Areni Wine Festival (Armenia)

October, 2016


 

Areni, Vayots-Dzor province 
When I got noticed that I was invited for a press trip to Armenia a couple months ago, the fact that we were supposed to take part to the yearly wine fest of Areni in the mountainous wine province of Vayots-Dzor certainly played a part in my gladful acceptance for the trip. I knew Areni for having visited its 6100-year-old winemaking facility in a cave nearby, and I had also visted a couple winemakers then, both Haigaz a street seller who was making a noteworthy wine in his basement, and a small established winery in the village. The wine Fest was missing in this colorful review of the deep-rooted wine life of the area, and that was the opportunity to see how this vinous event was going.
The village of Areni (pictured on left) is located about 110 km south-east of Yerevan, in a dry and scenic mountainous area. You first drive much of the road on a flatland plateau (verything is at least 1000 meters high in Armenia) with a direct view on Mount Ararat on the right, you pass also close to the Azerbaidjan border and then begin to drive uphill before reaching high valleys with dry, rocky mountains all around and raging streams that bring life in these remote communities. A lot of cars seemed to be doing the same thing when we drove there, commuting from Yerevan to Areni on that sunny october day, but there was never a traffic jam as far as I remember and we enjoyed the long way up in the mountains looking at the faraway peaks or the deep and bare gorges beneath us.
 
The trip to Areni from Yerevan takes a couple of hours, the road offeres wide open views on the landscape, the countryside and of course the Mount Ararat that dominates the region at more than 5000 meters. It is often capped by clouds or fof so it's always a pleasure to be gratified by a full view of the majestic mountain from bottom to top.
 
At one point you pass very close to the border with Azerbaidjan, there's a small town where trucks and cars stop to have a drink and eat, sort of mid-distance to Areni, the, the road veers to the left if I remember and heads to the mountains of the Vayots-Dzor Province, where Areni is located.
 
The next step is impressive, you climb big, bare mountains with deep parched valleys and precipices below, and as the humidity is very low in Armenia the view is bright and sharp, if you do that in a private car you may stop en route several times to catch the scene as this arid lanscape is majestic. Even if the country is dry you can see here the green line that keeps these valleys alive, and the civilization has certainly been continuous over the centuries thanks to the water and the streams.
 
As you near your destination you pass a few village in the heart of the mountain range with obviously some water resources, there's life and culture, even trees, which is rare in much of Armenia. You're getting close to Areni. You may come across a few trucks with Iranian licence plates, as this road also leads to Iran further south (and I'm not sure there's any other major road going there).
 
Then the traffic intensifies, lots of parked cars along the road, plus the usual improvised stands along the road where locals sell their home-made wine in plastic bottles. Here on the barrel I presume this Armenian word means Areni, at least that's the same number of letters.... You can see the scenic environment of Areni, it's in the bottom of a valley with steep bare mountains above (the same mountains where a 6100-year-old winemaking facility was discovered a few years a go. You can see in the background uphill a very old church standing guard over the village, this is Armenia...
 
We arrived there in mid afternoon and some people were already leaving. We had to walk quite a distance to the festival area as driving there was not permitted, it was full of families, from both Yerevan and also from the area and the province, it was festive and yet well-behaved. There was no entry fee, everyone was welcome and that was a good point because some wine festival elsewhere in the world have fees that make a problem for people with modest means.
And while this village has traditionally countless shacks and stands along the road selling home-made wine and other local products, this special day was of course the occasion for the villagers to sell their work, be it wine or dry fruits, or even handicrafts. 
We also walked along farms, or at least sheds (pic on left) where farmers keep their goats or their cows, this was great because the smell was the one of living farms, and the building arrangements like here the roof and position against the slope hinted at a long tradition that must have been in place for ages, with the hay carefully stocked above for winter and keeping the animals warm also I guess. Looking at this kind of details and letting them impress you is better than history books to kind of feel the deep roots of a region, I think.
 
 
at the end of the street where it almost touches the majestic cliff (which is in my back when I shoot this picture) we reach the heart of the event with large crowds, wine stands all around and young people dressed traditionally (or not) dancing with music, everything happening in the crowd, no separation between the dancers and the public, you just come and go and enjoy the sight.
 
