Letter 27: Armenian Cognac (Կոնյաք/Konyak)

Եղեգնաձոր (Yeghegnadzor) Friday, May-22-2009

My nephew recently wrote to me asking about the origins of Armenian 'cognac'. Here's what I've dug up.
From: Raffi

Subject: cognac
To: Received: Monday, May 18, 2009, 8:41 AM

parev kerri
ouremen hima Amsterdam em, yev Ararat cognaki
marketingi vra g'ashxadimgor. ansial shapat, camille
g'essergor vor francatsinere porcecin 'cognac'
par arkilel ararati vra, yev verchavorutiunin, tsouic devin
vor...des moines armeniens ont apporte la recette du cognac
en France
d'ailleurs tu te soviens, en 2005 nous sommes alle
à la vallee d'armeniac.

alors tu peux me confirmer cette histoire? ou si tu as
un article la dessus...merci


Dear Raffi:

What you say makes sense and I remember hearing many aspects of that story, but it will need digging up....

*Let us start from the Bible, Noah (3900 B.C. to 2900 B.C.) got drunk from the wine grown near where the Arch landed (probably the Ararat plain or the Areni area near our house). I don’t know any Frenchman who can boast having made wine at that time in France. Now do you think Noah would have gotten drunk on simple wine. He had probably met my neighbour Zorro who had him taste some of his ‘oghi’. But we can’t prove this at this time! However the symbolism of this Biblical story is clear in everyone’s mind: Armenia is the land where God gave man (through Noah) a second chance! Any oghi or Կոնյաք (Konyak) produced here has, aside from its’ special sun-baked aroma and fruity flavours, the distinction of being from the ‘land where God gave man a second chance’!

Now we all know that the Romans did partake in wine making and drinking. The King of Armenia was taken in chains to Rome when he refused to give them all his wines and specially his recipe for making oghi. There is a slight possibility, that this is when the Romans (and the French) learned to make distilled wine, but we have no historical proof they learned their lesson well. According to historian Boris Piotrovski, in the mid-5th century, after the Romans had appeased the Armenians, Rome was regularly supplied with barrels of ‘distilled grape wine’ bearing the seal of Dvin (which is located just beyond the Gegham mountain range, looking from our living room window towards Ararat). If it takes me an hour to get to Dvin by car today, how long do you think those barrels of distilled grape wine took to reach Rome? There you have it: The Romans were drinking “Hnatsatz oghi” without knowing it. In our town, hardly anyone has the means to drink “Hnatsatz oghi” for they drink fresh, all the oghi they produce long before it starts getting old. When they run-out of their own home-made oghi, they come to me to borrow money to go and buy some cheap Russian vodka until the new season, when they make the new delicious oghi again.

You will remember no doubt what the last known ‘Olympic Champion’ of antiquity, Vartakades (Arshakuni), Prince of Armenia, said in an Irish pub after winning the boxing contest in 369 A.D. He said: ‘Let’s drink to this’ and then they all sang: ‘խմենք ընկերներ, բաժակները լի, թող Հայոց գինին մեզ անուշ լինի’. (a popular Armenian wine drinking song). After the գինի (wine) they went on to the oghi and the ‘bachanales’ and then showed-up for 10 o’clock Mass, drunk!… So you can understand why the Olympic Games, which were held for more than 1100 years, were abolished in 393AD by Roman Emperor Theodosius, who considered them to be pagan and why we, Roman Catholics, have to fast from midnight on if we want to have Holy Communion.

When the Eastern Roman Empire was created and the Byzantine Empire took over, several of the Byzantine Emperors were Armenians (search for instance Emperor “Leo the Armenian”). The Byzantines raised armies from all parts of the empire, but never kept the ‘armed’ legions from a given ethnic group on their national soil, so there is no temptation to claim ‘armed’ independence. For instance, we all know that the Romanians are the result of the mixture of Roman (Italian) soldiers who were part of the Roman Legion that Byzantium stationed in that part of the world, away from Italy. They intermarried with the local Slavic tribes and barbarians and formed the Romanian language (close to Italian). The same was true with the Armenian Legion during the Byzantine Empire. They were not stationed in Armenia. They were stationed in Italy (precisely in the Veneto, in Ravenna and Rimini - where Rimini got its name from being called “citta degli Armeni”). It is well known that in the 6th century, under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (the builder of Hajia Sophia), it is precisely the Armenian Legion that liberated Rome after it had been plundered by the Ostrogoths. … I remember reading it in a book called “From Ararat to San Lazzaro” published by the Armenian Mekhitarist monks in the Island of San Lazzaro in Venice. The Armenian Legion was under the leadership of General Nerces (sometimes written ‘Narses’, Narcissus). It went on to appease the Spaniards afterwards going through southern France (Gaul) and taught them a few tricks in the process, but probably not how to make oghi (yet).

