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08.29.2009

2001 Gravner "Anfora" Ribolla Gialla, Friuli, Italy

gravner_anfora.jpgWhen it comes to winemaking there's New World, and there's Old World. There's new school, and of course, there's old school. And then there are a select few people and wines who make the old school winemakers look like young tykes with newfangled toys.

In a world where "traditional" or "natural" winemaking has now become a self imposed designation of the most extreme proponents of biodynamic and non-interventionalist winemaking, Josko Gravner puts them all to shame. These people proclaim how in touch they are with the "traditional" methods of winemaking, but they're still using what Gravner would call modern technology: wooden barrels. The iconoclastic Gravner eschews wines in wood, in favor of the original stuff: wines aged in huge clay amphorae sealed with beeswax and buried in the ground.

Gravner, a small winery near Oslavia in Northern Italy's Fruili Venezia Giulia region. It is run by the occasionally enigmatic and always driven Josko Gravner, who has been making wines in the same spot for more than thirty years.

While Gravner may have stuck to his beloved Fruili region for this long, he has not been making wine the same way for all that time. Indeed, at one time he was a celebrated "modernist" who brought new French Oak barrels into a region whose white wines were always made in steel. But in what can only be described as an inspired drive to explore all the possibilities for making the best wines he possibly could, he eventually started using a combination of old oak barrels and terra cotta amphorae, a winemaking vessel that was believed to be pioneered by the Georgians between four and five thousand years prior.

The Gravner estate sits on about 45 acres of land straddling the Italy Slovenia border, and grows Ribolla, Riesling Italico, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pignolo, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Ribolla and Pignolo stand out of that list as varietals that most Americans, indeed, most people in general have never heard of. Ribolla Gialla, as this green skinned white varietal is also known, is grown only in this region of Italy (even rarely at that) and is mentioned in municipal documents from the area dating back to before the 13th century. Pignolo is also a native variety to the region, which was cultivated by the local monasteries in the region starting in the 17th century.

Since the 2001 vintage, Gravner has decided to make his wines exclusively in amphorae, leaving oak behind, just as he left industrial yeasts, sulfur, and even temperature controlled fermentation behind years before. Of all the winemakers I have ever heard of, Gravner seems to have one of the likeliest claims on the label "non-interventionalist" but he will shrug off such a label if he hears it, insisting that all winemaking is intervention in a natural process that leads to vinegar. Gravner has deliberately not adopted the principles of organic or biodynamic winemaking, instead opting to just do things "his way."

If his way produces wine like this, then I'm more than content to sit back and let him work. This is his first vintage of Ribolla made entirely in amphorae, and tasting the way it does, it's not hard to understand why Gravner has given up wood entirely. Gravner's formula for this wine involves an incredible amount of extended skin contact, sometimes more than six months, which produces the incredibly gorgeous and distinctive orange color of this wine, not to mention its heady aromatics and tannic structure.

I've been tasting Gravner wines for two or three years, and have had wines dating back to 1991. I have come to appreciate them as literally some of the best wines made on the planet, and unfortunately, so have some other people, resulting in rapidly climbing prices for these wines. What you used to be able to get for $40 you will now pay $90 for. Even at these dramatically higher prices, there's no doubt in my mind that these wines are worth it.

Tasting Notes:
A distinct and vibrant medium orange color in the glass, this wine smells of something otherworldly -- a concoction of roasted nuts, bee pollen, orange blossom honey, and an elusive floral aroma. In the mouth the wine is unusually silky, without being heavy on the tongue. Awash with a myriad of flavors ranging from wet dirt to orange creamsicle, tangerine zest, and pine sap, this wine is a technicolor dreamcoat of flavors that all but forces a smile. Despite being made from white grapes, the wine has a distinct, light tannic structure that gives it a muscular quality. Excellent acidity and a minutes-long finish seal the bargain. Outstanding.

Food Pairing:
Because of the tannic structure of this wine, it will actually pair well with meats, and the acidity means it's delightful for lighter dishes as well. In my experience it does exceptionally well with anything that has a little bit of a salty tang to it. Wood grilled sardines anyone?

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $90

This wine can be purchased on the Internet.

Comments (20)

vinosseur wrote:
08.30.09 at 4:22 AM

Hurray on the sardine pairing with this wine! I recently used Vodopivec's Vitovska with freshly grilled sardines at work and it was super!
I have one question however relating to the comment that the natural process of grape fermentation leads to vinegar. I have read this often but don't totally understand this concept. If you have perfectly healthy and ripe grapes and allow them to ferment, won't this finished product be wine? I suppose if you don't place this finished wine in a vessel such as a wine bottle, it would eventually become vinegar. Is this the concept?

