Joško Gravner has been at the forefront of not one, but several ground-breaking movements in the wine world and most recently has been instrumental in the re-discovery of skin-contact (a.k.a. orange) wines, as well as bringing the unique heritage of the 8000 year old Georgian wine-making culture to the west.
In a global context, his thinking has inspired other wine producers: from Friuli and across the border in Slovenia, to France, Spain and South Africa. Over the last decade or so, a new-wave of international buyers and sommeliers have re-ignited interest in Gravner’s wines after a brief hiatus in the late 1990s when the international trade and press, almost to a man, rubbished his revolutionary approach to making white wines with extended skin contact and in clay amphorae.
These days, he has uprooted all other varieties (mostly in 2012) in order to focus on the indigenous varieties of Ribolla and Pignolo. He continues to use extended skin contact for the Ribolla with vinification in buried Georgian clay amphorae (aka quevri) for both varieties. His next project is to make an ‘amphora garden’ outside the winery building in which he will bury amphorae in the earth and next year, vinify the 2020 vintage in the open.
After meeting Gravner in person, this all makes perfect sense. It is obvious that his is a restless and probing intellect tempered with, or rather, deepened by a semi-mystical and intuitive connection with nature and the universe. At 68 years old, he conducts his life with unwavering integrity and the kind of simplicity that is borne of deep thought and focus on the essentials of life. It is clear from everything he does, from the food he and his family eat, to the way his home is furnished, to his single-minded focus on achieving the most pure expression of his land and varietal heritage that personal integrity is his north star.
When the prospect of visiting Gravner, guided by his Irish importer, Enrico Fantasia came up, there was no question that David and I would grasp the opportunity with both hands. Despite his standing as one of the great figures of the international wine world, Gravner is notoriously publicity shy and keeps a low profile, preferring to spend time in his vineyards and cellars, rather than courting journalists and buyers.
Perhaps this is entirely understandable, as his wines sell at a premium and demand outstrips supply for his releases. It wasn’t always thus. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Gravner achieved superstar status from Italian and international critics when he advocated the use of temperature-controlled stainless steel and other technological advances to produce clean, vibrant, zesty Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. At the time, these wines were revolutionary and catapulted his and similarly innovative Italian white wines into the stratosphere. In 1987, after visiting California, he had something of a Damascene conversion. Californian wines had been riding a wave of success since the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting (1976) had opened the international trade’s eyes to the quality and potential of the New World. Criss-crossing California, Gravner tasted thousands of wines in ten days, most of which tasted to him, depressingly homogenous. Gravner realised that the wines he, himself, was producing were exactly like these wines: products of a technology-driven approach in the cellars, rather than wines that expressed any real sense of where they were grown. Although many of the wines were undoubtedly beautifully made and were lauded by taste-making palates like Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Gravner realised that the techniques being used not only seemed to eradicate any real sense of soul and authenticity in the wine, but also were, in his opinion, damaging to the land from which they were produced. So, at the very peak of his success and renown, he decided to change tack, selling all of his stainless steel and barriques in order to produce deeply-coloured skin-contact white wines. This resulted in near commercial suicide as critics and buyers alike rejected the new style. Undeterred, his focus from now on would be on rediscovering and championing the indigenous varietals and cultural traditions of his part of Italy’s north-eastern corner, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with its capital of Trieste, is possibly the poorest and least-touristed parts of northern Italy. It borders Slovenia and Austria and is bounded by the Carnic and Julian Alps to the north. To the south lies the harsh calcium-carbonate karst landscape of the Triestine hinterland and beyond that, the Adriatic sea.
This autonomous region is divided into two parts: low-lying Venezia-Giulia covers as far as the Italian/Slovenian city of Gorizia/Nova Gorica. Friuli begins just north of Gorizia as the land begins to rise. The landscape here, particularly just north of Gorizia in the Collio DOC, is a glorious, bucolic vision of rounded hills of vines and cypresses interspersed with small villages and the blue and white steeples of churches. The feeling conjured here here is one where a mittel-European sensibility prevails over a layer of Latinate foundations.
