It is no exaggeration to count Josko Gravner among the most influential winegrowers of the past half-century, and in the world of non-interventionist wine his impact is perhaps unmatched. His revival of the ancient practice of white-wine skin-maceration over two decades ago was certainly not an inevitability, especially considering technology’s ever-increasing role in the winemaking process, and it took someone of Gravner’s vision and tenacity to forge such a path. A highly acclaimed producer of technical, stylish Friulian wines early in his career, Josko underwent a crisis of faith in the mid-1990s, realizing that he simply didn’t enjoy drinking his own wines anymore. The story of his perilous journey into the Caucasus mountains and his encounters with millennia-old Georgian viticultural traditions has been well told by now, but in the wine world of 2019—where one can easily mail-order a terra-cotta jar or two to indulge in a bit of experimental fun—Josko’s overhaul of his entire methodology stands out even more sharply for its all-in fearlessness. He knew he would alienate people, but he would at last be able to make wines that had meaning for him beyond their commercial success.
While his radical shift indeed confused many at the time and cost him ground commercially, Josko ended up inspiring a legion of growers to abandon the trappings of modern technical winemaking in favor of something more visceral in spirit, and his atavistic wines connected deeply with consumers who yearned for an experience beyond the ordinary. Even today, when the flavors and textures of skin-contact white wines have become much more familiar, Gravner’s achieve a level of expressive power few wines on earth can approach, and he is justly revered for his efforts. We have just received a round of new releases from Gravner, whose vintages—ranging from 2010 back to 2003—speak to another distinguishing aspect of his approach: exceptionally long aging. While there are plenty of growers now employing skin contact, experimenting with amphorae, and otherwise reducing their reliance on technology, nobody has combined those practices with such a trustingly extended barrel regimen as Josko. His wines enter the market fully formed, powerful in their seamlessness, and with a layered depth only age can expose. And even today, amidst an ocean of skin-contact white wines from every corner of the globe, those of Gravner stand apart.
The 2010 vintage which comprises the bulk of this shipment yielded wines of exceptional equilibrium and energy. A rainy summer presented its share of challenges and necessitated some careful sorting, but the bunches developed a high proportion of botrytis—something Gravner prizes for the complexity it lends his wines. Just as Josko extends the duration of skin-contact and barrel aging to its limits, so does he push his harvest date as late as possible; both practices stem for a desire to extract as much informational material as possible from the viscera of his grapes. Harvest concluded on November 15th in 2010, and the resulting wines show a nimble side of Gravner without sacrificing an iota of their usual density. They are aromatically dazzling, layered and humming on the palate, and they will undoubtedly thrill this iconic grower’s legion fans.
2010 Bianco Breg
Bianco Breg is a prime example of varietal character being subsumed within a wine’s overall complexity. Composed of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Riesling planted in the calcium-rich sandstone-marl soils of the area (known locally as ponca), it shows some of Sauvignon’s aromatic exuberance, some of Riesling’s mineral thrust, and a textural thickness derived from the Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay; however, the extended skin maceration and lengthy aging synthesizes these elements into an irreducible whole. The varieties ferment separately in subterranean amphorae, but they are blended before their six-year passage in wood and thereby spend a significant amount of time commingling their elements. The 2010 Bianco Breg’s impact on the palate is seismic—a spirited battle between its muscular richness and its gleaming-broadsword acidity amidst whose drama the wine’s 16% alcohol goes virtually unnoticed. Whereas Bianco Breg often displays more exotic fruits in its profile, the ’10 encapsulates the vintage’s inherent poise in its citrus-driven personality, with lip-smacking notes of candied lemon keeping the wine fleet of foot despite all its weight.
NOTE: We are nearing the end of Bianco Breg’s existence, as 2011 was the last vintage produced. In our warming climate, Gravner’s Chardonnay was regularly achieving close to 17% alcohol at full phenolic maturity—suggesting a fundamental mismatch between these non-native varieties and the local terroir. That, combined with Josko’s ever-growing belief in Ribolla as the true conduit of his homeland’s distinctive voice, led him to replace the varieties once used for Breg entirely with Ribolla. While Bianco Breg has always been an impressive wine with a devoted following, one must applaud Gravner for his commitment to the region’s oldest traditions and for his prescient reading of imminent environmental pressures. For those of you who love the wine, the old cliché “get it while you can” certainly applies here.
