Josko Gravner lives in a modest house in Oslavia, in the north-eastern corner of Italy, just a few metres from the border with Slovenia. His mother tongue is Slovene and the family speak it all the time, as do many in the area. A casual visitor would struggle to understand that this modest unassuming man (proudly sporting a flat cap presented to him by his Irish importer) has been to the forefront of no less than two revolutions in modern winemaking over the last three decades.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Gravner was a winemaking superstar, one of the leading modernists in Italy, particularly in the Collio region. Taking over the winery at the age of 25, following his father’s death, he pioneered the fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in barriques, sometimes 100% new. The wines were given very high scores by American critics and the influential Italian magazine, Gambero Rosso. Then two separate events forced his life and his wines to change course radically. These changes lead to a rapid fall from grace, followed by a rise in fame for a completely different kind of wine. Gravner now has almost god-like status with the natural wine movement and fans of orange wine.
Gravner comes with a reputation for being difficult with the press, possibly the result of fallout back in the 1990s, when the Gambero Rosso famously said he had ‘gone mad’. But on my visit, Josko Gravner was pleasant, open and very good company, despite a language barrier. I spent the weekend in his house, with his daughter Mateja (a qualified winemaker) and grandson Gregor both of whom work alongside Gravner, as do Pepe and Bruno, his two inseparable dogs. Jana, another daughter, also works in the family business. It was a fascinating few days, an in-depth immersion in how natural, skin-contact wines are made, from the man who invented (or reinvented) it all. As a bonus, the region is very attractive, with an absorbing mix of cultures and history.
Gravner’s grandparents had an osteria where the winery now stands. It was a way of selling their wine, along with snacks such as salami, prosciutto, cheese and, apparently, hardboiled eggs. They closed it down in 1932, Mateja tells me, when the fascists made it law that everyone speak Italian; they wanted to be able to speak Slovene in their own home. The grandparents were known for having a ‘clean winery’, something that the fastidious Josko Gravner has obviously inherited. Later the family had an osteria in the nearby town of Gorizia until the 1970s. His wife was born over the border in in Slovenia. Mateja told me many stories about life beside the Iron Curtain. Although there was no barbed wire, the area had many border guards, usually from other parts of Yugoslavia, to avoid fraternisation. Many of the winemakers had vineyards on both sides of the border, and had to be careful where and when they crossed. At one stage Josko had to transfer ownership of his grandmother’s house to his wife, as he stood to lose it as the Yugoslav government labeled all Italians as fascists; she held a Yugoslav passport and was therefore obviously a good communist!
The first change in Gravner’s winemaking came about as result of a trip to California in the late 1980s. He was disgusted by some of the chemically enhanced wines he tasted, and returned home determined to make his winemaking and wines healthier, cleaner and more local. Suffering from ill-health, he and his wife began eating a diet of raw food, which gradually softened to semi-vegetarian. Now they eat meat twice a week at most. As Gravner rears a few woolly Mangalica pigs, from which he makes excellent salami and sausages, this must prove difficult. He does believe that you should buy locally as much as possible. “You pay for what you eat and drink”, he says, “with your health”.
At the same time, Gravner wanted to improve the quality of his Ribolla Ghialla. Ribolla grows on both side of the border, more in Brda in Slovenia than Collio. It is, he argues, the only indigenous white grape of Friulli. Other local indigenous varietals, such as Pignolo, Schioppetino, and Tatsalenga, are red. “The problem with Ribolla is if you press gently you get a very neutral wine; if you press more, it becomes hard and very bitter.” He decided that the true taste of Ribolla came only with fermentation on the skins. In 1994, he made his first skin-contact wine. His research led him to Georgia, the home of skin-contact wines but also winemaking in amphorae. Gravner was smitten. “I tried to find the oldest way to work with wine; the only thing you need is great grapes. Everything a wine needs you will find in an amphora,” he says.
Used for making and storing wine for thousands of years, amphorae are clay vessels of differing sizes, from 250 to several thousand litres. Most are around 400 litres and are often lined with beeswax. Most winemakers use them buried or half-buried in the ground. You can find them in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Chile and other countries, but they have been widely used in Armenia and Georgia for thousands of years, up to the present day. Thanks to Gravner, they are ultra-fashionable today with natural winemakers, who believe they make for a steady slow fermentation, give the wines freshness, and help reflect the terroir. Gravner uses amphorae from 1,200 – 2,500 litres in size.
