The rules of nature. Interview with Josko Gravner, orange wines pioneer and forefather of the "natural" wine making in Friuli.

This is an abstract from my Master Sommelier Alma Ais thesis Josko Gravner's Ribolla gialla and the orange wines in the U.S. market.  I had the chance to visit Gravner's cellar, to taste his wines directly from the amphorae and barrels and to interview him before my departure to New York, the last 21st May 2012. There is still a lot of debating around the theme of "natural" in wine, as this recent letter written by the French wine maker Danny Baldin in response to some articles published in the famous Italian wine mag Gambero Rosso testifies. This letter may sound a little too poetic in some points , but I agree with Baldin when he says that with some natural wines you need to be patient, to let the wine breath and "live" in the bottle for days and even weeks, and to be opened to his imperfection, giving it time to evolve and show his multiple character. Natural wines are like all the others: there are good and bad ones, but when you encounter a really good wine, the meeting will be unforgettable. That's what happened to me with Gravner wines. Tasting his wines from the amphorae and barrels and from the bottle isn't of course the same. When I first had a glass of his Ribolla gialla 2004 from a bottle opened just few hours before I was  disappointed: the complexity that I had encountered in the cellar was gone, the wine was very closed. (this is a report of the tasting written by my NY friend Eric Guido in his blog V.I.P. Table). Some days later I tried a glass of Ribolla Gravner 2004 from another bottle which was opened some days before and this time I was amazed by its magic complexity which continued to evolve in the glass hour after hour. Baldin's letter made me think about my Gravner experience, so I decided to post here the interview I made last May and my tasting notes of the Ribolla gialla 2004. 
Josko has a great respect for Mother Nature, she dictates the rules,  since he believes that there is no good or bad vintage, but all vintages are great: "Nature does not create a vintage for us, we have to understand how to get it". His ambition to do the best has led him to test different wine making techniques, from big barrels to steel tanks, to barriques, to what he calls "the spring", the amphorae, which were used by the first farmers 5000 years ago, for the fermentation,  and again the big barrels for ageing. "His path", he says, "was build with mistakes": " To produce wine you don't have to go to school. You have to know your wines, make your choices, make your mistakes and each time I did wrong I have admitted it". 
 Josko Gravner

 Here are the other answers he gave me.

What does "natural wine making" mean? 
For me it is implied that wine must be natural, I don't need the label "organic" or "biodynamic". If you need a label it means you are just following the last fashion. Instinctively I have removed steel tanks and refrigerators from the cellar, thinking that this is a technology of the past fifty years and that for thousand years wine was made without them. Then, no clarification, no wine press. In nature it works like in a person. There is an angel and a devil. You need to be careful that the devil doesn't have the upper hand. If you kill the red spider, a vineyard enemy, you kill his rival too. The important thing is to create a balance without pesticides. It isn't immediate, it is a long path. We use very few copper, half of the suggested dose, wettable sulphur, and if it is possible powder sulphur, added with propolis, a natural antibacterial. When I was young I made the error to use antibotrytis, you learned this in school and industry imposed it. It is twenty years that I don't use chemical fertilizer, which is like drugs for humans. First it gives you strenght, then it kills you and you get addicted. We must understand that we have received the land from Mother Nature, so if it is suited for wine, we can plant vineyards, if not we have to plant other farming.

You will soon not make the wine Breg (cuvée of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot grigio, Riesling) anymore and the production will focus on Ribolla gialla for the whites and Pignolo for the reds. Ribolla gialla is vinified in different versions, what is according to you the best one? 
Ribolla gialla is the greatest grape of the Collio DOC. It is the soul of this territory, the grape variety that best interpret the power of this land. I believe in Ribolla, not because it is a fashion. If you use 10 kilos of grapes to make a sparkling wine is like making a "spritz" (a common aperitif from the NE Italy, made with Prosecco,  a bitter -Campari or Aperol-  and a splash of sparkling water). The wine making style is personal, I believe in my way of doing things. Macerating the white grapes on the skins (thus giving the color orange to the wine) is like amplifying a music: you must have a great music, if not you will only have a mess. That means that to make a great wine you have to start from great grapes.