This fascinating part of Italy is now relatively isolated, but it wasn’t always thus. A part of the Hapsburg Monarchy since 1382, it has a rich cultural, literary and gastronomic heritage. Trieste, the capital of the region, became the Habsburg port onto the Adriatic Sea and as a thriving entrepôt, it was a melting pot of Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Slavic, Greek and Jewish cultures. This cultural mishmash and ambiguity meant that writers such as James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Ernest Hemingway spent time here and drew inspiration from its complexity, nostalgic melancholy, originality and sense of cultural interchangeability.
On the plane on the way to Venice’s Marco Polo airport, I happened across that weekend’s ‘Lunch with the FT’ interviewee: artist and pro-European political activist, Wolfgang Tillmans. Given where we were going; the EU frontier between the Germanic, Slavic and Latin worlds; the person we were visiting, the Slovenian/Italian Gravner family, and the global political backdrop of fracturing post-war consensus, the article and Tillman’s politics resonated with me so much so that I wrote down two of his quotes: the first concerning his philosophy of wanting his art not to be put in a box and that he wished to “Leave room for uncertainty, interpretation and association” https://www.ft.com/content/18398928-86c2-11e9-a02886cea8523dc2 and the second: “Friendship between the peoples of Europe is of absolutely central importance to me. It is the basis of the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy….” https://www.ft.com/content/18398928-86c2-11e9-a0286cea8523dc2
The food and wine culture of Friuli
Friuli has a unique climate with unexpectedly high sunshine hours (more than Tuscany) and at 1200mm-1300mm rainfall per annum, is wetter than Atlantic-influenced Bordeaux. This climate is perfect for the cultivation of olives which were widely grown in the region until the 1920s and 1930s. As a very poor region, famine was common and when severe frosts killed most of the olive trees in the region in the 1920s and 1930s, they were not replanted again until the 1970s. The cuisine of the area is heavily olive-oil based and influenced both by Italy and by central and eastern European dishes. Butter is generally only used for desserts although the dairy produce is excellent. The Zoof coop is a very good local supplier of biodynamically-produced dairy. Montasio DOP is a creamy, semi-hard, alpine cheese which was first produced in the area by Benedictine monks. A local speciality is frico morbido – Montasio cheese cooked in a pan with shredded potato and sometimes enriched with onions and bacon; calorie-rich and utterly delicious. The sweetly nutty air-dried Prosciutto di San Daniele also comes from this unique region.
Visit to the Gravner family
From Venice, we drove to just north of Gorizia, to Joško’s paternal grandmother’s home in the tiny hamlet of Hum, Slovenia. The Gravners have restored their ancestral home, which is over 300 years old. Here, we were welcomed by Mateja Gravner (Josko’s daughter) and her son Gregor. We had a light, simple and delicious lunch along with a first look at some of the wines, tasted from glasses made to Joško’s specifications. He later explained the rationale for their broad tumbler-like shape: it was inspired by ancient Georgian drinking vessels which allowed the glass to be nestled in the centre of the sternum, close to the heart. It was privilege to be in this simple, historic house with its traditional Slovenian chimney which heats the entire house, with the sticks that had once been used to preserve hams still visible in the chimney.
Their current family home is located in Oslavia, another small hamlet on what is now the Italian side of the border. This is a part of Italy that is little-known, even within the country itself. Its strategic location at the meeting point between Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures meant that it was one of the flashpoints during both world wars. The pristine, emerald green Isonzo/Soča River formed the Isonzo Front, one of the bloodiest, but least-known frontlines in WWI. Approximately 1.7 million soldiers died, or were mutilated for life here.
Gravner’s home in the hamlet of Oslavia, has the name ‘Lenzuolo Bianco’ carved on the door lintel. Hard as it is to imagine on this sweltering hot June day, surrounded by peaceful vineyards, birds and insects, this wall was the only structure left standing in the hamlet of Oslavia during World War 1. It served as a first aid post for injured soldiers. From enemy positions on Monte Sabotino, this landmark looked like a white bedsheet, hence the moniker ‘lenzuolo bianco’
Walking the vineyards with Mateja Gravner
We walked through Gravner’s famous 8 hectare ‘Runk’ vineyard (planted entirely to Ribolla) in the company of Mateja. The vineyard, on the opposite side of the road to Lenzuolo Bianco, is a huge bowl-like, broadly terraced amphitheatre with green cover, wild flowers, trees and ponds breaking up what could easily otherwise be a monoculture. It was an unseasonably hot June day (a mini heatwave after a very cold May, so the vegetative growth was slightly ‘in ritardo’).
