rock where Gregory spent many days and nights in prayer. The Khor-Virap is very close to the border between Armenia and Turkey. From the observing area of Virap you can marvel at Mount Ararat and Small Ararat Mount... just a few kilometers away.

We began the next day with a visit to the home of the deceased Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov, whose world outlook is similar to that of Federico Fellini and Salvador Dali. Parajanov was a friend of Andrei Tarkovsky, the director of Solaris and Andrei Rublev.

After some years of making ordinary Soviet movies, Parajanov headed to the mountains to make his own movie. Later, his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors won the prestigious BAFTA award (by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts). The topic did not conform to the strict standards of the Soviet board of censors and Parajanov found himself quickly ‘blacklisted.'

The next fifteen years of Parajanov's life were spent in and out of a prison so frightening, so void of light, that it is truly amazing he survived the ordeal. And yet, years later, he was able to comment that those "years of squalor were the best years of my life," and they gave him "an amazing deathlessness."

Parajanov died in 1990. He left one of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century, his Color of the Pomegranate, a biography of the Armenian ashug Sayat Nova (King of Song) which will have to be the topic of another article. Or maybe just watch it. Anyways, we felt like Parajanov's guests, in his former residence that is filled with dolls and collages, such as "Voting Among Marionettes," which gave the feel of some parallel world. A doll dressed in a striped costume in a cap with ear-flaps reminded of prison...


The last day of our journey was completely devoted to Alco... sorry, Ararat. We arrived to Ararat Winery in the suburbs of Yerevan, where we saw trucks loaded down with grapes. We entered the workshop where an Ararat representative explained the wine-making process. Ararat uses only special French barm for making wine, (the grape waste, which looks and smells like fresh grass, is good food for cattle, by the way).

The wine-making process is 100 percent computerized - so the whole process of fermentation is observed 24/7. Large metal barrels filled with barm, grape juice and sugar are refrigerated with water so the constant temperature is 25 degrees above zero. After 8 days, it is already possible to drink the wine.

Things are much more difficult with cognac. The process of making an oak barrel for cognac takes some time; it even has to be burnt inside for some minutes. The oak, by the way, is also French. The age and size of the barrel is its great advantage - the older and thinner the barrel, the better the cognac placed there. The age of the cognac always conforms to the age of its barrel, when you need to change the barrel of the cognac you have to choose its coeval.

After visiting the Winery, we were invited to the garden for sampling young wines, which was quite tasty. It put everybody into a nice mood, as wine has that natural effect, of course.

Then, we moved to the central part of Ararat Winery where The Special Anniversary Cognac Barrel was signed by everybody and put into the line of similar barrels to be opened in 30 years. I suppose this cognac is going to be called "120." It is hard to describe the exciting moment of signing the barrel.

So I travelled to Yerevan, fell in love with Armenia, and became one of those 40 people who were happy to become a part of history with the help of this magical land. That's why after a short pause I wrote the slogan of "Adidas" on the barrel: "Impossible Is Nothing!"

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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