Having arrived a bit late, I think we missed a few interesting shows and performances but we still had some dance companies perform their Art. What I regret having missed is when several women stomp the grapes together in a big open wooden vat, I saw that on pictures from the previous years and that's always nice to shoot pictures of this type of show, even if it's very tourist oriented. Some of the dance was modern, like this video of mine shows (may be censored in certain countries like Germany because the background music is copyrighted), this was light-hearted; all-public and unpretentious.
 
Some event goers weren't apparently disturbed by the wine scents or all the noise we were making and were busy concentrating on the game, also a tradition in this country, like in the times of the Soviet Union.
 
Then for the "serious" part of the crowd, there was the few wineries that attended the festival and had their tent or stand where you could try their wines. Armenia has still a small number of established wineries (even if growing year after year), that's why there were few stands. You can see here the impressing setting of the festival with the mountain cliff in the background. You better have sunglasses because the light is very powerful with no humidity to filter it.
 
The first stand I went to was quite a surprise, I had decided to go there first after being tipped about it by one of my Intel contacts in Armenia, Christian Garbis, who is an American journalist living with his Armenian family in Yerevan. Christian is a journalist who wrote and travelled for his stories and has also some reporting on the Armenian wine scene. Whatever, we met a few seconds in Areni (we were supposed to meet later but I couldn't find a slot in my schedule) and he pointed to a few stands beginning with this one.
That was a surprise, as Didier Cornillon is French and is beginning to make wine in Areni with purchased grapes, he has a good experience in mùaking wine overseas, as he's also making wine in Tunisia (Domaine Kurubis) where the French have had a long imprint in the winemaking, and apparently up to this day even though the security situation must not ne ideal over there. He is one of the pioneers setting shop in Armenia at this pivotal time when the country is reviving its wine industry and encourages entrepreneurs with skills in this field.
Last year was their 2nd vintage here and they made about 25 000 bottles from vineyards that have yields of about 5 tons/hectare, or a total of 40 hectoliters, which means the sourcing surface is about 6 hectares. The first vintage in 2014 was much smaller in size, they made 6500 bottles. They buy the grapes to a single grower who has 40 hectares of vines, he says having a single interlocutor is convenient because it allows them to choose among the 40 hectares the parcels they like, and additionally before the doing harvest they tour the vineyard and say which parcels they want picked, and they managed to have reasonable yields. In the future they'll plant themselves on the winery land for sure, but they want to introduce Syrah for example because he thinks it would be a great blend complementary variety to Areni.
 
What I liked in this wine was that it was supple with silky tannins and nice acidity. Plus, it was relatively light in alcohol feel compared to the norm in this hot country. when I asked about the alcohol though, it was indeed at 14 % but it felt like much less, you could sip it relatively unhindered, even under the sun... Didier Cornillon says that they make sure that the harvest date fits, something they see with the grower. They could pick later because of the dry weather but they're not looking for hyper-concentration or candied-fruit aromas, they just have the grapes picked at a very nice maturity. They taste the grapes repeatedly as well as the seeds that have to be properly ripe, and it's sometimes difficult for the grower because if you wait the grape load melts in size & weight but his argument is he pays more than the norm around. In Tunisia (his domaine there is Kurubis) he faces the same problem, he has his own estate vineyards but also purchases grapes on the side and he has to keep the growers happy in spite of buying smaller loads. Also in the chai they cap the maceration temperature at 28 ° C (82 F) which is helping to avoid excessive extraction. 
I ask about the distance from the vineyard to the chai, Didier says it's 3 km which is very short and the grapes come in small boxes with afterwards a sorting and destemming on a table (they still put SO2 at this stage to prevent unwanted yeast strains to sneek in). They cool down the grapes before the maceration and they reach the highest temperature at 1020-1030, at the end of the maceration, with the devatting taking place after 15 days. In this Areni cuvée you have 25 % of élevage in Armenian oak (blend of 11 mmonths in vats and 11 vats in oak).
This wine hasn't been exported out of Armenia yet, they'll ship a container to France (near Valence) soon but he doesn't know what the retail or even the pro price will be. It has nothing to do with the fact that the winemaker is French but I think it's worth to follow this brand new winery, they have the expertise in working in another hot country, Tunisia, and I hope to visit them if I come back in Armenia. 
At one point as I was leaving, the director of Armenia Wine Company showed up alone at the Qotot stand (pic on left), apparently eager to taste the wines (didn't stay long enough to get his impressions)...
Didier cornillon's contact info in France : phone +33 6 81567208 fax +33 4 75218444
 