Back in the mid-1990s, as Josko reaped widespread acclaim for his 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—first in 1996 after a brutally short crop—that he found what he had been seeking, and it was that revelatory experience that set him on his ultimate path. Bianco Breg may be more exuberant, more extroverted, and flashier, but Gravner’s Ribolla is more profound and invariably more chiseled, with a tight-grained tension and a more palpable sense of energy. The 2010, clocking in over two full degrees of alcohol lower than the Bianco Breg, is downright elegant—not a word that often springs to mind with Gravner despite the wines’ manifold virtues. The vintage’s significant botrytis shows itself on the nose, with notes of white truffles and quince paste framing a strikingly mineral-led aromatic profile. Pretty and fresh on the palate, it is open-knit and politely rather than forcefully tannic, and it shares a kinetic sense of acidity with its brother Breg above. This is an irresistible wine which captures the variety’s inherent specialness and forcefully underlines the wisdom of Josko’s decision to convert his production entirely to the indigenous Ribolla.
2007 Pinot Grigio Riserva
Like a comet, Gravner’s ultra-rare Pinot Grigio Riserva rears its head seldom and briefly. Produced only in exceptional vintages, it blends late-harvested fruit from the vineyards Njiva, Bračnik, and Polje, and is fermented in aged in similar fashion to the two wines above: extended maceration in buried amphorae; basket-pressing and a return to amphorae for six months; and aging in large barrels for six full years. The ’07 pours a deep, brooding amber, its dark appearance suggesting a viscosity which the palate echoes tenfold. Picking out individual aromatic and flavor components feels like playing darts in a storm, but dried oranges, expensive pipe tobacco, chicken stock, star fruit, and truffles all appear in fleeting moments. A concoction like this serves to illuminate the outer limits of skin maceration’s possibilities, and it shares more in common spirt-wise with, say, boundary-pushing film than it does most of the wines on planet Earth. For those in tune with Gravner’s sensibilities, it is an experience not to be missed.
2003 Rosso Rujno
Produced only in exceptional vintages, the ultra-rare Rosso Rujno is a blend of the Merlot (90%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) that would ordinarily comprise the “Rosso Gravner” but in this case undergo an even longer aging regimen: seven years in barrel, followed by seven years in bottle, before the wine is released. Josko finds profound significance in the number seven; it is the number of years required for the human body’s cells to completely regenerate, and—at any given time, in some real physical sense—we are all completely different people than we were seven years prior. Given the arc of his career, it is perhaps no surprise that renewal is a topic dear to Josko’s heart… Despite its Bordeaux origins, Merlot can achieve notable complexity in the Collio, particularly when handled with Gravner’s level of skill and sensitivity, and this ’03 Rosso Rujno is flat-out breathtaking. The vines’ age—50 years as of the 2003 harvest—makes itself known in an overall sense of concentration, but a mineral-drenched freshness dominates the palate even as umami notes swirl and dazzle. Its sense of equilibrium and complexity would shame many a fancy Bordeaux to which it might be compared, but its underlying visceral power and unfettered wildness are Gravner through-and-through.
NOTE: In the same spirit as with the Bianco Breg above, Gravner has recently excised Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from his vineyards, replanting with Pignolo and thereby fully establishing all of his holdings as sources of purely local varieties.
The third rarity in this round of new releases, Gravner’s mind-bending “8.9.10” is the scarcest of them all. In the vintages 2008, 2009, and 2010, Josko painstakingly selected individual bunches of Ribolla based on their perfection of botrytis and allowed them to hang until well into November, picking them at towering sugar levels and meager levels of juice. This wine, aged in small used barrels and bottled in 2015, combines the juice from all three of those vintages into an elixir both massively sweet and shockingly complex. Ribolla’s inherent acidity prevents any trace of cloyingness from seeping in, and one feels a clear connection between this wine and his dry versions of the variety in its pit-fruit flavors and intense exotic-spice elements. It is another “outer limits” creation from this visionary grower—a wine that almost defies belief, but for whose existence we are beyond thankful.