Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy – Josko Gavner finding his own way ‘to get the best wine’

Last summer I had the honor to travel to Oslavia, a small town in the Friuli region in northeast Italy, and visit Gravner. We spent a few days with Mateja Gravner, Josko Gravner’s daughter. We started with dinner at Laite Restaurant in the town of Sappada. The next day we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the Gravner vineyard before heading to the winery to see the amphorae and meet Josko Gravner. We also enjoyed two more dinners with Mateja, one at Trattoria al Cacciatore de La Subita in Friuli and another at Hisa Franko Restaurant in Slovenia. For each meal we enjoyed the Gravner wines which are renowned around the world. It was truly a privilege to visit and I enjoyed sharing their story for the Napa Valley Register and now share it here.

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

He is called the “natural wine pioneer,” “an influential wine grower,” “a revolutionary winemaker,” and “iconic” but the fact is that he just knows one way to make wine. That one way is his way.

He is Josko Gravner. He broke with the norm and for 30 years he has been making wine his way. And his wines are renowned around the world and relished by those who know them.

Gravner is located in Oslavia, a small village in the easternmost foothills of the Collio in the Friuli region of Italy. The grape Ribolla Gialla has been growing in Oslavia since the 1200s.

According to Gravner, Oslavia is often referred to as “the village of Ribolla.” Just one-tenth of a mile from the Slovenia border, everything is bilingual in Oslavia (Oslavje). And Oslavia is where Josko (Francesco) Gravner was born.

The Gravner family

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

Josko Gravner, Slovenian by heritage, is a third-generation winemaker. He was the fifth child born to his father Giuseppe (Jozef) but the first boy in the family. Francesco was the given name on his birth certificate because he was born during the Mussolini era when it was forbidden to give a child a non-Italian name. The Gravner family started bottling wine in 1973 and soon after, when Gravner was in his early twenties, he took over.

Josko Gravner, 70, has two daughters; his son, Micha, passed away after a motorbike injury more than a decade ago. Mateja, the oldest of his two daughters, studied winemaking and was working in the wine industry. Eight years ago, she came back to work with her father in all capacities except for production. Her 28-year-old son Grego Viola works with his grandfather in production and will one day take over and continue his grandfather’s legacy.

The vineyards

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

The Gravner estate in Oslavia is a total of 82 acres (33 hectares). The property is biodiverse with vineyards, ponds, meadows and woods, as well as cypress trees and other plants and animals. The estate is 20 kilometers from the sea and 45 kilometers from the mountains. A gentle breeze flows through the vineyard in the summer and the cold Bora winds, traveling at speeds of 100 miles per hour, come in the winter. Organically and biodynamically farmed vineyards are planted on 37 acres.

By the 1980s, Gravner dreamt about working exclusively with Ribolla Gialla. He had international varieties planted, including Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Welsh Riesling and Pinot Grigio. But he is currently phasing out non-indigenous grapes, and 2012 was the last vintage of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Welsh Riesling. Today the vineyards are planted primarily to Ribolla Gialla and Pignolo, as well as a bit of Merlot.

Finding the Gravner style

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

Prior to World War II, white wines in Friuli were made by macerating the grape juice with the skins resulting in textured wines with amber hues. While today “orange wines” are a popular category, skin-contact white wines fell out of favor by the 1980s. With the introduction of stainless-steel tanks, cultured yeasts and temperature control, a crisp, fresh white wine became the modern style.

Like his neighbors, Gravner followed suit. He replaced his old wood casks with concrete and then with stainless steel tanks. He also added French barriques. And Gravner wines became commercially successful internationally.

He traveled to California in 1987 to learn more about this modern style of winemaking, but instead he found that while the wines did not have any flaws and were good, they had no character. He noticed how much winemakers were influencing the process and how many additives were used. He also realized how much work it took to make these wines into balanced wines.

Gravner wondered why the best grape [Ribolla] was not giving the best wine. He began to think about the process. He looked at history, not in a nostalgic way but in a practical way to find the answer to the question “How do we get the best wine?”

Then in 1996, hailstorms decimated 95 percent of his grapes. With nothing to lose, he took the grapes that he had and decided to experiment. He made four barrels, two were with just juice and two had the skins with the juice. He also played with yeasts, adding commercial yeasts into one barrel of juice and one barrel with skins and letting the other two barrels ferment naturally. Then he waited.

Six months later, Gravner tasted the wines. When he tasted the skin fermented Ribolla Gialla made with native yeasts, he immediately recognized the taste of the Ribolla grape. “If you taste a grape and you taste a wine, there should be a lineage,” Mateja Gravner said.

