2010 Gravner Ribolla ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

An Aged Orange Wine from Josko Gravner

650 Words (Or So) on Friuli's Editorial Winemaker

5 min read

It is perhaps fitting that one of best-known iconoclasts in modern Italian wine has one foot in another country. After all, Italy is hardly one country itself, but a collection of regional identities lumped under a flag. As you can tell from the headline and featured image, I am talking about Josko Gravner. Whether you call him an Icon of the Natural Wine Movement, the Master of Clay-Vessel Fermentation, or just the Sage of Orange Wines, he has become a force in Italian wine despite living a quiet life away from the spotlight. He didn’t seek out this attention, as much as it found him, but his wines helped define a category of wine that is unique to the hills straddling the Slovenian border.

Whether you call him an Icon of the Natural Wine Movement, the Master of Clay-Vessel Fermentation, or just the Sage of Orange Wines, he has become a force in Italian wine despite living a quiet life away from the spotlight.

One descriptor that I’ve not seen used to describe him is editorial, but it appears to be fitting, for with each passing year he seems to cut back and hone his focus, like an editor scratching out extraneous words with a red pen. For instance, like many in the 1970s, he invested in stainless-steel tanks and barrique barrels, only to pivot entirely toward Georgian qvevri in the late 1990s. One of his most famous wines, the delicate and hauntingly beautiful Breg Bianco, is comprised of white grapes such as Riesling Italco, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, which lend the wine a coppery color due to the lengthy maceration on the skins inside these clay vessels. But beginning in 2012, Gravner started uprooting his vine holdings devoted to international grapes, instead choosing to double-down on Ribolla Gialla (a white grape) and Pignolo (a red). If his portfolio of wines was once an anthology of poems, soon it will be down to two haiku.

I have not had the pleasure of meeting Josko Gravner yet, but it is perhaps here — in the stripping down of clutter to hone one’s craft — that a writer like me finds something to relate to. Don’t get me wrong: “relating” and “understanding” are two different things, but you should see the number of drafts I go through for a single, 400-word wine review; the tireless trimming, shuffling and maneuvering of words and phrases helps me arrive at a perspective that is hopefully unique and thought-provoking. I imagine Gravner feels the same way about each vintage.

But ultimately, as a writer with a critical edge, I don’t owe you something that reads like a slot-machine of synonyms; I owe you a simple assessment. And I have to say, the Gravner Ribolla — at least the 2010 vintage — is a very challenging wine.

To make the Ribolla, Gravner relies solely on Ribolla Gialla, which in my opinion, is Friuli’s most compelling indigenous grape. When grown in the right conditions, it has the substance to yield a wine of wild aromatics, piercing crispness and complex dimension. Here, Gravner extracts every ounce of character with an extended maceration, five months of aging in qvevri, and another six years — yes, six years — in neutral oak casks.

The overall effect is a bit of a mismatch this time. The aromas sing a haunting invitation. This is quite possibly the most aromatically enticing wine I have come across all year, offering generous and seamless tones reminiscent of blood orange, peach skin, apple, leather, violets and honeycomb. But on the palate, the wine can be ferocious and overwhelming at first. Complexity is only coveted if it is harmonious, and I found the first evening with the Gravner Ribolla to be lacking in joy. Its stern angles and piercing acidity — plus its profusion of flavors and sensations — felt to me like watching a foreign film with subtitles that were going to fast. It took two full days after I pulled the cork for the wine to achieve harmony, and for me, the taster, to achieve some fluency in its vocabulary.

There are two takeaways from Gravner’s 2010 Ribolla, and if you have a chance to try this wine you can mull it over. One, is that sometimes when we encounter greatness, it slips through our fingers. It’s very depths of excellence, seemingly unknowable (or at least, difficult to know fully). And secondly, perhaps 11 years after vintage is just not enough time to polish one of Italy’s most complex wines. Life is short. I hate telling people to wait on a wine. But wait on this vintage if you can.

2010 Gravner Ribolla Venezia Giulia

2010 Gravner Ribolla ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Venezia Giulia IGT (Friuli) 
Grapes: Ribolla Gialla (100%)
Alcohol: 14%
Opinion: ★★★★ 3/4 (out of five)
Food friendliness: Limited
• Price: A Little Pricey ($80-$90)

             

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A beginner might like … First off, I would not recommend this as your first “orange wine” experience. This winemaking process — of leaving a white grape on the skins for an extended period of time to tint the wine amber and infuse it with enhanced aromas, body and tannin — can yield wines of wild and unexpected sensations. Gravner’s wine may be a pleasure, but its so potent and intense, I wouldn’t start here. That said, it’s hard to imagine any carbon-based life form being turned off by the aromas of this wine. It is a simply divine nose.

A wine obsessive might like … Chasing their tail across the wine world, looking for reference points. While this wine is Oslavia through and through, that little area tucked up against the Italian-Slovenian border is too small to be a reference point for 99% of aficionados. I found my remembering Hirsch’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir in the floral aspects of the nose; Sauternes in the richness of the honeycomb-like inflections; and even a fino sherry, both in its semi-oxidized tones, but also in the precise cut of the alcohol. But I mostly recognized Italy in its interplay of bitter, sour and sweet fruit, as well as Slovenia in its freshness. It’s like the Amazing Race through the world of wine, all condensed into a single bottle.

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