Areni is foremost known in Armenia as the village where roadside vendors sell their home-made wine to the travellers en route to iconic monasteries of the region or coming back from destinations deep in the mountains like Meghri or the crossing point with Iran. You come across many trucks with Iranian license plates in the region (like the one on the picture on left) and for the anecdote Armenia is visited by quite a few tourists from this country, who come here to escape temporarily from the islamic virtue police, have fun and enjoy drinks.
As I was looking for artisanal wineries on the Internet in France before this trip, I came across Christian Garbis blog and contacted him. He is an American-Armenian and a writer who has been living in Armenia for a few years and married there. He was very helpful and gave me the contact info of Haigaz, one of these street vendors where he used to buy bulk wine when he drove by, for example when driving to Novarank. His wine was a safe choice and Christian had sampled several of his products, including fruit wines. I really wanted to meet someone like Haigaz, an artisan making wine for the common consumer like his forefathers did since immemorial times, and few other places in Armenia was fit for this deep-rooted tradition than Areni... See the wine stall on the right ? There are a few dozens like this one along the road in the outskirts of Areni, this isn't Haigaz's but I chose to show this one here because you can see the mountains and feel the road. I could have stopped at any of these shacks but Christian offered me a shortcut to a sideroad stall with the house/winery sitting just a few meters beyond the road (many of these stalls can be far from their respective facility).
I read an article about Areni by Armenian reporter Tatul Habokyan where he said that a given family with a wine shack along the road here would sell 20 liters a day of red wine along the year, with peaks to 100 or 150 liters on holidays, at a liter price of 1000 Dram, which makes about 1,83 € or 2,7 USD. You can find wine in shops in Yerevan for 900 Dram a bottle but it's a crap that you'll not go beyond an aborted nose. I have got an interesting wine in Yerevan for a mere 1300 Dram but I'm not sure it's very common. While the village seems rather poor on European standards, the article says that people here tend to emigrate less than in other villages; there is work here, and vine growing or winemaking translates into real money.
The pic on left shows Areni as seen from the road. Vines can be spotted at the foot of these housing blocks.
Haigaz asks us what we want to taste. I ask for a dry red, he says that he has plots of Areni but they have different taste because of the place. He points to different blue containers, some with young wines, some with more acidic reds, some having still some sugar. He has vineyard plots not only in Areni but also in another village in the vicinity. He has another cellar over there, a very dark one which he says is good to keep the wine.
Our guest pours us a glass of red Areni 2010, taken from a blue container. This is lightly tannic, fruity, a young wine with some character, I would say.. There may be a few grams of residual sugar in here too. The winemaker says that he doesn't use fermenti, yeasts to start the fermentation. He says that he drinks his own wine and doesn't mix things in it.
He pours us then a lightly sweet white wine. Asked if he filters the wines, he says some yes, some not. This one is filtered but we'll taste a non-filtered after. He says it's better that way but that it makes the wine less stable. Asked if he puts some sulphur to stabilize the wines, he says that he burns pieces of paper with sulphur on it when the wine is moved from a blue container to another, that's all, and it takes place in his own words when the wine has ceased bubbling (when fermentation is over). If we understood correctly, when the fermentation is over, he racks the wine to another similar vat, burning the improvised sulphur wick in the empty container before filling it. The important thing he says, before doing this improvised sulphur wick, is to be sure that the wine is not working anymore. Also, he fills the container to the top and put the lid so that no oxygen comes in contact with the wine.
The white wine he poured us is a 2010, it is made with several white varieties that he grows. It's a simple, rustic wine that would go well as apéritif, I would say. His vineyards are about 30 years old, he says. It had been planted in the soviet years by the kholkhoz and when the socialist system stopped each worker got a small surface, his own lot was 0,5 hectare. He was a tractorist in the kholkhoz. But this white comes from a vineyard that he planted 8 years ago 2 kilometers from here.
He pours us now another white, actually a lightly-rosé wine : this is the same wine but an unfiltered version. I like that, also a hearty white with a bit of residual sugar and a tannic feel, definitely a variety or group of variety that we don't have in western Europe, some being probably with a grey/red skin. Haigaz says that the first white stayed one day in contact with the skins and seeds but the second stayed 3 days and took some color. He says that for the red the contact time is 15 days. Asked about the alcohol level of his wines, he says not very high, about 12 °, I say that it is maybe 13 ° from what I feel, to which he says, could be, as he doesn't have the tools to measure and make analysis on his wine. I ask if he adds some sugar during the fermentation, he says there is no need in this region to do that, this is the natural sugar. I think it's true.
I ask about the two amphorae-like containers on the side, Haigaz says that he uses these ones in spite of the fact that the wine perspires through the clay fabric. Wood casks are way too expensive, he says, and old casks wouldn't give a wood influence on the wine, so it's useless. He knows some people who bought old casks dating from the 50s' or 60s' (the soviet years) that they get from bigger wineries, but the price to renovate these casks back to useable condition is 3 USD per liter, which makes a lot of money. Plus, there is still a risk that it will leak. He doesn't make wood chips either. Plus, he says, if he used wood chips people would not understand as they know that he has no wood containers in his cellar.
Haigaz tells us that during the soviet years by the way only this village and a couple of others would drink wine because they had been keeping making home wine in the back yard, but everyone in Yerevan would drink vodka and it's still pretty much the same today even if wine has made inroads. He is quite sure that if we asked randomly in Yerevan, many people would admit that they never drink wine. It's only since the last 10 years that wine has made a comeback and that its sales went up in the shops. And what is sure is that northern Armenia is vodka country, not wine. The southern Armenia like here has been making wine for ages and that's where many consumers are, near Areni, Ijivan and near the border with Iran (pomegranate wine). 7-6:10
You can see on this picture both a young vineyard and a young orchard (in the background).
I made this visit with my relative, driving here with his car from Yerevan. We asked to someone in the village where the vineyards were as we spotted only a few plots here and there. He pointed to a direction, saying that there were 100 hectares planted in the area.
On the picture on the left, shot near Chiva which is another village nearby, you can see a few rows of vines down below on the green patch, and here also people seem reluctant to plant on the more arid slopes. In the article about the village growers, one of them is cited saying Even though we do not have a lot of land, what we do have is very fertile. I think that the question here is that the Areni people grow two things, to be short : grapes and fruits, and they may consider each type of culture as needing the same type of soil and water reserves. Also, many growers sell their grapes to established wineries, and these ask for volume and weight, not quality of grapes, and the lower fertile grounds may be favored in that regard.
Haigaz and his wife have 3 children, two daughters and a son (the oldest) who is finishing his engineer school in Yerevan. Right now no child seems to want to follow suit at the tiny winery.