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The BBC's Rob Parsons:
"They claim theirs is the best brandy in the world"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 20:07 GMT 21:07 UK
Armenian brandy demands respect
Armenian menfolk raise a glass to their local cognac
Armenian menfolk raise a glass to their country's famous brandy
By Rob Parsons in Yerevan

The Armenians are insistent. There is only one decent cognac - and it is not French.

The only tipple worth tippling, they say, is Armenian.

Mount Ararat
Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, gives its name to the distillery

It may be true that the French brought cognac to the country back in 1887, but since then the distant provincial relative has become a power in its own right.

The key, they tell you, lies in the rich sunshine of Armenia, its high altitude and dry climate, its native grapes and, perhaps most of all, its spring water.

Mix all that together and you get a brandy, which, while clearly related to its distant French parent, has a character all of its own.

The Churchill connection

Take the 18 year-old Vaspurakan. It sounds indigestible but has a grapiness and chocolate richness that belies its name.

Comrades. Respect the power of Armenian brandy. It is easier to climb up to heaven than to get out of here when you have taken too much on board.

Maxim Gorky on Armenian brandy
I entered through its portals into a grand courtyard.

Or the ten-year-old Dvin, 52% proof and favourite brandy of British wartime leader Winston Churchill.

He was introduced to it by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Yalta conference in 1944.

The wily old Georgian reckoned the pungent, chewy Dvin would make a good match for Churchill's prolific cigar habit. The British prime minister was hooked, so much so indeed that he had a case of Dvin shipped out from Armenia every year until his death.

He became a subtle judge of its flavour. The story goes that when he received one shipment in which the flavour was just slightly different he sent it back with a complaint to Stalin.

Churchill:  He was introduced to Armenian brandy by Joseph Stalin
Churchill: He was introduced to Armenian brandy by Joseph Stalin

Another case was delivered but what happened to the unfortunate director of the distillery nobody knows.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought some nasty surprises.

Armenia's economy disintegrated, investment dried up, there was war with Azerbaijan over the disputed province of Nagorny Karabakh and energy shortages sapped popular morale.

Armenian brandy suffered like everything else. The equipment at the Ararat distillery in Yerevan began to rattle and creak, quality control went out of the window, bottling, corking, labelling, everything suffered.

National humiliation

Rob Parsons doing his research
Rob Parsons doing his research

The cure, when at last it came, seemed at first almost as painful as the disease.

In desperation, the Armenian Government sold the company to French-owned multinational Pernod Ricard.

Ordinary Armenians were outraged - and not a little humiliated.

It was like selling the national heritage - and to the French of all people - but $5m of investment and a big facelift later, the outlook no longer looks so bleak.

I had prepared for my visit to the distillery with a little research at a small restaurant run by a New York Armenian.

Ararat distillery: Suffered following collapse of Soviet Union
Ararat distillery: Suffered following collapse of Soviet Union

Jirair has abandoned a successful art gallery in the United States to return to his native Yerevan.

He offered us a 50 year-old dessert wine but I was not to be deflected.

Jirair recommended the Vaspurakan. Vicsous and smooth, the colour of burnt honey, it had my taste buds set in anticipation.

The Ararat distillery crowns a hill on the edge of Yerevan. It is separated from the centre of the city by a deep gorge and glows rosy pink in the early morning light.

Its cellars bear a warning for the uninitiated in the form of an inscription signed by the writer Maxim Gorky and the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

'Comrades,' it says.

'Respect the power of Armenian brandy. It is easier to climb up to heaven than to get out of here when you have taken too much on board.'

Suitably warned, I went on a tour of the distillery, down alleys of dark oak barrels, through clouds of vanilla and wafts of spirit.

Armenian brandy now sells over a million litres of brandy worldwide and is growing fast.

A rare taste

One barrel at least is not for sale. Churchill's personal supply of Dvin still rests dark and cool where it has been these last few decades, only rarely disturbed by the occasional privileged visitor.

Rob Parsons
Rob Parsons has a tipple from Churchill's own barrel

The idea was simple: walk up to the barrel, take a glass of the brandy from the distillery's chief blender, pause, turn to the BBC camera, speak and drink.

Things, however, are never so simple. Fifth time around, I was remarking on Churchill's good taste and had developed a healthy red glow.

A day later I stood in the spritual heartland of Armenia: a vineyard in the shadow of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah's ark.

A mountain of achingly beautiful symmetry, it soared and floated 5,000 metres above the plain.

Symbol of the nation, it is also the symbol of the country's most famous brandy, a constant call to greater things.

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03 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Tug-of-war for Nagorno-Karabakh
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