December 16, 2011 Gravner
Gravner Ribolla Anfora
Italy (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
Two stunning whites within a week. Among the many things this wine blogging experience has taught me is a greater appreciation of white wines. There are those wine drinkers who claim, with some degree of self-congratulations, that they only drink red. In my view they are missing out on some truly exceptional wine experiences. This is one of them.
Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2004
The amber richness in the decanter is immediate indication that something special has emerged from the bottle. Thrilling in colour to be sure, if somewhat quiet on the nose. In taste, dry and sherry-like without the sense of being fortified. Quince comes to mind for one person sharing the wine, toasted nut for another. Very nicely balanced, richly structured, sophisticated yet generously open. Very much alive, it retains a rustic, tannic naturalness, as if the grapes passed unencumbered into wine. Not to be forgotten. $$$
This is not ordinary winemaking to be sure. It is the work of a master experimenter, someone who has reached back to ancient methods in an effort to make wine at its natural best. The person in question is Josko Gravner. For thirty years he has been at work in northern Italy, near Oslavia, where his 18 hectares of vines straddle the border with Solvenia. He has gone from his early days of fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel, to the use of oak barriques, to the introduction in the late 1990s of 3,500-litre terracotta amphorae, lined with beeswax and buried up to their necks in a specially designed cellar. Asked to comment on the difference this last switch to clay has made in his wines, Gravner has said, “It is like being asked to describe someone’s soul. The amphora wines have much more spirit.”
His 45 or so amphorae have been imported from Georgia, one of the few places to still have the technology to fire such massive pots, a technology that supplied winemakers in Roman times. Fermentation and extended maceration of the ribolla grapes (an ancient, little-known varietal that Gravner has taken pains to re-establish) takes place for several months in the amphorae. The long exposure to the skins gives rise to the wine’s deep, rich colour. Eventually the wine is transferred into large wooden barrels for aging, then is further aged in the bottles before release.
Gravner takes what he terms a “natural” approach to his winemaking. Organic cultivation of the grapes, followed by fermentation with indigenous, wild yeasts only, and without temperature control. The wines are bottled unfiltered.
Gravner’s approach was initially met with considerable skepticism. Many in the business of wine rejected it, noting the fact that Gravner’s wines made from his previous methods were highly acclaimed. Wasn’t he the “King of Italian Whites”? Why tinker with success? In Gravner’s mind, he did so because there was a purer, more interesting, more natural and healthy alternative, one that returned to ancient methodology. He would be the first to admit that his wines lack broad appeal in the technology-driven world of modern winemaking. But, so be it. His wines have found their admirers, their strong advocates who seek out something very special, and have found it in the world of Gravner wines.