In 1997, he made his first amphora wine – in his grandmother’s old house just over the border in Slovenia, as he was afraid the Italian wine authorities would not allow it. The grapes, however, came from Italy. In 2000, he travelled to Georgia for the first time and bought some qvevri (amphorae). He uses only these and says they must be buried to be effective. All of the amphorae he uses are brought in from Georgia. He currently has 45 in the cellar and is in the process of burying a further 21 outside. All are lined with beeswax. By 2001 he had enough amphorae to make 50% of his wine in them, the other half in barrel.
His first skin-contact wines (he prefers the term Amber to Orange: “Amber is more bright, alive, concentrated”) were met with derision by some. “It was very difficult at the start; people didn’t understand what I was trying to do,” says Gravner. Other producers thought the wines were faulty. He lost many customers in the period 2009-2012, and was partly saved by Italian sommeliers who liked the wines. Over the last five years, he says, nearly all his customers have returned to the fold.
Gravner wines are fermented on the skins in amphorae; the whites spend one year on skins, the red wines a few months. This is followed by six to seven years in large Slavonian oak casks and then a few months in bottle before release. Gravner has an almost biblical belief in the number seven; he keeps his wine seven years before release, and he believes good and bad vintages come in sevens. As 2011 was the last great vintage he was hopeful that 2018 would follow suit. However, it was a difficult vintage, he says, requiring a lot of attention. 2019 however, will be very good.
Amphorae awaiting burial.
Intervention is kept to an absolute minimum; the only addition is a small amount of sulphur. ‘The most difficult thing in winemaking is to use the least amount of sulphur”, he says. A small amount is added at the start sometimes, and a little before bottling. They aim for 15-18ppm at bottling. There is no chilling, no stainless steel. “I never analyse anything”, he says, “sugar, acidity or anything else. Once you realise that you cannot add or change the wine, you know there is no point! No wine is without defects. You have to make them as good as is possible and each year you try to do better.”
The Gravner estate is just over thirty hectares, straddling Italy and Slovenia, with seventeen of those under vine. Both figures change constantly as he buys new vineyards and sells plots he doesn’t consider good enough. Originally planted with Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon, they are slowly being replanted with Ribolla and Pignolo. He has planted trees and installed small ponds amongst the vines to encourage biodiversity.
Most people assume Gravner has been biodynamic for years, but this is not the case. His son, who tragically died in a motorbike accident, was the driving force behind the conversion to biodynamic viticulture. At the time of the accident Josko was practising organic but not biodynamic viticulture. Now he has been fully biodynamic for three years, (although he says he ‘followed the moon for the last twenty’), but will never use the certification. “Biodynamics is not like homeopathic medicine”, says Mateja, who took me around the vineyards, “it is more holistic, like a doctor keeping you healthy, so you don’t need treatment unless you are really sick. You don’t always improve the quality of the wine; it is all about improving the soil. Copper has less impact on the soil; here we have problems with peronospora and oidium. But as we have 8-10 people working in the vineyards all spring and summer, we can spot any problems very early and spray very selectively. It made a huge difference to go back to biodynamic. In less than a year there was an incredible increase in the life of the soil. It can now overcome extremes, droughts and floods much better.”
Talking to Josko Gravner later, he argues that “It is the only way to be sure the land is safe. I didn’t understand this when I first started out. Now I understand that the key to everything is to look after the land. It is difficult to say it makes the wine better, but it certainly the soil is better in difficult vintages and that makes things easier. There is no use in improving vines; you improve the soil and the vines will be more resistant. If you fertilise, you will have to use more fertiliser every year. Biodynamics is the most evolved style of agriculture, but it is like a religion, You have to believe in it. When you work with nature, you have to accept the good and the bad that nature gives you”. A friend of his argues that you have to accept that you will lose an entire harvest every seven years.
Gravner plants ungrafted American rootstocks directly into the soil, and field grafts on his own massale selection a year later. Mateja tells me that he noticed that a number of his 12 year-old plants suddenly withered and died, within a week, at 10-15 years of age. He believes this was caused by the nursery grafting. His method means the vines need five years before you can harvest, but he argues it is worth the wait.
