The Wines of Josko Gravner
A tasting led by Miha Gravner and Jana Gravner
29th October 2005
The majority of the wines of Friuli in north east Italy are made in an expressive, fruity style that emphasises the aromas of the wines. The better wines are made in small boutique wineries. There is, however, a more idiosyncratic, even - to many eyes - weird and wonderful - underworld to winemaking in Friuli that is no better characterised than by the wines of Josko Gravner. Gravner is an iconoclast, challenging both to the consumer and wine-making orthodoxy: the wines are completely idiosyncratic, and he makes extensive use of large clay amphorae, buried outdoors, for extended maceration (previously he has also used open top wooden vats ad large oak barrels). There is no intervention in the winemaking process - only wild yeasts are used, no sulphur is added, no sugar is added and there is no temperature control. "I am convinced," Josko Gravner is quoted as saying, "that wine is a product of nature, not of man, whose role therefore is to accompany its maturation process while avoiding any artificial intervention". Miha Gravner did not seem to quite agree: "Wine is not a product of nature. The vine is from nature. Vinegar is nature. Wine falls between, and needs man." Whatever, this isn't so much making wine the way his grandparents made wine, more the way his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great (etc) grandparents did.
The grapes come from 18 hectares of vines in Oslavia (Gorizia) either side of the Italian-Slovenian border. Gravner aims at maximum ripeness and concentration in the vineyards. "We are not organic, not biodynamic:" explained Miha Gravner, "we just try to do as little harm as we can." Yields are very low, and planting density is no more than 10,000 vines per hectare. The grapes are de-stemmed and pressed in an old manual vertical press.
From 1997/98, when Josko Gravner started trialling this method of winemaking and up to and including the 2000 vintage, they used both large Slavonian oak barrels (foudres/botti) and amphorae (then he only had five amphorae) to make his three wines: Ribolla, Breg and Rosso Gravner (all are IGT Venezia Giulia). From 2001, he has used only clay amphorae of various sizes for the fermentation and subsequent maceration of his wines. At present, the wine is transferred around Easter into large oak barrels, where it then matures for a further two years with as little intervention as possible, before being bottled unfiltered. "Filtering," Miha Gravner said, "is a killer of wine. It takes away the soul of the wine." Josko Gravner is, however, experimenting with longer maceration and ageing periods, and it's difficult to know how those wines might turn out. The 2002s and 2003s are being given a minimum of four to five years ageing before release. The notes below should, therefore, be taken only in relation to the vintages indicated: goodness knows what future vintages might be like!
The Breg white wine is a field blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling Italico, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, which are picked and vinified separately (sometimes in pairs) and then blended. The Ribolla wine comes from the autochthonous Ribolla Gialla variety, from old vines, up to 80 years of age. The Ribolla grape is only grown in the Collio region of Friuli and produces low alcohol wines. In addition, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are grown for the red wines, plainly named Rosso Gravner.
The amphorae, which come from Georgia, where winemaking may well have started in the Bronze Age, are lined with beeswax just after firing (to allow the beeswax to penetrate the clay) and buried in the earth. They hold between 13 hl and 26 hl. One of the Gravners' amphorae comes from Anatolia and they believe it is around three hundred years old.
From 1998 he used a 5-7 day maceration before pressing and a 3 to 3½ year ageing period, but that has increased steadily and by 2000 some wines were macerated for six months in amphorae and some in large foudres. Fermentation, using wild yeasts only of course, starts very quickly in the amphorae and once the grapes are in the amphorae they are stirred five times a day, something Miha regards as the most important work they do. They don't encourage malolactic fermentation - ' if the wine wants to, it will' - and it usually does. After six months, they remove the grapes, press them and transfer them to large foudres.
Miha Gravner enjoined us not to drink the white wines cold: "At 9° it is a wasted bottle."
So, what are the wines like? It's probably fair to say at the outset, that these wines more or less polarised those tasting them. Some were wowed. Some weren't. Some found them oxidised and dried (Miha Gravner was adamant that the wines are not oxidised). Some were disappointed. I found them clearly idiosyncratic, very interesting, but wondered what their point is - I couldn't see myself ordering them in a restaurant or drinking them for pleasure - they seemed to me to be more of academic interest; and too much money. I had to wonder, also, whether there wasn't a touch of emperor's new clothes about them. With that caveat, here are my notes. The prices are those quoted by Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh. The wines are so far out of my range of experience (maybe even my comfort zone) that I haven't attempted to score them.
1999 Ribolla, IGT Venezia Giulia, served
en magnum (£75, magnum)
The 1999 Ribolla was macerated for 10 days in old oak foudres. It is a light caramel gold colour. The nose is curious, with a bit of raisins, and very concentrated with a hint of butterscotch. It's odd on the palate. Very, very dry with a bit of an oxidised feel. Very drying in the mouth. Very even throughout. It's a bit like a slightly characterless young madeira.
1999 Breg, IGT Venezia Giulia, served en
A deeper, brassier colour Very concentrated nose, feeling oxidised with overtones of furniture polish. Much more pleasing than the Ribolla. Fuller and rounder with interesting flavours. Very savoury. Very long indeed.
2000 Ribolla, IGT Venezia Giulia (£36,
A mid brassy gold. Very interesting nose with sweet concentrated ripe fruit. Very dry and intense. Drying on the palate. Enormous length.
2000 Breg, IGT Venezia Giulia (£36,
A similar appearance to the 2000 Ribolla, but pinker, presumably from the pinot gris. A much more normal sort of nose. Interesting palate with powerful flavours. Enormous length.
2001 Ribolla Anfora, IGT Venezia
Giulia (price tba)
2001 was described by Miha Gravner as "an average year." The harvest started in September; the grapes/wine was macerated in amphorae until April, when it was pressed in the old manual press, before spending 34-37 months in wooden barrels, during which time the wine was racked only four times. Finally, the wine spent six months in bottle before release.
Mid gold colour. Lovely nose - all of its own and like nothing else - with butterscotch and salted nuts. Very interesting wine on the palate with lots of character and very interesting flavours. Long and very dry after. Fascinating stuff.
2001 Breg Anfora, IGT Venezia Giulia
A bronzey colour. The nose is powerful with hints of oxidation and savouriness. Big in the mouth, with a much more 'normal' flavour profile than the ribolla, yet still very drying.
The Gravner red wines are not made in amphorae (yet ...). They are made in what Miha described as "a very traditional way", with a four-week maceration in wooden barrels. In 2000 cabernet sauvignon and merlot went into the Rosso Gravner in roughly equal proportions, and it then spent four years in large foudres of Slavonian oak with no further intervention. The 1998 Rosso Gravner Riserva is a 100% merlot.
2000 Rosso Gravner, IGT Venezia Giulia
This looks like normal red wine! Quite an even ruby colour. A fragrant, pleasant nose with lots of violets. Very elegant and floral on the palate. Gentle tannins become very apparent towards the finish, but fade afterwards, leaving cherry fruit flavours.
1998 Rosso Gravner Riserva, IGT Venezia
A very intense nose with glorious, plummy perfumes. Very round and open. Good depth and balance. But as a merlot, it's a bit ordinary.
Starting with the 2003 vintage, they will be producing a pure Pignolo, which will go on sale in (wait for it ...) 2013.
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Last updated: 15 December 2005