I was happy to meet Ernest Avetissyan who was behind a stand at the Areni wine festival. I had tasted his cuvée Kataro 2014 in the Tufenkia hotel in Yerevan and this was so good, a red with thin and refined tannins and spice, dust notes, the whole thing being with a reasonable alcohol feel. The Avetissyans run a family winery bearing their name in the village of Togh, the Nagorn-Karabakhregion, an disputed territory orginally belonging to Azerbaidjan until ethnic Armenians got it separated after a war in the early 1990s', there's been simmering tensions since that time, with skirmishes now and then. We haven't visited this winery but they're certainly worth a visit because of the quality of this wine. This red is also made with a local variety, the name of which I renounced to pronounce : khndoghni (say something like "rrrendorni").
I asked Alfred about this cuvée Kataro, it sells for about 10 USD retail in Yerevan. The family winery is about 10 years old, they have estate vineyards 5 or 6 hectares) and they also buy grapes to growers. The wine is not going through oak, they have another cuvée (the Reserve) that has an élevage in barrels (made of course by Varanda, the cooperage of the Nagorno-Karabakh). The winery facility is modest in size, they use a basket press which fits perfectly for small-batch cuvées. The wine is not yet exported in the West as far as I know, only the lucky Russians get these bottles abroad. But given the quality they should be available elsewhere as well, hoping that no brown-shirts types similar to the anti-Israel BDS movement lobby to prevent the export of the wines under the pretext that they're from an "occupied" area.... 
From what I read elsewhere the Avetissyans were initially selling their grapes to other wineries but as the wholesale grape prices were dwindling year after year they decided to make wine themselves. Good move. That was in 2010, they named the wine Kataro, along the Katarovank monastery in Hadrut, which sits atop a mountain and was built in the 4th century. Armenia has deep Christian roots, not only because it was among the first nations to become Christian but also because its survival as a Christian nation was threatened countless times, the last sad example being the genocide by Ottomans in 1915. 
Kataro Wine Facebook page 
Domaine Avetissyan's website
 
I also tasted a couple of wines at the Trinity Canyon Vineyards stand (no pictures), they hadn't regular cuvées to taste, just a couple of experimental blends not bottled yet. Trinity Canyon Vineyards is seemingly one of the best domaines in Armenia, it is located in this very region of Vayots Dzor and I tasted an excellent white from them later in Yerevan (whites are often heavy in alcohol and SO2-soaked in Armenia and their white seemed to step aside on that matter). The red I tasted at the stand was a Syrah-Areniblend, but it was a bit strong to my taste, the young guy who was fluent in French said that the Syrah was very ripe (15 % alc.), it was the first harvest of Syrah they had on the domaine (young vines I guess), amounting to 300 kg of grapes. You cvan taste their other wines in Yerevan at In Vino, a very interesting wine bar & wine shop.
Before we left I managed to buy some bulk wine at one of the many street-side stands, this is home-made wine, so to say, as I think many of these family production sites are probably close to real winery facilities with the potential to vinify good wines if they changed a few things in their winemaking routine. This stand unlike most had signs in English as well and I guessed that this "gaseous new wine" was precisely this bernache, a sweet juice turning gently into a lightly-alcoholic beverage with beautiful inebriating properties... The guy asked 1500 AMD or 2,85 € a liter, somehow expensive for Armenia (You often get bernache for free in the French wineries if you bring an empty plastic bottle), I bought a small bottle of it because it was delicious (the guy made me taste in a glass). I drank the wine on the way back to Yerevan, keeping the screw cap open to let the gas out (otherwise the bottle can explode). It was certainly also outrageously soaked with SO2 because it soon gave me a headache and I had to get rid of it, but I'm sure they too will learn to have a lighter hand on sulfites. I had visited a few years ago the basement facility of Haigaz who is also running a roadside stand to sell his wine, he was doing a good job and working pretty naturally from what I remember, It's a pity I didn't have time to meet him this time to see how his business and winery were going.
 
On the way back to the parking area, we passed a vintage UAZ truck, of a type I didn't know, it may be an older model made during the Soviet-Union times and that was later discontinued, or it has been customized with the wood pickup sides in the back, anyway it isn't part of the present range of all-terrain trucks made by UAZ in Russia today, my preferred model remaining the UAZ 454 "Breadloaf" or буханка (another free ad, I hope they reward me with a truck one of these days...). This one is fit for farmers and obviously you can move large farm animals with it as well.
 
