Many things seem to have informed Joško Gravner’s decision, or rather, decisions, to radically change his winemaking direction over the years. Those decisions meant risking everything: his reputation, his thriving business, perhaps even his friends. Today, Gravner is one of the most revered cult names of Italian winemaking, following a rigorous natural winemaking philosophy. The wine world – not just Italy – pays attention to what he does, and many follow his example. But it was not always thus.
By the 1970s, the young Joško had joined his family business in the Friuli Venezia Giulia town of Oslavia, an Italian border town a stone’s throw from Slovenia, with vineyards running seamlessly across that invisible dividing line. Brimming with youthful confidence he ignored his elders’ advice to “do a little and do it well,” and instead set out to revolutionise the cellars and take more technical control of the winemaking. Stainless steel tanks replaced the big old casks, French oak barriques were installed, and an array of modern winemaking equipment was purchased.
And it worked. Soon his fragrant, fruity and delicate wines were being awarded the ultimate accolade of tre bicchieri from Italy’s wine bible, Gambero Rosso. By the 1980s Gravner really flying high as the flagship producer of the area.
The Road to Damascus
But a business trip to California in the late 1980s saw a road to Damascus moment: tasting many highly-rated wines, he realised they “did nothing for him emotionally,” according to his daughter Mateja. He suddenly understood that the same could be said of his own wines: they had become too ‘international’. “Little by little I started to get rid of all the equipment,” he says, so out went the shiny new toys, and back in came large oak casks and a mechanical basket press.
Gravner’s simplification of his winemaking effectively reversed 20 years of modernisation, and it is a path he has followed with absolute conviction since. The second stopping point on his road to Damascus came in 1996, when hail destroyed 95% of his Ribolla crop, indigenous to the area and Gravner’s great love. With the meagre harvest he decided to experiment, macerating his Ribolla with long skin contact and fermenting using only ambient yeasts.
The success of the experiment (“the wine was a revelation,” says Gravner) was not recognised by all. Now, Gambero Rosso’s headline was a different one which he recalls with a rueful smile: “Joško Gravner has gone crazy – please come back Joško.” If not regarded as ‘crazy’ by everyone, many viewed his abrupt change of direction with doubt, suspicion and, I suspect, fear that the Friuli applecart was being so decisively over-turned. It was a shock for followers of the estate, with over half of his overseas distributors cancelling their orders in the wake of the Gambero Rosso article. That, points out Joško, was without having tasted the wines.
Back to the Future
Gravner is a quiet, seemingly reserved character, a combination of humble farmer in his working clothes and muddy boots, and Jesuit scholar with a keen intelligence shining behind his unwavering eyes. Clearly, he is both deeply thoughtful and stubbornly single-minded. As customers slowly began to appreciate his new amber-coloured wines, he extended his maceration for longer and longer periods, and delved deeper and deeper into the oldest wine production methods, culminating in a trip to Georgia in 2000.
The traditional use of amphorae, or ‘Qvevri’, buried underground became his next obsession. By 2001 an initial batch of 11 of these large, hand-made, earthenware vessels made the perilous overland trip from Georgia to northern Italy, and a whole new phase of the Gravner story began. Pictured: Josko in his cellar, surrounded by sunken Qvevri.
The use of amphorae and other clay or cement pots to ferment and age wines has trended dramatically over the past 10 years or so: it has reached the point where it is rare to visit a wine cellar without at least on concrete egg or amphora standing alongside the steel tanks and barrels. The vast majority of these are ‘experimental’, or used to make one small, idiosyncratic cuvée to sit within a much larger portfolio. But for Gravner it was different: by 2005 the entire production, white and red, was being made in amphora.
Had Gravner finally found peace? Had his winemaking input been reduced enough, to its most fundamental conclusion with organic farming, minimum use of sulphur, wild yeasts, no no temperature control and whole berry maceration? It seems not. In 2012 came another radical decision, another bombshell: everything in his vineyards was grubbed up except the indigenous Ribolla for white wines and Pignolo for red wines. Over the years fans had loved his ‘Bianco Breg’, a blend of Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but from 2012: no more.
