Smaller than most US counties, Guria is bordered on the west by the Black Sea and stretches inland, less than 50 miles wide and 20 miles deep, through undulating lushly vegetated hills rising to high mountains to the East and South and the massive fertile valley of glacial-fed Rioni River to the North and popular Black Sea coastal resorts to the West.
As an American living, working and traveling in Georgia for many years, my time there provided many opportunities to explore less-traveled locales. A particularly memorable off-the-beaten track adventure was a visit with Zurab Topuridze at his family’s Iberieli Vineyards and Winery, in the Guria Region of West Georgia.
Iberieli Vineyards and Winery. Where Traditional and Modern Winemaking Are In Harmony.
Iberieli Vineyards and Winery is deep within Guria. The name Iberieli – chosen by Zurab’s children – refers to an ancient people, in the Caucasus, who made wine thousands of years ago. They later became Georgians and are believed to be the inventors of Qvevri winemaking, where wines are made and
stored in clay vessels buried in the ground.
FUN FACT: Qvevri are different both in shape and function from Amphora. Far more than just clay vessels for storage, Qvevri are integral to the winemaking process; so much so that the Qvevri method is recognized by Unesco Heritage as a unique ancient traditional method.
Zurab has made great contributions to Georgian wine. He founded Georgia’s Natural Wine Association (www.nwa.ge) to reinvigorate the adherence to traditional natural winemaking techniques. He is an advocate for combining modern knowledge and natural and traditional winemaking techniques, and he is on a relentless quest to re-establish indigenous grape varietals. With a sub-tropical climate, challenging terrain, and low yields, the journey is not easy. However, all his efforts are paying off, as he is crafting spectacular wines.
Helping Guria’s Varietals Recover and Flourish
One example of Zurab’s efforts to reinvigorate Guria’s unique varietals is the ancient indigenous varietal Chkhaveri. A dark pink skinned grape, native to Guria and its neighboring Adjara region to the South. This grape is late ripening, low yielding and typically harvested in late November. Zurab and friends in the region are credited with successfully bringing Chkhaveri back into wine production and available for the world’s wine explorers to enjoy.
While living in Georgia, I became close friends with Zurab and made several visits to Iberieli, on occasion even ‘helping’ with harvest and the crush. Zurab is meticulous with viticulture and adheres strictly to natural wine making standards. As a winemaker, he continues to learn and improve his vineyards and help others to do the same, experiment with the winemaking potential these recently restored ancient varietals offer.
Together, we walked through his vineyards some on precipitously steep hillsides, on gentle slopes, on flats, facing differently for different sun exposure, varied soils, different vine plantings, spacings, alignments and protective methods, all in the quest to help Chkhaveri and other indigenous West Georgia varietals recover and flourish as premier Georgian wines.