Expert hitchhiker and Armenian travel blogger extraordinaire Arty Om takes us on a trip to southern Armenia for the yearly wine festival at Areni. Check out the Areni festival website to learn more about the event, and don’t forget to pass by Arty Om’s travel blog (check out the Silk Road Armenia trip) if you want to read more great stories of travel in Armenia.
Saturday, 6th of October, 2012. Six o’clock in the morning. We – me and my friend Manu are on Arshakunyats avenue in Yerevan, trying to hitch a ride to get out of the city to the M2 highway that will take as all the way to the village of Areni in Vayots Dzor region of Armenia. Since 2004 the village hosts the Areni Wine Festival. Our plan was to hitchhike to Areni, spend the day tasting different wines, get drunk and then…come what may. A taxi driver offered as a lift for couple of kilometers.
“Good luck and may Jesus Christ be with you,” said he when he dropped us off. Jesus stayed with us, unlike the luck, since the rest of the road to the highway we had to walk, following the scent of the freshly baked bread. Two guys picked us up on the outskirts of Yerevan and drove to Artashat. From there – another lift to the city of Ararat. The changing colour of the snow on top of the mount Ararat was an evidence of imminent sunrise.
Dropped off on the highway near Ararat, soon we hitched a blue Volkswagen. The rare window of the vehicle had a sign that said “365 Wines”. I had no ideas what that meant, but the word “wine” itself was a good sign. “Come on, get in, we are also heading to Areni,” said the driver and smiled.
Turned out he was the sales director of the “365 Wines” Armenian wine and spirits brand. They were driving to the festival to fight for the “Golden Keg”, a prize for the best Armenian wine among wine producers. “You see that cargo van? That’s our guys, they drive our bottles of wine to the festival,” said Artak, the driver.
Talks about wine on the way to Areni Wine Festival in the same car with wine producers – this is how our vinous madness began. Around 9AM we turned off the highway and entered the village. Locals were actively preparing for the festival lining up the tables with wine, fruits, cheese and other home-made products along the road. People were in hurry. Everything had to be perfect before the arrival of the President of Armenia.
After taking a short walk in the village, we decided to visit the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church built in 1321 AD by the famous Armenian architect Momik. The church was standing on top of a hill rising above Areni. A middle-aged woman met us at the churchyard. “I am from Yeghegnadzor, not local. I was asked to come over here to sell candles, since the President may visit the church. So here I am standing and waiting. Not sure if I will be able to join the festivities down in the village,” said she. The President, by the way, didn’t visit the church and after the official opening of the festival he left for the village of Khachik.
A stunning view of the village and the Arpa river opened to us from the hill where the church was standing. The rocks and the mountains surrounding Areni were like guardians protecting this prospering oasis of life. The village of Areni is famous for its wine production. In fact, wine making was known here ages ago. In 2007, a team of Armenian and Irish archeologists discovered a 6,100-year-old winery in the Areni-1 cave near the village, which is now the world’s oldest known winery. By the way, in 2008, in that same cave archeologists found a 5,500-year-old leather shoe, the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world known to contemporary researchers.
The smoke from the barbecue rising above the houses in the village and the loud music were telling us that the villagers have already started the festivities. We walked down to the main square and join the crowd. Guests from all of the corners of Armenia as well as foreign tourists were slowly walking by the tables of the villagers who in their turn were kindly offering home-made wine to everybody.
We first went to visit our friends from “365 Wines”. “What type of wine do you drink?” asked Artak. “Red Dry, please,” I answered immediately. He opened a bottle and offered a full glass of red dry “Areni”. Not an expert in wines, yet I can tell which wine is good or bad, and I have to admit that the wine I was offered was very good. My friend from India, Aroop, agreed with me. “I think they will win the contest,” said he, emptying the glass.
Strangely the wines from the local wine-producing companies left the opposite impression on us. But the home-made wine villagers were offering us was way better as if it was made of warmth and love people contributed in the delicate process of wine making. The traditional Armenian dances performed on the main square of the village didn’t interest us much since the only purpose of us being in Areni was the wine and we didn’t want to miss any of the presented products. After finishing the first round of wine tasting exactly to the moment when we weren’t sober anymore but not drunk yet, together with friends who joined us from Yerevan we began the second round.
Eventually, I lost my friends in the crowd and while looking for them I happened to meet the US Ambassador to Armenia John A. Heffern and Armenia’s minister of education Armen Ashotyan. Meanwhile, the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, passing by the tables of the villagers presenting their products, walked out on the main square and attended the ceremony of official opening of the Areni Wine Festival 2012.
The crowd on the main square of the village was singing, dancing, drinking and having fun. We were on our third and fourth rounds, tasting the wines we have missed before. Rosé, apricot wine, sweet and semi-sweet wines. In fact, I liked the apricot wine presented by “Maran” brand, although I don’t like fruit wines and prefer to drink red dry. “Maran” wines were good in general, and being true, of all the wines I’ve tried at the festival I liked “365 Wines” and “Maran” most.
Meanwhile, away from the craziness of the festivities, Armenian sommeliers Karo Hakobyan, Suren Sahakyan, Karen Aghajanyan and Tserun Virabyan together with the best French sommelier of 2008 Serge Ghoukassian and the best Italian sommelier of 2011 Luca Canapicchi were tasting the contestant wines trying to detect the best wine among producers.
About three hours later they were ready to announce the winner. Was it a coincidence or not, I don’t know, but the Grand Prix of Areni Wine Festival 2012 went to… our friends from “365 Wines”. Just as my friend Aroop predicted. “You brought us luck when we picked you up from the highway,” said Artak after receiving the prize. Shortly after announcing the names of all the winners, people started leaving the village and the Areni Wine Festival was over. But not for us. We didn’t want to go back to Yerevan.
Three of our friends have already found a shelter in Areni – an old lady invited them over to her place. Eventually, we also found a host. A guy named Arthur invited us over to their house, where his mother, Gayane, was already waiting for us. We spent more than an hour talking about wine making, and three of friends joined us from Yerevan. They were late for the festival, but still wanted to try some wine. Gayane offered us a separate room where we could sleep.
But before that we decided to go to the local store and get some food. In the store, we weren’t able to find anything we wanted – cheese, bread, vegetables. But once we came out of the store we happened to meet a grey-headed man whose name was Agasi. “Hey, beautiful young people! How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you? What do you need? Cheese? Bread? Tomatoes? Sure, no problem!” Seconds after we were in two cars going somewhere. Agasi offered us a lot of lavash (Armenian flatbread), cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. «How can I not help such young people as you are?! My own son is abroad and who knows, maybe some good man will also help him,” said Agasi. And of course he wouldn’t let us go without drinking wine with him.
At Gayane’s house we gor three litres of home-made wine and continues celebrating. And it wasn’t important what were we celebrating. What was more important is that Arthur and his mother Gayane invited six strangers over to their house; the help from Agasi was important; every single villager in Areni who offered us free wine and food was important. It was important to know that wherever you go, no matter where you are, where you come from and where you go – we are all one big family sharing one big home, sitting around one table and drinking wine.