At 25kms from the Adriatic Sea and 35kms from the mountains, the Gravner family’s holdings lie in the Collio Friulano DOC (65%), with the remainder on the Slovenian side of the border in the Gorska Brda – exactly the same terroir. with an invisible international border running through it. During the day, breezes blowing from the Adriatic cool the vines and at night, breezes blowing down from the Alps cool the vines, creating a healthy diurnal temperature difference. The Bora wind, a cold northern wind blows down from the mountains and can reach incredible speeds of between 230 and 250 kilometres per hour. Cypress trees are planted in rows in the vineyards to act as natural windbreaks.
The soils are a heavy calcareous marls with flysch sandstone which are unique to the area and are known as ponca. It is a difficult soil to work and is prone to landslides in rainy weather. This is why the land is terraced and it makes sense to have tree (cherry, rowan, apricot, pear, chestnut, apple) and vegetative cover in order to hold the soils together. It turns out that the flavour and texture profiles of wines from Collio DOC can largely be explained by the nature of this unique combination of ponca soils and the climate: the high pH and cool temperatures of the fossil-rich marls work to preserve high levels of malic acid in the resulting wines, which is necessary to balance the rich textures and powerful flavours of the wines.
Viticulture has been organic since the early 1990s, for Joško, an ethical decision, rather than a commercial one. He passionately believes that his role is to be a guardian for the quality and sustainability of his patch of earth. They are now in their 4th year of working biodynamically, and they have noted an impressive change, even in that short time frame: the soils are more friable and react more quickly to changing weather patterns, with the vines able to self-balance quickly also.
As with Agricola Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera in Montalcino, they don’t practice ‘la chimatura’ to control plant vigour. Instead, they roll the tips of the leaves over the wire. This is because when the tops of the leaves are cut, the vine thinks it won’t have enough energy to produce ripe seeds and fruit. In this way, the plants comes into balance quickly and the fruit ripens well.
By the 1980s and 1990s, it had become clear that many of the local birds, insects and small animals and reptiles had begun to disappear. Joško decided to put up 200 bird boxes to provide places for birds displaced by intensive agriculture to nest. Recently they added as many again to replace old ones and to add new ones and they have approx. 240 now. It is received wisdom that birds eat grapes and can destroy a vineyard, but in reality, they eat grapes because they are thirsty. So, the Gravners have made ponds in the vineyards. We went to have a look and the area of the pond was literally buzzing with life, with birds, insects and frogs and little gambusia fish that keep the pond clean – and the mosquitos away.
Ribolla has been grown in the region for centuries and has always been noted for its quality. Commentators differ on the taste profile. Jancis Robinson describes it as a “light, floral, very crisp varietal”. I found Gravner’s Ribolla wines (and wines in general) to be conversely uniformly powerful, complex, savoury, with almost whiskey-like, iodine and smoky flavours. High acidity is certainly a feature, especially in the Ribolla grown in the Collio DOC. One thing that all agree on is that its vigour needs to be controlled by planting on hilly sites , ideally on ponca soils and by a specific pruning system known somewhat paradoxically as ‘albarello in fila’ (which translates as ‘bush vine on a wire). Ribolla ripens late, sometimes into November and has incredibly thick skins, rich in tannins and anthocyanins. The thickness of the skins meant that in the days before pneumatic presses, the only way to extract the juice was to allow the skins and juice several days of contact to soften before they could be pressed with any ease.
Amphora wine-making at Gravner
Gravner harvests the grapes when they are as ripe as possible; everything is hand-picked and selection happens on the vine with any rotten grapes that could contaminate the entire 20kg caschette left unpicked.
