Josko Gravner, an original thinker

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.

OslaviaBy 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 was 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

Josko GravnerGravner 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.

Collio BrdaMaking 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.

Josko Gravner with winesLove 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.

The Wines

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.

(2019) Very slightly lighter in colour than the Ribolla, but delightful lemon peel, hay and straw like aromas, a little 'brighter' than the Ribolla, but perhaps lacking a little of the intensity. It certainly has more vivacious brightness on the palate, still that dry tobacco and tannin finish, a dry Fino character, but that little bit more orthodox.
(2019) Glowing amber/gold. So ripe, notes of dried apricot and tobacco, light, sweet earth, a touch of spice. Dry and chewy density on the palate, the high lemon rind and lime acidity against the soft, smoky tobacco, but very pure and long, lots of salinity in the finish.
(2019) Perhaps even a touch more colour than the 2008, a tinge of orange to ruby. Leafier, a slight more damp leaf character, but then creamy ripe fruit comes through. very dry and grippy, the spices and the tang of citrus skins, grippy, touches of chocolate and creaminess, such a complex profile, again dried apricot.
(2019) From Gravner's pre-amphora period, made in big barrels with seven days skin contact. Also the first year Josko was searching for Botrytis in his grapes. Gorgeous nose, with honey and sesame seeds, a definite sense of sweetness and the latent vibrancy of the fruit - the Sauvignon and Riesliing - still discernable, juicy citrus to finish. A big change of pace from the amphora wines, lots of punchy fruit, touched with caramel and coffee but a marvellous wine.
(2019) Lovely burnished gold colour. Such complex tobacco and briar and sweet damp earth. The palate is so powerful and grippy, an amost Fino-like intensity but different flavour profile. Some lemon rind, but red wine or even Cognac-like in its dry vinous character and grip and quite magnificent as the toast and earthiness pushes through.
(2019) Orange peel and spices, nuttiness, salts and fragrant tobacco spices. The palate has huge presence and grip, a touch of toffee and sour lemon, the bitter character so grippy and fascinating, a touch of Botrytis evident, finishing with such spicy intensity.
(2019) Very smooth, but immediately involving nose, with a slightly purer, less Botrytis character than the 2008, but lovely purity of fruit here, as well as the complex phenolic characters from the skin contact. Apricot and orange, marmalade-like quality of bittersweetness, delicious, the fruit almost nectarine like, but of course wrapped in more complex earth and salt flavours, spices too.
(2019) Six months of skin contact for this vintage. A slightly darker, hint of amber hue. Wonderful nose, all coffee and cream and a gentle, damp leafy character, the touch of briar and oxidation fitting beautifully with the picture. On the palate so bone dry and salty, like a fragrant meat stock broth, then that lovely lemony acid and pure mineral salt finish.
(2019) Verging on brown, deep colour with a russet touch. Lots of caramel and spice, almost minty, with the dried fruits in the background. In the mouth it has spices and lovely leafiniess, mellow but still so tangy, so vibrant in terms of acidity and the fruit that is definitely still there.
(2019) From the pre-amphora period, made in a mix of 80% new and older barriques. No skin contact. Plenty of orange and even peachiness, a little bit of age showing, a touch of oxidation, but the colour still so youthful. The waxy, old parcel string and brown paper quality is intriguing and there is genuine fruit sweetness at the core of this still. Perhaps not in perfect condition, but still very good.
(2019) Bottled only in magnum, this is the special Riserva from 1915 and 1950 vineyards. One year in amphora, six years in barrel, then six more years ageing in bottle before release. Gorgeous, glowing gold. Nutty, lots of ripe apricot fruit, both fresh and dried, and an ash and tobacco lift, but very elegant as well as  concentrated. Fabulous, endlessly long, complex and youthful.
(2019) A very warm vintage, This was bottled 2012 and released in 2018. Dark, almost coffee-coloured wine, with lots of briar and leafy damp forest floor, a touch of clove and medicinal character. The palate surprises with its initial fruit sweetness, the tang is almost sherbetty, in a fascinating wine, cocoa and coffee moving into that pin-sharp, salty finish. Is it a touch too saline and dry? Maybe for some, but I found this fascinating and compelling.
(2019) Showing a rather more rotty, aged character, more oxidation, certainly seems to have aged more, but still plenty of interest here, plenty of quality, with massive lemon pith and grapefruit zesty acidity, it still has length and tang, but not entirely convincing at this age.
(2019) As a wine that *could* have come from a top Burgundy appellation, it is probably the more 'international' style that Josko later rejected, but he pulled out a bottle to show me and I thought - viewed objectively - it was stull a fabulous wine. It has a buttercup yellow into light gold colour. It is very much Chardonnay, very much Burgundian, with some creamy hazelnut and almond over buttery but clean and so pure custardy apple fruit, delightful pastry notes of the delicate oak. Hugely sweet fruit on the palate, deliciously medium-bodied, with gorgeous spices and toast into the finish, the crisp lemon acidity and those delicate but sweet fruit flavours beautifully balanced.
(2019) An extraordinary Vino de Tavola, Ribolla harvested on Sunday 23rd November 2008, Thursday 12th November 2009 and Friday 15th November 2010, all Botrytis grapes. Not destemmed or crushed, aged in old barriques. Burnished tawny gold, laden with honey and mocha, apricot and touches of bergamot and clove. Such lovely warmth and spice about this, but an intense fruitiness too. Gorgeous slippery texture and intense sweetness, with a cherry tang to the acidity, and that salty note adding lovely freshness along with the definition of the acidity. 126g/l of sugar and only 1200 bottles made which, a few Italian merchants are still offering at around €400 per bottle (use wine-searcher link).
(2019) Gravner's only red variety, Pignolo, fermented in big, open barrels with wild yeasts and no temperature control, followed by 10 more years ageing in big barrels and bottle. Quite a lot of colour, fine smoky edge, with a lick of volatility, intense cherry. On the palate bloody and raw, a game edge and dry but sweet reducrrant blackberry, an olive grip of sourness and acidity, the tannins ever present, and a long spicy finish.
(2019) Same winemaking as for the 2005 (from 2006 fermentation and ageing switched to amphora), fermented in open barrels with 10 years in large barrels and bottle before release. Drier and less open than the 2005 at this stage, a very dry, bloody and lightly iron oxide character - not oxidised, but that ferrous edge. Again, less openly giving, but deep in there are balsamic strawberries and herb and floral nuances, and all the hallmarks that this will be terrific with time, when the score might notch up a point or two.

A version of this article first appeared in Decanter Magazine.

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