Since last fall I have been drinking terrific amounts of wine. During one period I was polishing off at least five bottles during a week’s span, more often sharing it with friends. Yet I have no problem downing an entire bottle of wine now it seems without getting very drunk—assuming I had something to eat beforehand.
I have focused primarily on two wines—a Côtes du Rhône that I found at Star Supermarket and Areni. I’ve been experimenting with the latter and have found that the quality of Areni varies from winery to winery. For instance Vedi Alco produces a 2004 Areni that can readily be found in grocery stores and even kiosks throughout Yerevan, but it is average to say the least, with little body or unique characteristics. It essentially is a flat, unexceptional wine, nevertheless dry. However, the Kimley Winery produces a very good Areni called Areni Country. I have sampled various vintages from 1998 to 2004 and all seem to be similar in terms of quality. When you first taste the wine it has a light, fruity body, but the finish is reminiscent of walnut and dark chocolate. But without a doubt the Areni produced by the Maran Winery of Yeghegnadzor are some of the most fabulous wines I have ever tasted. They are simply superb, and it seems that each vintage has entirely unique nuances. I was drinking a 2002 Bagratuni Areni produced by the same winery for a while until the stock ran out at the store I was buying it from--it is probably the best Armenian wine I have tasted for under 2000 dram (about $7).
But there seems to be quite a few wineries producing Areni, and there are simply too many to taste. I have also found that the quality varies even for the same vintage. For instance a 2001 Areni produced by Mets Syunik that I tried for the first time about two years ago had a slightly carbonated tinge to it which delicately caressed the tongue, with a gentle massaging effect. I drank several bottles of it then and each had the same distinctiveness. Several weeks ago I found a bottle of the stuff at a local store, only to find that subtle magic gone, replaced by a sour, even slightly putrid aroma reminiscent of burning cellophane shopping bags. Perhaps it was a counterfeit wine as fakes can be found on the marketplace, especially in hole-in-the-wall grocery stores, but needless to say I won’t buy it again and advise anyone reading this to pass it up.
Nevertheless you can also find some excellent homemade Areni as well, but you have to go to the source. Areni village is situated in the Vayots Dzor region, about a 10 kilometer drive or so from its border with Ararat. As soon as you enter the village you notice vendors selling their homemade grape concoctions in one-liter soda bottles, seeking shelter from the sun under gigantic umbrellas like those found at modest cafés. I think this practice of using plastic bottles with the labels still on them is to perhaps fool gregarious policemen just in case you happen to be pulled over during your road trip.
The first time I bothered to stop at one of these roadside stands was in November 2005 on my way back from a trip to Meghri. I purchased a couple of bottles after being given a few samples served in demitasse cups. I remember swallowing the stuff down at home without comprehending that it was wine since I was pouring it from a Coke bottle. To me it was fabulous, and I am anything but a wine connoisseur. I made a mental note of the stand, that it was in front of a home with an orchard of about a dozen apple trees and that there was a water tap at the corner of their driveway where it meets the street curb. So each time I pass through the area I stop by to sample and choose a wine usually poured into a washed Jermuk bottle from an enormous glass jug which must hold well over 50 liters. Two weeks ago on Easter Sunday I was alone in the afternoon and was eager to get out of the city in my recently purchased blue (a rare color) 2000 Niva as the preposterous, civil-liberty squashing state of emergency had just ended. The man who stood post—the owner of the estate—is an outgoing, hospitable guy by all means. He let me taste two wines poured from the glass jugs, but they had been sitting in the sun and were thus fairly warm, not appealing at all. Then he went to the garage and came back a few minutes later with two kinds to sample—one was a typical Areni which tasted very nice, and the other was apparently a semi-sweet, which I never tasted but I knew existed as Areni is most always dry. The latter was not as sweet as a Vernashen, which is like drinking American dark grape juice and has never been appealing to me, but it transformed into a dry wine at the back of the throat, and the effect was a pomegranate, walnut and almond pastiche. It was fantastic. So last Sunday I went back there to buy three additional liters at 1000 dram for each bottle, undoubtedly a bargain. In retrospect I should have bought more since the man’s wife was there instead and she couldn’t understand at first what he had given me—their son had to call him on his mobile phone. So I may not be able to purchase it in the future if they have trouble locating it again.
Southern Armenia is spellbinding, particularly Vayots Dzor which is perhaps my favorite region of Armenia. The entire landscape transforms every 10-15 kilometers, and the air temperature changes rather suddenly. Driving to Areni to buy some homemade wine is an excellent excuse to get out of dusty, cacophonous Yerevan, as it only takes an hour or so to get there. On the way back you can purchase some trout and carp from the fish farms situated on the edge of the Ararat plains.