Today, Gravner is revered many natural wine lovers. As the first person outside of Georgia to discover (he would say rediscover) skin fermentation and amphorae, he has obviously had a massive influence on winemaking over the last decade. Winemakers the world over now routinely use a little or a lot of skin fermentation or maceration, and amphorae have become a highly fashionable vessel to use in winemaking. Yet he dislikes travel and finds addressing large crowds a very stressful process. He produces very little wine, although they are now exported to forty five markets, the two biggest being Japan and the U.S. He is very modest man, if quietly persistent, and something of a perfectionist in everything that he does. I ask grandson Gregor, who recently started working with him in the cellar if that makes life difficult. “Not really,’ he says, “I enjoy the work very much, and when he says you have done a good job, you know that you really have”. He obviously questions everything; for instance he argues that bottles of wine should be stored standing up, as opposed to laid down. The cork has to be kept humid, not wet, he argues, so you just need the correct cellar.
I am intrigued by the Gravner wines; they have a unique personality, and flavours that you will rarely find in conventional wines. They have none of the V.A., Brett, or mousiness found in some natural wines, and after seven years in the cask, they are unlikely to start refermenting. Some are marked by noble rot, some may have small levels of residual sugar, but most are very dry. They are complex, with layers of flavours – orchard fruits, lots of orange peel, lemon zest, minerals, grilled nuts, mushrooms, earthy, and sometimes with a waxy quality. Some simply explode with a rainbow of flavours. I found it difficult to write tasting notes or to judge the wines; they taste so different that the usual descriptors – lemon zest, peaches and balance etc., are irrelevant. He would argue that his wines reflect the terroir; several critics I have talked to say they all taste the same – of Gravner.
I enjoyed every minute of my visit, and really enjoyed the wines. I am not entirely convinced I would drink them with food though. I would prefer to sit down with a glass (Gravner has designed his own glasses, made by Massimo Lunardon) and slowly sip it over the evening. He argues that his white (or amber) wines should served at room temperature. Much is made of his white wines, but his red wines are equally enjoyable. An oak cask 2003 Merlot with a touch of Cabernet, fermented on the skins still had plenty of pure smooth plum fruits, as well as a great tannic finish. Because he has now ripped up all of his Cabernet and Merlot replacing them with Pignolo, it has not been made again. Gravner wines do not come cheap, but they are quite unique, and the result of a long complex process. One retailer said to me that every wine-lover should try a Gravner wine at least once in their life. I would agree.
Bianco Breg 2010
Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Floral, herbal aromas; rich tangy and full of soft complex fruits. Vibrant, mineral with a lovely taut freshness.
Bianco Breg 2009
Some noble rot; riper, richer and spicy, with orange peel, dried apricots and figs. Long and quite luscious, although there is still plenty of acidity.
Ribolla Gialla 2010
Cleaner and fresh with a strong mineral streak; smooth with subtle grilled nuts and a citrus element.
Lifted aromas of dried fruit and orange peel; an explosion of fruit and flavour; marzipan, caramel, nectarines, underpinned by a fine refreshing acidity.
A win with great power and complexity; rich with intense flavours of toasted nuts; waxy with layers of dried stone fruits, and a very long finish.
Abundant dried apricots, candid fruit and spice – ginger and fennel, with subtle nuts and a lovely mineral streak.
Rosso Ruijno 2003
Mainly Merlot, a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Still a very youthful colour, broad slightly earthy nose with dark forest fruits; smooth, ripe mature damson fruits with a nice tannic kick on the finish.
Not made in amphorae. Wild pithy damsons and dark cherries; smooth, concentrated with some dry tannins and a lovely kick on the finish. Excellent wine
Legally, this cannot be called Riserva, but it is a Gravner Riserva, having spent seven years in cask and seven in bottle. This was bottled only in magnums, left standing up (Gravner insists this is the way to age wine, provided you have the correct humidity) A very delicate nose of rose petals and lemon peel; it has good acidity, subtle grilled nuts, and an amazing freshness for a fifteen year-old wine.
We finished one of our tastings with a taste of one of his barrel-fermented ‘old style’ wines that showed remarkably well; it still had aromas and flavours of new French oak, but was very much alive with good apple fruits and a long dry finish. How many Burgundies would taste as good at 25 years?
Bianco Breg 2001
Pinot Grigio; Mild earthy – damp earth, with light fruits. Not my favourite but an interesting piece of history.
Pinot Grigio 2007
15.5% alcohol, five months on skins. Deep in colour, rich in red fruits, with a pithy texture and quite tannic on the finish. As near as white wine gets to red? Fascinating wine.
Gravner wines are imported into Ireland by Grape Circus – firstname.lastname@example.org