Winemaker Nver Kazaryan (Areni)
Authors: Vasily Prytkov, Maria Svetova
Whenever broaching the topic of Armenia, always keep in mind one thing: despite the fact it’s known best for cognac, it is undoubtedly a wine country. And not just any old wine country, but the global cradle of wine culture. Armenian wines were highly praised in the Mesopotamian era, and modern archaeological discoveries near Areni village (Vayots Dzor Province, southern Armenia) provide inscrutable proof that the history of winemaking in this land dates back thousands of years.
There are lots of Areni winemakers, but the creations of Nver Kazaryan are more an artistic masterpiece than just wine. The secret isn’t just in his seasoned Areni vineyards, with vines over 40 years old. Or about his expressive, experimental mindset in combination with time-tested technologies. It is more than just his wines and their excellent potential for aging. His wine as art is expressed in the very aesthetic of life in Armenia under the sun, life in this land of ancient secrets, filled with millennia of efforts, beauty, and something more elusive… the very essence of the Armenian mind — cunning, merry, and at the same time as wise as Areni itself.
— Let’s start by hearing a little about your estate. As far as I know, your family has been living here and making wine for generations.
— Yes, that’s correct. My father planted these vineyards. He was a good winemaker. The vines of Areni on our vineyard are 40 years old, although there are some 4-year-old vines as well. Last year, we expanded the area a bit.
— What makes your vineyards unique?
— Our vineyard are home to pure-bred Areni. Also, there’s a research and support program for the most valuable vineyards of Armenia — the Ernekyan (Tierras de Armenia) and Keushguerian (Semina Consulting) project. As part of this program, they analyzed our vines in a lab in France and determined that they belong to the pure Areni variety: a paragon of its kind. Genetically pure vines like these can maintain the same level of yield for many years. What we have here is the real deal. They tagged our vineyards and assigned an individual number to each plant.
— Tell us about your wines. Do you use Areni exclusively, or do you work with other varieties as well?
— We use two varieties: red Areni and white Khardji. Areni is used for red and rose wines. At the moment, I don’t have any rose wine in the cellar. Vahe Keushguerian made it: we gave him our grapes, and they turned it into «our» rose wine. We don’t have the capability to make rose at our facilities. Red and white are doable, but rose just won’t turn out right, so we collaborated with Vahe.
— I’d like to talk more about Areni with you. What is it like, what type of wine does it make? How would you describe its character?
— This grape has a rare taste that changes immediately if you try growing it anywhere else. In this region, it is cultivated only in Areni, and one other village. In the past, it used to grow near Ararat, but it just didn’t have its signature taste. Areni is hard to cultivate if the conditions aren’t right. We water it 4 times a year.
— What is a good year for Areni?
— Last year happened to be a good one: just a little rain and a small yield. These are the requirements for a good wine. You can’t make good Areni wine in a humid climate. Yield also plays a crucial role. Obviously, with a large yield the quality of grape will be worse. When the yield is less, the wine turns out better. On top of that, if it hails even just once, the wine will be excellent, albeit with a small yield.
— When making Areni, what do you look for in its taste?
— It must have prevailing fruit tones and a burgundy color. We do a lot together with my wife Narine, including at the vinification stage. She has good taste, and she gets a lot of the credit for when the wine turns out like we hoped.
— Tell us more about what the soil is like here.
— As you can see, the soil here has a lot of rocks. It’s pressed limestone, not volcanic rocks. But that makes the soil here great, with lots of calcium that gives minerality and sweetness to the grape and serves as a natural fertilizer. We don’t even have to use additional chemicals to boost growth. We haven’t applied any artificial or organic fertilizers for the past three years. Our wine is 100% natural and chemical-free. This wine is just as nature invented it, we merely harvest its gifts.
— But what about adding sulfur for stability?
— We treat our wine with sulfur for better preservation in the barrel, plus it helps against the mosquitoes and fungi.
— When do you harvest your grape?
— We start on October 15. There is a trick to this process. Here in Areni, they celebrate the regional wine festival on October 5—7. So we harvest after the festival. Both wineries and estates come to join the fun. Usually, they present wines from the previous year, but some winemakers harvest their grape earlier and make young wine specially for it. It’s made from the same Areni, only harvested in advance. In Armenian it’s called «machar» — ripening wine, almost juice. It’s similar to Beaujolais. However, completely mature Areni is a lot better for your health.
— How exactly is dry Areni good for your health?
— It is good for your heart. But still, everything is good in moderation.
— Should your wine be drank in the evening?