The winery is gravity-led, so the harvested grapes are lowered into a container in the middle of the amphora cellar. Punch downs 5 times per day then 2 per day as alcoholic fermentation finishes. Malolactic fermentation happens between December and February and then the amphorae are closed for another 4 months. Rack and press end of Jan. In September, the press wine is returned to the amphora for another 4 months. Gravner has a semi-mystical reverence for the number seven, so he keeps his wines for seven years before release. Hence, the current release is the 2012 vintage. This is also the last vintage for his ‘Breg’ cuvée before he grubbed up his Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico vines.
Joško received his first amphora in 1997 from a friend who lived in the Georgian Republic and installed it in the cellar in his ancestral home in Hum in Slovenia. He recalled that his heart trembled as he watched the grapes ferment. As is traditional with quevri-made wines, the amphorae are buried in the earth. This provides natural temperature-control and negates the need to use stainless steel or temperature control or indeed any real intervention. This 8000 year old tradition is as relevant and effective today as it was over the centuries before technology allowed winemakers greater freedom to influence the trajectory and style of fermentations. The combination of juice in contact with the nutrient-rich skins and slow oxygenation means that, as the Georgians have believed for millennia, the wine ‘gestates’ in the womb of the earth over a period of months and comes into balance when it is ready, all without any real human intervention.
The wine that results from white grapes is a deep amber in colour, perfectly clear and bright and stable. In this way, there is no need for modern wine-making interventions such as filtration, fining or any other additions or corrections. The results convinced him that this ancient method was the way to make terroir and vintage expressive Ribolla.
In May 2000, he decided to go to Georgia to find someone who could make amphora for him. The trip was eventful and Joško had to negotiate with machine gun-toting militias on several occasions. However, he found a quevri maker and placed an order for delivery to Italy. The shipment arrived in November: very delayed and not only too late for the 2000 vintage, but also all broken. The next shipment also arrived broken, so 2003 was the first vintage to be made entirely in amphorae.
Gravner has a semi-mystical reverence for the number seven and insists on bottling his wines after seven years of maturation. Before bottling he adds a 40-90 mg sulphur and leaves the wine to rest for 6 months after bottling. They export 50% of their production and label to order.
Breg Bianco 1999 Deep amber in colour. Tasted with pigeon breast (in Ristorante Altana) Notes of caramel , umami, vegetal, tea leaf, apricot . Dry, rounded, mineral, driving acidity, long finish.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2003 Very dark in the glass, dark amber, almost looked like golden syrup with orange highlights. On pouring, oxidative notes, caramel, seemed a little one dimensional, or slightly out of condition perhaps. Or maybe I just didn’t understand it. The vineyards were planted in 1919 and 1950 with replanting in 2001. This was the first vintage to be made in amphora. Riserva was bottled in 2010, has less alcohol than 2009. It was harvested earlier than usual in September the vintage was extremely dry and hot.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2008 Bright golden honey orange . Intense and expressive on the nose, energy, but restrained. Quince, marmalade spice, warm.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2009 14.5% abv Deep amber colour, delicately herbal, salted caramel, nutty, bonito skin, umami, hard to define. Confit pineapple and with more air assam tea. Dry, mellow. Tasted with wagyu beef in a ginger and lemongrass broth (in Osteria Altana), this absolutely exploded in the mouth. Balanced, dry with fresh acidity on the palate. Very driving and energetic.
Bianco ‘Breg’ Venezia-Giulia IGT 2009 Deep colour, almost a tawny brown golden because of the Pinot Grigio in the blend. Dry, powerful fiery broad on palate, hard to describe, Beeswax, manuka honey, concentrated, almost whisky–like. Tasted at lunch in Lenzuolo Bianco with Joško.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2011 Dry, rich, mouth-filling, fiery, powerful, but balanced complex long on the finish. Yellow fruit, clove, spicy, fiery on finish.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT Riserva 2011 I think he said that it was the first magnum of this that he has opened- a privilege to taste with it with him. 2011 Riserva will be released in 2025. Bright, vibrant honey golden . Hay, grass and caramel. Dry, fiery, yet balanced, very concentrated, almost whisk(e)y-like, with hay, warm spice, vanilla, fresh acidity. Very long, powerful and concentrated, warming on finish. Touches of iodine, almost reminiscent of a fine Islay whisky. The back story to the 2011 vintage is fascinating. With rain forecast, Joško gave the order to start the harvest on 11/11/11. However, he could hear the bells of a local church ringing. He realised that this meant a change in air pressure, which signalled fine weather and he made the decision to stop the harvest and wait. The fine, dry weather lasted for almost another 2 weeks and they restarted the harvest on 23rd Nov, harvesting super-ripe grapes. The 2011 was served with a really simple, but beautifully tasty dish of new potato with a little crème fraiche and Kazakhstan caviar and it made the flavours explode, with the caviar coming alive in a salty, umami explosion of flavour.
