Grape and Wine Festival
It took place on 30-31 August at the Shirvan Wines winery in the village of Meysari, Shamakhi, with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the organisational help of several other government entities, and we made sure not to give the opening day a miss. The action began in the early evening with a thumping naghara drum performance by the Natig Rhythm Group, alternating with thrilling wine-themed dances by the Mirvari Dance Group to gradually whip the crowd – many of whom had travelled on a free bus service from Baku – into a celebratory mood. And once the drums came to a rest, the wine began to flow.
A short walk from the main stage, guests meandered through an alley of creatively decorated pavilions housing exhibits of Azerbaijan’s growing number of wineries. In total, 16 were represented from across the country’s major winemaking regions– the Absheron, Shirvan and Ganja-Gazakh in the west. Each showcased their finest tipples, the majority made from local Azerbaijani or Caucasian grapes, which guests eagerly sniffed and sipped, mentally noting the differences.
Whether a wine aficionado or a beginner in the industry didn’t really matter as one of the festival’s main aims was to inform and educate. The hosts of each pavilion keenly explained the nuances of their wines: the grapes used and the conditions in which they were grown. Degustations and sommelier workshops were delivered by industry experts, a roundtable discussion tackled current issues in the industry, and a lecture was given on the history of winemaking in Azerbaijan.
But there was much more besides wine. Other mini-events included poetry recitals, yoga classes and open-air film screenings, as well as carpet-weaving talks and demos, art classes and exhibits of pottery and shebeke – a highly skilled technique of filling wooden lattices with tiny stained-glass pieces. Elsewhere, an “ethno-tent” dished up delicious regional cuisine – gutabs and kebabs straight from the saj, a disc-shaped iron plate heated over a fire – served with homemade lavash and feseli flatbread, which guests enjoyed slumped into comfy bean bag seats distributed neatly across the surrounding lawn.
Also in the programme were excursions to Shamakhi’s famous astrophysical observatory, the mountain village of Lahij and to wineries in Agsu, Gabala and Ismayilli, other areas of the Shirvan winemaking region.
This corridor running along the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains is home to some of Azerbaijan’s best winemaking terroirs. Shamakhi in particular used to be a centre of viticulture during the Soviet era and today Shirvan Wines is doing its best to return the region’s former glory. Having opened just last year, it currently produces three organic wines (Sadaf, Marjan and Makhmari) from a mix of local and foreign grapes. It also caters well to tourists: the complex houses both a guest house and a wine museum. And even if you don’t like wine, simply being here is a pleasure: with some 300 hectares of vineyards spreading across the foothills of the splendid mountains, this is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque wineries in Azerbaijan.
One of its most unique features is the beautifully landscaped lake set serenely beneath the main building and restaurant, and it was here that as the last embers of daylight began to fade, a magical lightshow transformed the lakeside path into an otherworldly arena for fire dancers and opera singing. An old-fashioned yacht had even been shipped in especially for the festival.
From start to finish, musical performances were given by local artists encompassing diverse genres. Another star performer was Azerbaijani pop singer and actress Aygun Kazimova whose rousing set accompanied by robot backup dancers ushered in a long night of DJs and discos.
Overall, this was an entertaining insight into the emerging world of Azerbaijani winemaking and far more than just a bevy of food and drink in a fine corner of the Caucasus.