— Yes, mostly in the evening. We don’t normally drink wine during lunch here. In fact, I don’t drink wine during the day at all, only in the evening.
— What’s the total volume of wine you produce in a year?
— The estate produces 15 tons of grape. We have an agreement with Armenia Wine and sell 70% of our harvest to them, and keep 30% for ourselves. They sponsored us so we could expand our vineyard. We couldn’t earn enough by just selling our own grape. Recently, we obtained a license and now have the right to make wine under our own brand.
We even have a name for our wine — Momik. Momik is the name of a well-respected Armenian architect. He built the church in Areni in 1321, as well as the Noravank Monastery near Areni. Momik is also a local name for limestone, as Momik the architect built his churches using it. So we decided on calling our wine Momik.
— Out of the 30% you keep, how much wine do you produce?
— One ton of grape makes 500 liters of wine. We keep around 2 tons of grape, so we make 1,000 liters of wine, or approximately 1,500—2,000 bottles. Out of that, 80% is red and 20% is white. By the summer of 2018, we plan to build a tasting center among our vineyards, and once it’s ready, we’ll stop selling grapes and start making more wine.
— What potential does your wine have? How long can it be stored in a bottle?
— Every year we open the old bottles and see how the wine has changed. I have one 2004 wine and it’s great, but I consider our wines aged 1 or 2 years to be the best.
— As far as I understand, you also make semi-sweet wine, but it only makes up a small percentage, right?
— Yes, it’s more of an experiment. We used to make it before and just drank it right away, we didn’t store it.
— Do you age your wines in karases?
— Yes, of course. We age a portion of our wine in barrels, some in karases, and the rest in glass. I believe that our best wines are aged in glass. All three varieties taste differently. We use both new and old barrels. Every year, our barrels need to be fixed up and then put back together. We loosen the loops, fill them up with water, and leave them to rest for a week or two. Then we tighten them back up and leave the water in them for a little bit longer. Then we look to see if it leaks. If it doesn’t, it’s ready to use.
— How long do you keep your wine in karases?
— It depends on the ambient temperature. Our cellar is cool, but when it’s 40—42°C outside, the temperature in the cellars might reach 22°C and damage the wine. So we maintain a strict 16°C in the basement of our cellar. This way it can be stored for a year without any worries.
— How do karases change the taste of a wine?
— The wine becomes darker and thicker due to the clay. But clay also has pores where the wine evaporates from, so we keep about 10 liters of wine on hand to pour in as needed.
— Is there anyone making make new karases in Armenia? I’ve heard that everyone just uses old ones.
— There are! Ararat makes new karases, and the potters in one village here do as well. You can call them and place an order. For example, I’ve ordered a 200-liter karas from them.
— What press do you use in production, what does your pressing process look like?
— In the past we stuck to grape-stomping. But for the last three years we’ve been using a special press.
— What vessel do you do your stomping in?
— We use large enamel tanks, 50—60 liters each, and always wear rubber boots. However, if we’re talking about a large amount of grapes (i.e. a ton), it would be hard to stomp it, so we send it out to be processed in a special crusher. Out of the two tons of grape we keep, we send most of it to the crusher and stomp the rest.
— Do mechanically-crushed wines and wines made from stomped grape taste different? Or do you mix them together?
— Yes, using a device has an effect on the quality of wine because the grape is crushed with the stalks, which produce acidity. Wine made from stomped grape doesn’t have this note. So we make separate wine from grapes that are stomped «by hand.» This year, my wife Narine and I managed to stomp all two tons of grape we kept because we didn’t want to send any to the press. It was hard physical work, for several days, from morning till evening.
— How long does initial fermentation take, and what’s the process like?
— We ferment it with pomace in a concrete pool for approximately seven days. Sometimes we have a cold October, and in that case we keep it in the pool for 8—10 or even 12 days. Then we pour wine into 200-liter plastic barrels for 12—15 days without pomace, as they’re more convenient.
— How many times do you pour wine before it ends up in a karas?
— Well, with this karas, we poured it right away to form wine stone and bubbles. As a result, we’ve got sparkling wine here. That’s because we didn’t rake it off. This wine spent 5 months in a karas, since October. Today, we’re going to pour it again because we don’t have any more wine to add to it, and wine in a karas doesn’t like oxygen.
— Okay, so you poured one wine directly into a karas. But what about the other wines? What technology do you use?
— First, we store it for a month and a half, then two and a half months because fermentation gradually slows down. With rapid fermentation, we pour wine into another vessel faster. This is done to better control the process. If a winemaker is sure they have high-quality wine and can make good wine without the danger of it going sour, they can leave it in peace for a whole year.