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2017 (from barrel) 2017 was a very small vintage due to adverse weather conditions, with a lot of persistent rain throughout the harvest. Very deep colour golden, orange, very botrytised, on the nose with aromas of marmalade, orange peel. Med sweet on palate, gorgeous acidity, mineral length on palate. Sensation of lightness. Small quants, 10,000 bts. 15/18 mg free sulphur
Ribolla, Venezia-Giulia IGT 2018 (from barrel) 2018 was put into barrels early after the very small 2017 vintage meant that the need to preserve barrels was paramount. Pale golden colour. Grapey, youthful, quince . Dry, powerful driving acidity, tannins on tops of gums, fiery on the back palate. 2018 was very hot, 2nd part of the summer until the end of Sept, the temperature never went below 20 degrees Centigrade , even at night. Creamy, vanilla, spice, crème anglaise, Dry, tannins are more obvious, quite tannic. Crème patisseiere, wild strawberry.
2019: We visited in June and everything is ‘in ritardo’, due to an unseasonably cold and wet May. Even in the vegetable markets, there is little local produce as there has been rain almost every day for the entire month. When we visited between 9th and 12th June, the weather had turned and was now unseasonably hot, with temperatures in the mid-thirties (Centigrade).
Other wines tasted
Due Terre ‘Sacrisassi’ Colli Oriemtali DOC 2011 (en magnum) Tasted with pigeon breast, which was a fantastic match. Deep, opaque colour, dark, ruby garnet, tight rim. Bloody, sanguine on nose, black pepper, dark forest fruits, a sense of wildness, reminiscent of a northern Rhône Syrah.. Still lots of life ahead, the wines from Due Terre are made to slowly evolve over decades.
Fritz Haag, Riesling Auslese Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr. Mosel QmP 2012
From the warmest, sunniest vineyard in Geramny’s Mosel Valley (hence the ‘sundial’ name). Lime marmalade, very light and fresh. Sweet, guess approx 200-220 g/L of residual sugar?? Golden apple, citru, yuzu, nice length. Served with cheesecake passionfuit, biscuit and raspberry.
I found Joško Gravner as a person, to be utterly fascinating. I admire his steadfast commitment to his own principles and can see how, as a younger man, his ‘ostinato’ character was challenging for his father – as it may now also be for his daughter, Mateja and grandson Gregor. He seems to me to be an intensely principled and private man, a deep thinker and resolutely unafraid to plough his own furrow, even if that comes at the price of almost commercial suicide. In his habits, the cellars, his home and food, there is a kind of zen-like simplicity and mysticism that I found fascinating and compelling. After tasting his wines in his family’s company and in the environment in which they are made, I found these too to be fascinating, cerebral wines, resolutely their own thing and bowing to no fashion or external pressure to conform. They are wonderful wines, but not suitable for every occasion, nor indeed most palates. I found it difficult to put them into any category other than that they were all very clearly the results of their Collio terroir and Joško Gravner’s inimitable approach.
One thing is for sure, these wines are for drinking with food and the kind of company that appreciates their genesis and the long and meticulously guided gestations. They are undoubtedly expensive (retailing around €85 plus per bottle) and are available in limited quantities, but are highly unlikely to appeal in any way to those looking for status-symbol or international-style wine. However, for anyone who is a serious wine-lover and who gets a kick out of exploring the boundaries of what wine can be – these wines are a must-taste.