Now in the early medieval period, after the Muslim conquest of southern Armenia (700 AD- 800AD) there were many schisms/heresies and sects that originated in the Anatolian/Armenian part of the Byzantine Empire. Please check the “Paulicians” if you have good access to the internet. I am sure Wikipedia has something on them. Now these guys were Armenians, and were persecuted by Byzantine emperors. They were a Gnostic and quasi Manichaean Christian group which flourished between 650 and 872. Some of their sects fought against the worship of icons, and therefore were given protection against persecution in areas of Armenia conquered by Arab-Muslims. Other sects moved west and ended-up in southern France, in the Languedoc.

You can look-up the ‘Cathars’ and the ‘Croisade des Albigeois’ which was a crusade called for by Pope Innocent II to eliminate these ‘Manichean’ preachers and their followers who had been welcomed by liberal-thinking southern French Princes of Languedoc because they made such good oghi (these “non-Parisian” French could not pronounce the ‘gh’ sound – like the ‘r’ in ‘Paris’ - and ‘oghi’ became known as “eau-d’vie”). Incidentally the Cathars (cat-arse) never called themselves by that name, it is a name given to them by the Dominican monks who led the theological fight against them, for they accused them of ‘devil worship’ and of ‘kissing the arse of black cats on their altars during Holy Mass’ (which is totally untrue), but since all we had as a written record about them was what those Dominicans had recorded during their ‘inquisition’ trials of these poor Armenian preachers before they burned them alive together with all their bibles, oghi making secrets and religious books, the name and stories stuck. It wasn’t until after WW II that an ancient bible written in old Languedoc French was discovered in the destroyed Jewish ghetto of Warshava and it was found to be the only surviving book of those so-called ‘Cathars’. This is how we now know what kind of pseudo-Christian religion these sects practiced.

I suspect that it is at that time that some of these monks started making oghi in oak barrels to keep it from the inquisition and found that it tasted smoother, and that this monk Armenak gave his name to Armagnac. It is at that time also that Saint Pey d’Armens was founded (see photo).

Now I do not have direct evidence of that, for I have not had time to visit any of the Languedoc archives in Toulouse, but you may have such an opportunity.

On the other hand, a Germano-Russo Canadian friend of mine sent me a description of an episode during which an Armenian bishop, carrying relics and other precious items, was separated from his treasures by the perfidy of the Counts of Sayn, in Westphalia, at some time in the 12th century. (For details, see the “endnote”). Below is the photo of the shrine where the relics are still kept near Bonn (unfortunately there is no oghi there now, they drank it all).

Now this poor Armenian Bishop was fleeing the Seljuk black-sheep bashibouzouk conquest, and I don’t really know whether he came in the same migration wave as Armenak of Armagnac fame, or if Armenak came earlier from General Nercess time.

It is undeniable that Armenians have entered French lives and culture at several times in history. Everyone in France knows the story of the “Masque de fer” where one version of the legend has the secret prisoner as an Armenian bishop or prince who cured the ‘Dauphin’ from dysentery with ‘madsoun’ (the name Armenians have always used for their special and delicious ‘yogurt’) … How about d’Artanyan and the Three Musketeers? Do you remember their first names? (Arthos, Portos and Aramis). Are these French names or are they more likely to be Artin, Poghos and Aram? And I am sure your mother told you the story of ‘Artin partir à Paris’… How about (former) President Jacques Chirac: Did his ancestors come all the way here and founded the ‘Region of Shirak’ (Շիրակ Մարզ) in northern Armenia or is it the other way around?