By 1997, Gravner had sold his stainless-steel tanks and replaced his small barrels with large wooden barrels. He received one small, unlined amphora and left the skins with the juice for four days. He lost a lot of the juice thanks to the unlined amphora, but the result was amazing.

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

Everything was different about the wine. Gravner was happy with the results but not everyone agreed. Gravner was one of the most revered producers in Italy. His wines were regularly awarded Italy’s highest Tre Bicchieri award. Butthere were no words for these new skin-fermented wines. The color was different; the smells were different. The wines were not flawed but they were not conventional. For many years, the Gravner skin-fermented wines were used as examples of faulty wines in sommelier courses.

But Gravner was satisfied. “Wine represents a place, and this wine was finding its place,” explained Mateja. Gravner continued to fine-tune his process. In 2000, he traveled to Georgia in search of amphora producers. He purchased 11 qvevri for the 2000 vintage but they did not arrive until November. And, because the clay is very thin and fragile, nine of the qvevri arrived broken. In 2001, Gravner was able to partially ferment in amphora and the wine spent three months on the skins.

Today there are 47 amphorae lined with beeswax that are buried in the cellar at Gravner. The amphorae hold between 1,200 and 2,500 liters except for one 500-liter amphora. The grapes are sorted in the vineyard and put directly into the amphorae. Ambient yeasts start the fermentation process. They do not control the temperatures and do not add anything. Mateja described it as “like raising children without influencing their character.”

One of the challenges with amphora is the daily risk taken due to the long fermentation time. Once the grapes are in the amphora, there is nothing that can be done. And the wines cannot be bottled too early. But, as Mateja explained, “We accept the risk because like a child, if you have a good foundation and luck, then you are OK.”

The Gravner Wines

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

For the Ribolla, the wine spends approximately six months in amphorae on the skins and then six more months in the amphorae without the skins. The wine is then put into large oak barrels for six months. It is bottled, without fining or filtering, and spends six months in the bottle before release.

The Ribolla wines are released into the market approximately seven years after harvest. When released the wines are a beautiful amber hue with hypnotic aromas of citrus fruits, stone fruits, honey and flowers. On the palate, they are textured and complex yet fresh and pure.

For the Pignolo, which is labeled as Rosso Breg, the grapes are put into the amphorae for fermentation for approximately six to 12 weeks. The juice is then pressed and put into barrels for four years; after being bottled, they remain in the cellar for anywhere between three and 10 years.

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

Mateja called Pignolo a “spoiled genius.” It breaks in the wind. It is temperamental. It requires a lot of gentle and patient care. But it has the potential to make a great red wine.

Mateja added, “Pignolo is very difficult, but I find it the most satisfying. When Pignolo is ready, it is worth it. You forget everything else.”

The wine is a deep ruby color with warm aromas of dark black fruits, dark chocolate, leather, black pepper, and coffee. It is full-bodied with a strong tannic backbone and intense acidity.

When Gravner releases its wines, they are ready to be enjoyed or can be held onto for several more years. These are wines that do not need to be chilled before serving but they do need oxygen to open in the glass.

Gravner currently produces 20,000-24,000 bottles per year. The cost of the wines is high. Gravner wines start at $65 but can be double or triple that price. As Mateja explained, “progress is when you increase the quality. It is not about decreasing the cost.”

And, she added, “it is the care we put into every grape. When you pay for Gravner, you need to know what you are getting.” And people obviously do, as they are almost sold out of their wine.

The future

Breaking with the norm in Friuli, Italy - Josko Gavner finding his own way 'to get the best wine'

While grounded in tradition, Gravner upended what many thought they knew about wine. “It is important to know that another way is possible,” Mateja said That is what Gravner did, and many have followed. Skin-contact wines, also called “orange wines”, have become a popular trend in the natural wine movement today.

And Gravner is not stopping. He can be found among the vines or in the cellar. He is also thinking about what is next. After seeing a photo of a glass swimming pool in Dubai that connected two buildings, he started to think about using glass in winemaking. The idea is to see if glass can shorten the six years of aging the wine. After the wine spends time in amphorae, it would be half in wood and half in glass.

Gravner is in the process of building a cellar with glass tanks, but he said, “it is not easy to find someone to make glass vessels that can hold 12,000 liters.” If anyone can figure it out, Gravner can.

Mateja said, “He gets an idea or a feeling and when he is convinced about something, he has to find a way to reach the idea. It can take a long time to make it a reality, but he never gives up.”

Gravner is always looking for ways to improve. “If I could change one thing,” he said, “it is nothing. It is about improving what you have. Wine should be as simple as possible. To make wine, we must look forward, not back.” Of course, luck with the weather also helps.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.