The Gravner Effect
Joško Gravner professes to speak no English, and at times I suspect his boredom threshold for the translated questions and answers of the visiting journalist is set pretty low. During a visit to his newest vineyard in Dedno, Slovenia, he wanders off among the baby vines, plucking a leaf here, straightening a post there, leaving his guests in the (admittedly capable) hands of his daughters Jana and Mateja. At the age of 65, he just wants to get on with it.
This slight air of detachment should not fool you. Gravner doesn’t miss a trick and is utterly engaged with his wines and his beliefs. Tasting the 1992 Chardonnay – sublime in my autumn 2017 tasting – I comment on how impressive it was at 25 years old. “Yes, I made good wine, even before amphora,” he deadpans, clearly dismissing it as worthy, but a relic of the past.
Making white and red wines with long skin contact is an ancient tradition in this Collio and Brda region that straddles Italy and Slovenia (pictured). To an extent Gravner is reviving local tradition, and his example has been followed by many producers on both sides of the border. But his influence is evident much further afield, even in regions and countries with no such history, from California to Australia. He certainly did not create the ‘natural wine’ movement on his own, but he is a role model for it.
Influential yes, but I have racked my brains to think of any other winery outside of Georgia that has switched 100% of their production to skin-contact wines made in amphora. There are several doing far more than ‘playing’ with a single vessel or two, like José de Sousa in the Alentejo, COS in Sicily or Foradori in Trentino, but I can think of no other significant estate that has so resolutely committed 100% to these ancient methods. That made me think that something else must drive Gravner beyond issues of quality and authenticity, and on my visit a few clues emerged.
The Making of Joško Gravner
Having eaten delicious but simple meals of soup, cheese and home-made salami at the family home, I was entertained one evening at the Michelin-starred ‘La Subida’, but Joško did not join us. Daughter Mateja explained that in the mid-1990s, whilst carrying out the heavy work to build the terraces and prepare the ground for their newly acquired vineyards in Slovenia, Joško suffered a serious fall. He insisted that he didn’t need to go to hospital, but overnight things took a dramatic turn for the worse and emergency surgery was carried out on extensive internal injuries. It was a near-death moment that left Joško’s digestive system chronically fragile. Today he is extremely careful about what he eats and drinks, a passionate advocate for natural, organic produce, and he can only tolerate quite simple foods.
Gravner farms organically and carries out his work strictly according to the phases of the moon, following the calendar of biodynamics guru, Maria Thun. Yet, even although simplicity and nature are at the heart of his philosophy – and not just for wine – his wines are not certified as organic, and not all aspect of the biodynamic system are followed. Joško’s suspicion that certification is mostly to do with marketing is on record, but yet again a very personal and poignant part of the story is revealed by Mateja when we speak together: her brother, Miha, had begun working with their father in the early 2000s, the plan being that he would take over the estate one day. He was working towards full biodynamic production when, in 2009, he was killed in a motorcycle accident. “My father did not have the heart to continue – this was Miha’s project,” she tells me. Their sister Jana is now in charge of vineyards, and I am told the topic is once again under discussion.
Love them or hate them, Gravner’s wines are remarkable. His standard Ribolla, for example, an amber wine, is macerated with skins for six months or more and aged for a total of six or seven years before bottling. A Riserva 2003 has only just been introduced to the market after 14 years – and bottled only in magnum. A tiny production of sweet Ribolla named ‘8.9.10’ is made from Botrytis grapes from those three vintages, bottled only in 2015.
Visionary? Philosopher? Iconoclast? Yes to all, but Gravner has something profound to say and is part of nobody’s movement or bandwagon. He is an original thinker.
Raeburn Fine Wines in Edinburgh is long-time importers of Gravner, and it is well worth enquiring what wines, including older vintages, they have in stock. Note also, there are notes on nine more wines from a tasting I had with Josko’s daughter, Mateja, in 2016.
A version of this article first appeared in Decanter Magazine.