The fact is that when the French Cognac producers took the Armenian Konyak producers to court for calling their ‘hnatsads oghi’ Konyak (Կոնյաք), they lost. And you can notice that in Armenia and in Russia, Armenian Konyak still has labels legally calling it Konyak. I understand several historic arguments were made in court by the Armenian side, some around the same kind of anecdotes I reported here, and some of more recent history: as you said, Armenians (Nercess Tairyants) called their oak-matured “hnatsads oghi” Կոնյաք and exported it to Russia (1877) as such, much before the name was copyrighted or the copyright laws were created! Armenian Կոնյաք was even awarded the “Grand Prix” (in a blind tasting degustation) by the jury at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris, under the brand name “Shustov Cognac” (after Nikolai Leontevich Shustov, who had bought the Yerevan oghi factory from Tairyants a year earlier).

I hope this helps you.

Համբույրներ (Bisous)

p.s. This story is copyrighted. If you, your other uncle or Pernod-Ricard dare to infringe on this copyright and use any of this text, you won’t fare as easily in court as the Armenyan Կոնյաք (Konyak) producers did ;-)

Antoine S. Terjanian
Went there to drink oghi
To read my letters from Armenia, open http://lettersfromArmenia.blogspot.com

© All rights reserved. This letter can be reproduced with full acknowledgements.
© Tous droits réservés. La reproduction de ce texte est permise avec reconnaissance complète.
*The following material is derived from “Sayn’sche Chronik” by Alexander Graf von Hachenburg (Published by Ludwig Röhrscheid, Bonn, 1929). This book traces the history of the Counts of Sayn in Westphalia. It describes an incident with an Armenian bishop at the time of Heinrich II, Count of Sayn. The following abridged extract and its informal translation were provided by my friend Leo Sayn-Wittgenstein:

Heinrich I is mentioned in documents dated 1139, 1140, 1149, and 1152. He died near the turn of the century and was succeeded by his son, Heinrich II, who is mentioned in documents from 1180, 1197, and 1201. He founded the Premonstratensian abbey at Sayn in 1201 and the abbey of St. Maximin in Cologne. His wife was Countess Agnes of Nassau. She died in 1202 and was buried in the crypt in Sayn, where her husband, who had built the fortress of Blankenburg in 1184, was buried in 1205.

Heirich’s brother Bruno was Probst (Prevost/ Provost) in Bonn and later Archbishop of Cologne. He died on the Sayn fortress of Blankenburg on the Sieg in 1208 and is buried in the crypt of the Dome in Cologne. Two years before his death (1205) Bruno presented the abbey with the relic of the arm of the holy apostle Simon. It is still there, preserved and worshipped in a beautiful shrine of the period.

This is how Bruno acquired the treasure: an Armenian bishop came from the Orient to worship at the shrine of the Three Wise Men in Cologne. Travel was dangerous , because it was the time of the war between the kings Philipp and Otto. (Philipp of Swabia, son of Barbarossa, and Otto of Brunswick, nephew of Richard I of England. LSW).

Just past Bonn, at Wesseling, the defenceless traveller encountered a roaming band. He realized the danger, but was more concerned about his treasure than his life. He had the treasure buried in the church yard in Wesseling and continued to Cologne, expecting to recover it on his return. Several locals, however, observed him, dug up the treasure, and brought it to Probst Bruno in Bonn. The Probst recognized its value and appropriated it.

In the meantime, the bishop continued his journey and was attacked by robbers. He carried nothing of value and was, therefore, badly mistreated. His wounds had not yet healed when he started his return from Cologne. At Wesseling he found the place where he had buried his treasure, but the pit was empty! Unconsolable and sick, he stopped in Bonn to recover. Probst Bruno visited him, took him in, and cared for him until he recovered. The Armenian then told Bruno about the unhappy fate of his treasure. Bruno said nothing!

When the bishop was ready to return to the Orient he asked Bruno how he could show his appreciation for the reception and care he had received. Bruno thanked him and asked that he be allowed to keep the relic as a souvenir, if he should happen to come into its posession. After some hesitation, and with a heavy heart, the Armenian agreed and left, richly supplied by Bruno with horses, clothing and money. Bruno sent the relic to the fortress of Blankenburg, to his brothers Heinrich II and Eberhard. Later, the arm and the shrine were brought to the abbey at Sayn.

Seal of Heinrich II