Do you have any models or people who inspired you? And between the other producers of the "Oslavia group"  (how the school  of "natural wines" founded by Gravner is called with reference to the cru of Oslavia in the Collio DOC area) is there anyone you consider the closest to your philosophy? 
In the past I was inspired by the French, such as Romanee Conti, then I realized we are in a completely different area, we have a great land, and if I use barrique here I ruin the wine, it is a mistake I made. However this helped me to understand something I would have never realized. As far as the other producers concerns I am alone. Each farmer is individualist because he loves his land and must mind his own business. I have always misunderstood the market, but now I believe that in the future we will see on one side very cheap wines and more screw cups and on the other side high quality wines with great value. Lots of producers prefer to make quantity instead of quality, but if you are big you cannot make quality. I have decided to abandon some vineyards to concentrate my work in less land, make less: from 18 hectares I produce only 220 hl wine.

What is the correct way to taste your wines? Which glass do you suggest?
I have created a special glass for my wines, the name is "coppa Gravner". I took the idea visiting a cellar in the Caucasus and tasting the wines in a clay cup. The project started in 2007. The concept is very simple: before drinking you have to hold a glass, with this glass you have the sensation to touch the wine. The glass is made in Breganze (near Vicenza) in the laboratory of a glass master, Massimo Lunardon. Anyway, the ideal glass must be wide, in particular the bottom. I don't control the tasting temperature, if it is summer I drink it at 20 C, if it is too hot, I cool it down a litlle, but not in the fridge. I prefer it warm than cold.
Gravner "coppa"

What is the ideal food pairing for your wines? Many Sommeliers love them for their versatilily, being a good match also for meat and fish. 
This is a great news, thank you. According to me a great wine doesn't need a pairing. The problem is when you need to pair a wine and it ruins your dish. A wine can make food taste better, but if a wine is not good, it  works with no dish.  My wine goes from the first course to the dessert.

What do you think about "orange wines" in the U.S.? Have you ever been in the States?
The term "orange wines" was coined by Americans, because many of these wines are indeed orange colored. My wine has more the color of the "shining sun", I would define it more "amber". I first visited California in 1987. There I understood how the market works, how a wine is made according to consumers' expectations with the addition of synthetic aromas, a terrible mistake. The impression I had in 1987 is that in America you eat really bad, but if you want you can find the excellence. This is the diversity of USA. There is the overweight person who eat at McDonald's and there are people who drive for 100 km to buy a kg of tomatoes and these will be my future costumers.

According to you, is the American consumer really able to understand what he is drinking when he tastes your Ribolla gialla? 
The first time someone drinks my wine he can't understand. He needs to taste it more often. He needs an education, an explanation. I should be there to talk to him, but I must work here, so it is impossible. I believe that wine isn't just oenology, but the way of thinking of the producers who make it, and with my wines I try to communicate my philosophy. I believe that my wines must age for 7 years because for me the number 7 is magical: at 7 a child complete his first adolescence, at 14 the second one, at 21 he is an adult and every seven years all the cells are renewed. Rudolf Steiner didn't allow any child to go to school at 6, because in this way the child would have lost 1 year of childhood. My hope is that my wines will last 7x7 years, almost 50.

Here my tasting notes of the Ribolla gialla Gravner 2004

Color: Amber with orange reflections. Bright summer color of the "shining sun". Inviting, warm. Thick slow tears on the glass sides.
Nose: Complex with notes of candied orange zest and tropical fruits, dry apricot, summer fruit salad with mango, banana, peach, apricot or peaches in wine. Floral notes of rose water and wisteria. Toasted hints of almond brittle and hazelnut, malt biscuits. Memories of whiskey, orange and zabaglione liqueurs. Spices such as saffron, candied ginger, vanilla. Mineral notes of iodine and sweet hints of toffee, chestnut honey, buttery pastry shop. The scent is rich, "fleshy", intriguing, mysterious and elegant.
Taste: Dry, warm, smooth, fresh, mineral and slightly tannic. Full body, intense, creamy, with a lingering finish of dry apricot, almond brittle and a little bitterness due to tannins. "Macho" white wine with a country style.
A glass of Josko Gravner Ribolla gialla 

Here below some other pictures from my visit:

Oslavia vineyards 

The enchanted amphorae cellar

Here "sleeps" the Ribolla gialla

Josko Gravner

Gravner's cellar

Gravner's cellar

Gravner's cellar

2 commenti:

  1. Thanks for sharing this post, I love wine and during my time there are many types of wines I have tried. However, my favourite wine that I have tried is Pinot Noir.