When telling the story of Josko Gravner, it’s tempting to fixate on his use of extended skin-contact and his employment of buried terra-cotta amphorae—after all, he was among the very first growers in Italy to revive these ancient techniques, and he is justly celebrated today as a pioneer and a living legend. A less-emphasized—but no less-important—aspect of Josko’s philosophy is the extraordinarily long barrel-aging he considers vital for his wines’ ultimate character and expressiveness.
“Elevage”—that evocative French word that refers to the period between fermentation and bottling—is also a child-rearing term, akin to “raising” in English. During an ideal elevage, the just-post-fermentation “newborn” is nurtured and guided until she is a somewhat fully realized being, ready to enter the larger world safely and confidently. Today, however, far too many wines—even from prestigious, high-dollar regions—are crammed into bottle and rushed to market before they’ve even learned to read.
Not so at Gravner. After spontaneous fermentation in those colossal amphorae, the wines remain there on their gross lees for five or six more months (think of this as the immunization period, where the wines are strengthened through constant contact with all of their naturally occurring “stuff”). Afterward, they’re racked into large, very old wooden casks, where they remain for no less than six full years—no movement, no racking, no fining, no filtering, just slow, patient evolution. Josko’s determination to hold back his wines until they’re truly harmonious, seamless, and expressive is an important factor in their ultimate quality and personality, and those who dwell on the skin-maceration and the amphorae are only getting part of the story.
We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gravner’s 2008 “Bianco Breg” and 2008 Ribolla in early February—over eight years after they were harvested. Compared to the dry, warm 2007 growing season, 2008 saw more rainfall, but it was well-distributed throughout the summer and early autumn. This steady rain lengthened the growing season, as the grapes took longer than usual to reach maturity. Gravner began harvesting in late September (with the Pinot Grigio), and finished with the Ribolla on October 27th. Furthermore, the rain led to a good deal of botrytis, but Josko explained to us that this noble rot is essential for a great vintage in his corner of Friuli—and he indeed considers 2008 to be exceptional.
Having tasted the wines over a long lunch with the family last November, we’re in full agreement. Although the growing season was cooler than 2007, the presence of botrytis concentrated the grapes, and the resulting wines are higher in alcohol than their 2007 counterparts. Strangely, they read as fresher and less weighty than the 2007s, with a broader aromatic spectrum, and a firmer, more foregrounded mineral character. Overall, the 2008s are wines of greater nuance and complexity, but with no shortage of the deep, brooding, mystic power that characterizes Gravner’s greatest efforts.
2008 “Bianco Breg” Venezia-Giulia
“Breg” is a blend of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon, with smaller proportions of Riesling Italico and Chardonnay. The varieties are fermented separately in buried amphorae, but they’re blended before their long stint in barrel, thus spending six years commingling and harmonizing. Compared to the deep, cerebral Ribolla, “Breg” is more aromatically exuberant, more fruit-forward, and a bit more immediately approachable. One catches traces of the Sauvignon’s assertive citrus glean, hints of the Riesling’s regal poise and minerality, and certainly one feels the breadth and generosity of the Pinot Grigio’s ample texture. But all weave together into a delicious whole that is both explosively aromatic and deeply earthy, bright and ringing yet coiled and powerful. The 2008 is a particularly sexy version of “Breg” that offers the drinker immense immediate gratification.
2008 Ribolla Venezia-Giulia
Fermented and aged exactly like the “Breg” above, Gravner Ribolla is a striking meditation on the elusive soul of this local variety. Back in the mid-1990s, when Josko was reaping wide acclaim for his modern, clean, impressively rich new-wave Friulian wines, something still ate at him: he could never quite capture in his finished wines the true taste of a Ribolla grape plucked fresh from a vine. It wasn’t until he started experimenting with extended skin maceration that he found what he had been seeking, and it was that revelatory experience that set him off on his ultimate path. In Gravner’s wake, many growers from far and wide have employed skin contact to widely varying degrees of success, but one can’t help but feel that some of these efforts use maceration as window dressing—a neat unorthodox technique (despite being millennia old, ironically), a way to jazz up an uninspiring variety, even a blatant attempt to stand out from the crowd. With Gravner’s Ribolla, however, one senses a wholeness and a completeness—a certain philosophical rightness—in the wine. It is a deeply personal creation that nonetheless seems to capture something about the variety that no other versions do. This 2008 is more subtle, spicy, and serpentine than the impressively broad (but more monolithic) 2007, and though it is gorgeous right now it will undoubtedly reveal its secrets gradually over the years to come.