“Orange wine” is a bona fide category now, one whose amber-colored tentacles have crept further and further into the mainstream over the past several years. Still, amidst an ocean of skin-contact white wines from every corner of the globe, those of Josko Gravner stand apart. His resurrection of this ancient practice 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 for himself. A highly acclaimed producer of technical, stylish Friulian wines early in his career, Josko underwent a crisis of faith in the late 1990s, realizing that he simply didn’t enjoy drinking his own wine anymore. The story of his perilous journey into the Caucasus mountains and his life-altering encounters with ancient Georgian viticultural traditions has been well-told by now, but—in the wine world of 2018, where one can easily mail-order a clay 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 wholeheartedness and 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, Josko ended up inspiring a legion of growers to abandon the trappings of modern technical winemaking in favor of something more visceral and ancient in spirit, and his arrestingly 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 broadly 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 batch of new releases from Gravner, whose vintages—2009 for the white wines, and 2005 for the red wine—speak to another distinguishing aspect of his approach: extraordinarily long ageing. While there are plenty of other growers today using skin contact, burying amphorae, and otherwise reducing their reliance on technology, nobody has combined those practices with such a trustingly extended elevage as Josko. His wines enter the market fully grown, powerful in their seamlessness, and with a layered depth only age can expose. To drink Gravner is to revel in a part of the human spirit that modern life cannot quite satisfy, and we urge you to join us in celebration.
2009 Bianco Breg
2009, in Gravner’s words, was an “ordinary” growing season—relatively dry, and with a lower quantity of noble rot than in 2008. (Botrytis, for Gravner, is a prized phenomenon indicating a great vintage of notable complexity.) In contrast to the unctuous, truffley 2008, this 2009 Bianco Breg is leaner, more precise, and slightly gentler in its mien. Still, it is riotously aromatic, with a strong impression of quince paste and a transportive whiff of vivid Indian spice (cardamom in particular). Composed primarily of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, with smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Riesling Italico, the particularities of varietal identity are all but lost in the wine’s whirling complexity—after all, these grapes have been exposed not only to extended skin maceration, but to six full years of barrel ageing (and they’re blended prior to their transference to cask, thereby spending an extended period of time commingling their elements). Speaking of elevage, the level of concentration that six years of barrel ageing and its ensuing evaporation can engender is staggering, and indeed this 2009 Breg is almost forbiddingly dense on the palate, with a sense of uncompromised power that wonderfully offsets the aromatic fireworks. Harvested at full ripeness well into October, the grapes fermented spontaneously and without temperature control in subterranean amphorae with a long maceration on their skins. After being drawn off and pressed (using a vertical basket press), the wine then rested in amphorae on its gross lees without any added sulfur for an additional seven months. Finally, the amphorae were blended, and the wine was transferred into extremely large, very old Slavonian oak casks for a full six years before being bottled without fining of filtration of any kind.
NOTE: We are nearing the end of Bianco Breg’s existence, as 2013 was the last vintage produced. In our rapidly 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 land’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” applies definitively in this case.
Back in the mid-1990s, when Josko was widely acclaimed 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 that he found what he had been seeking, and it was that revelatory experience that set him off on his ultimate path. As is typically the case, this 2009 Ribolla—handled in the cellar in identical fashion to the Bianco Breg above—is less exotic and more stern than its brother. In keeping with the 2009 vintage character, there is almost a sense of restraint here (rare in Gravner), a coiled intensity with power in reserve—a sense of mineral profundity that hits one in the gut rather than dances on the tongue. The palate strikes with focused potency, swelling in volume just when one thinks things couldn’t possibly get more intense. This is high drama shorn of sentimentality, a riveting wine that could come from no other cellar than Gravner’s.
2005 Rosso Breg
Although Josko is more famous for his skin-contact white wines, his reds—which comprise but a tiny fraction of his total production—are equally masterful and arresting. Produced entirely from the esteemed but little-known local Pignolo, Rosso Breg illustrates authoritatively how complex and age-worthy this finicky variety can be when handled with skill. 2005 was the final vintage produced without any amphorae—it fermented in open-top wooden casks and spent six years (like the whites above) in large barrels—and it has just now been released for sale after five additional years of ageing in bottle. This is a full-throttle wine, a storm of black licorice, ripe plums, black cherries, pipe tobacco, and incense. For a ripe vintage and an ultra-long stint in barrel, there’s an impressive amount of lift, and one feels the lack of cellar manipulation in the wine’s soaring aromatics and inner wildness. The tannins are heavy-browed but fully ripe, and a sense of savory umami has begun to emerge from the core of hyper-concentrated fruit and formidable structure. Furthermore, there’s an element of “x-factor” here which is difficult to articulate but which puts this wine easily into the company of Italy’s most coveted, untamed, soulful reds. It’s a wine worth every penny, and those wise enough to secure some of the scant amount we get to import are in for a real trip.
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.