We also made a visit to the cave of Areni 1 where a 6100-year-old winemaking facility was discovered a few years ago (2007). The site is now protected and only a small part of the ground has been dug and excavated, they're working with care, letting work for future generations and newer archeological techniques. You can read more about this mysterious winemaking facility in this story of mine written in 2011. The picture above shows the narrow corridor through which you have to walk to reach a cave deep under the hill, where the winery tools and clay fermenting pots were found. You have to imagine that people walked through this narrow entrance 6100 years ago, brought grapes in and had them ferment in there.
 
We had the luck to have tha cave presented to us by Boris Gasparyan in person, the archeologist who has led much of the archeological work on the site, after having kind of discovered it as a kid while playing in these empty caves when his father who was an hydraulic engineer in the Soviet Union was conducting work around here. He says this is the earliest know winemaking unit, the soil here is a lightly-bent platform enclosing fermentation tanks that were made of clay. The grapes would be crushed by food presumely and the light slope would make the juice flow into the burried clay pots where it would ferment, then moved into other vessels in the cave for keeping. They found dry remains of wine in the bottom of the pots, plus reed tins, something that the Greek author Xenophon described when he passed through present-day Armenia in the 5th century B.C. saying that the locals were drinking wine in reeds. You can read here what Xenophon recounted during this expedition, but keep in mind tha Armenia was then much larger and its center was more south from present-day Armenia, this was before the islamization and the genocide or forced conversion of the region.
Boris Gasparyan says that they're publishing soon a new study on fungi found in the tanks that were analyzed, they kind of proved some alcohol was produced here. He says this site is unique because organic material is well preserved, there are pegs holding the tanks that look like they were made recently, it may be because of the humidity ratio or the very nature of the mineral soil, everything remains in good condition, they have different layers along the centuries including medieval times, with even animal bones from that era with still DNA on them.
They also found human bones, another aspect here is that the winemaking was associated with human sacrifices, ritual cannibalism where blood was also possibly mixed with the juice, they'd drink the wine and consider this as a gateway to the other world, a way to connect to the powers of other world. Wine was an important component of their world view at the time, and somehow the Christian rite associating Christ's blood with wine and Christ's body with bread may be an echo of these times, he says. For now they're trying different hypothesis to explain the surprising findings they're making here.
 
Boris Gasparyan says they're also doing some diggings in other areas in the region. They're also looking i more recent history, when Armenia was part of the Urartu Kingdom which rivaled Assyrya for the domination of the world between 860 and 585 B.C. and wine played a central role at that time in the Urartian Kingdom, they found where the vineyards of that time were tended and cultivated. Boris Gasparyan says they're combining all their findings including with using recent DNA technology to try to recontruct a picture of what happened in the region.
Here there's potential for deeper digging, they made test trials with 4-meter pits and it turned out positive, but they're not hurried because the techniques and tools are getting better every year and by going too fast they might damage some evidence. Boris Gasparyan says that there's work for the next generations of archeologists, when the excavating techniques wil be much improved, he doesn't want to do more damage to the site and he focuses on special-focus projects dealing with DNA analysis, bacteria, sediments and so on, they can do that without taking the risk to further deteriorate the remains. But you can imagine that in the part of the floor that hasn't been dug (the one under the lady on the picture above) there are tons of artifact and exciting findings yet to be discovered and analyzed.
Other findings : They found a very elegant 5500-year-old shoe, named the Areni-1 shoe just at the door of the cave (close-up picture). They're also looking into the reasons why everything is so well preserved in this particular cave, they don't know yet why all the tissues remain in such good condition after so many years, they have some bones from several centuries ago wit still DNA on them for example. They want to know if 600+ years ago they chose this cave because they somehow knew of its special preserving properties or if they built their ritual winemaking unit there by chance.
 
We also visited briefly the Novarank complex near Areni that day, a group of church buildings located in an impressive scenery with mountains all around. 
On the way back to Yerevan our driver took a different road, some sort of shortcut on the right, a smaller road with less traffic where we had the chance to slow down and see these cute goats, sheep and cows going back tightly together to the secure shed of the farm, lovely sight that I enjoyed while sipping my plastic bottle of sweet fermenting juice...