Thank you!

Simona wrote:
08.30.09 at 5:52 AM

I love Gravner (as well as Vodopivec, Skerk, Radikon, etc) and his wines, I am glad they are known and available in US!
Last time I went to visit him, we tasted directly from the amphorae Pinot Grigio and Ribolla, they were amazing!!

Jack Everitt wrote:
08.30.09 at 8:50 AM

This was the Wine of the Day yesterday in a very strong field of mostly orange wines. I'm also concluding that the 2001-2003 vintages need more aging than the 1999 and 2000 vintages.

08.30.09 at 9:17 AM

No comparison with Gravner wines. Outstanding and unique.

Alder wrote:
08.30.09 at 11:29 AM

Vinossuer,

Yes, indeed, that's the idea. Without some level of human intervention what you end up with isn't exactly something we'd want to drink.

08.30.09 at 12:37 PM

Vinossuer,

Wine is a middle stage. Just like everything else on the planet, oxidation kills wine; it provides an environment for the aceto-bacteria to make vinegar. That is, in part, the reason for the use of the antioxidant sulfur dioxide.

Until they discovered sulfur dioxide in the 2nd century, a major portion of Roman wines went to vinegar.

Jack Everitt wrote:
08.30.09 at 1:15 PM

Vinossuer, I'm afraid that vinegar is drinkable. A few years ago, some hipster restaurants in the US were serving flights of them. (Died fast.)

Dylan wrote:
08.31.09 at 5:32 AM

I'm impressed by Gravner's confidence. He seems to know exactly what he wants and doesn't care about the impression that leaves other people, especially if it's working. His traditionalist approach reaches further back in tradition than our minds would normally extend, and that must not only give his wines an interesting flavor, but an interesting story.

Jesper wrote:
08.31.09 at 11:01 AM

I always enjoy reading articles where I get wiser - and this is certainly one of them Thank you very much, much appreciated.

Paolo Schiavon wrote:
09.04.09 at 4:09 AM

Gravner is the best one. Its school in Italy has produced other good wines. Tried the Vermentino di Dettori in Sardinia.

chris robinson wrote:
09.13.09 at 9:19 PM

I must be living in an alternative dimension. These wines are oxidized rubbish, over-priced and just defy my understanding of everything I associate with well made dry wines. I think the "emperors new clothes" syndrome is at work here. If I want this palate profile I will go for a good sherry and not be confounded by this con job. "Wet dirt" was about the most accurate taste descriptor.

Alder wrote:
09.13.09 at 9:36 PM

Chris,

That's the great thing about the wine world, something for everyone. I stand by my claim that this is one of the world's most distinctive wines, but that certainly doesn't mean that everyone will like it. With age these wines develop incredible bouquets of secondary aromas, and they can improve for decades.

Have you ever had a Ribolla Gialla that you like?

donald bates wrote:
12.29.09 at 9:59 PM

I first heard of this wine in about 2005. Living in Australia, it is impossible to source. i kept a note of it. When in Venice last September, I visited a very good, mostly seafood restaurant. To my surprise, the Josko Gravners and Radikons were on the wine list. I couldn't believe my luck to finally get to taste this style of wine-making.
We tried the Gravner Ribolla Gialla. The colour was intriguing, the flavours amazing. But most impressive of all, was the sense that the wine actually changed character depending on the food. With shellfish there was one flavour - perfectly matching the food. With the grilled fish, there was another flavour - again complimenting the food. Amazing sense of the wine being so in tune with such different foods.

Wayne Young wrote:
02.05.10 at 3:02 AM

I recently had a chance to try some of these "natural wines" at a tasting, and I must say that NOTHING destroys varietal character in white wine like long skin contact and natural yeasts and all the rest of the methods (or lack thereof) in these wines.
I tried 4 wines made in the same way from 4 different grape varieties and 4 different regions of Italy and they all tasted incredibly similar.
Everyone has a right to make wine the way that they want, and I know Gravner personally, so I am not knocking his wines, but for me, even at a reasonable price, these would not be wines I would drink on a regular basis. They are esoteric curiosities appreciated by geeks.
Give me a 10 Euro bottle of clean, fresh Friulano made with ripe fruit a hint of reduction and I'll drink it every day.

Alder wrote:
02.05.10 at 6:40 AM

Wayne,

Different preferences make the wine world go round.

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