Guria's Extraordinary Terroir: a weekend in Western Georgia
(JQ walking Gurian terraces with Zurab Topuridze)
Our past weekend of filming in the humid, sub-tropical West Georgian region of Guria was deeply revelatory. Along with his family, our friend Zurab Topuridze welcomed us to his village of Dablatsikhe with memorable hospitality. Over the course of two days, we were given an intimate view into their story, vineyard land, and cellar.
The vine terraces pictured above are one of 5 that Zurab farms, all with different exposures and altitudes, which he himself carved out of loamy basalt rock. Riven by iron and manganese, the topsoil has a bright vermilion hue. Immediately reminded of Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin', where the color is put to such galvanizing use, I felt both humbled and lifted up, as if in a sacred presence. That's not an unusual feeling here in Guria, where the air is charged with salty moisture, the quickly-turned earth is fertile, and the unfolding slopes, planted to tea bushes, grape vines, and citrus trees, are capped with a lacy, inviting white mist. I've been asked by colleagues if Georgia has a terroir; one hour in Guria would provide answer enough.
Zurab works with the Chkhaveri Rose vine, from which he makes two wines: a skin-contact rosé, and a non-skin-contact white. He works without chemicals, and the fermentation is in qvevri, which are known here (and in the rest of Western Georgia) as churi - a much older word which describes the clay vessel where any comestible, such as cheese, water, or oil, may be stored. He made wine for many years strictly for his family and friends, and only began bottling for a wider audience in 2010. It can be a challenge to find natural Georgian wines with any degree of maturity; together with Zurab, we were fortunate to taste his wines back to his first vintage. Some Chkaveris have a natural sweetness, but all of Zurab's, even back to 2010, are dry and bracing. On the palate, they have a likeness to Chenin Blanc, with chamomile, heather, lime blossom, and steely acidity.
(With Zurab in the evening, discussing the Chkhaveri in the glass)
Earlier in the weekend, we had the chance to see a mature Chkhaveri Rose vine during a visit with another Gurian, Andro Vashalomidze. Andro is a self-styled nurseryman and winemaker: we met him in the shadow of a crumbling Soviet tea factory, where, on a small patch of land, he patiently cultivates sixteen of Guria's sixty-four autochtonous grape varieties, effectively guarding them from extinction. We inspected many vines I had never seen before, including Chumuta, Mtredispekha, Orona Shemokmedi, an excellent rosé named Badagi, and this enormous, tree-like, thick-trunked Chkhaveri Rose vine:
(Andro is on the right, and behind us, the giant Chkhaveri Rose vine, easily 15+ feet tall)
Among Andro's vines are several trained to grow up trees, by a method known here as Olikhnari. It's a very old vineyard technique, known by the Romans and far deeper into antiquity. With the exception of a few hectares worldwide, it's fallen into disuse, yet its benefits to the vine and the grapes were once well-documented. Among the myriad themes and subjects we're exploring this year, I greatly look forward to helping with an Olikhnari harvest, basket on back, ladder in hand!
We were also able to visit the weekly Sunday bazaar in the Gurian town of Chokhatauri, where we helped some local ladies decide the value of their poultry. (Later this week will see us in the center/west regions of Imereti and Kartli.)