1991 Gravner Ribolla Gialla, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy

gravner_label.gifWhen 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 lined with beeswax and buried in the ground.

Gravner, a small winery near Oslavia in Northern Italy’s Fruili Venezia Giulia appellation. 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 the second Ribolla I have had from Gravner, and it is nearly a decade older than the last one I had, but you could never tell by tasting it. With only two points of reference it’s always tricky to make generalizations, but I have a feeling that these unusual whites, made by an unusual man, are the sort of ageless beauties that few wines (or women) manage to become.

Given that this wine is from 1991 it’s unclear to me whether this was an amphorae-aged wine or not. It certainly shared much in common with the last wine, which leads me to believe that it might be, but I cannot be sure.

Tasting Notes:
Palest gold in the glass this wine has an otherworldly nose of pine forest and nut skin — a sort of pungent dryness that is comforting and appetizing at the same time. In the mouth it is incredibly well balanced between a pointed acidity and a silky smooth body texture that sits weightily on the tongue. Flavors of tart green plums, old parchment, and rainwater and sundried citrus fruit mix in a swirling, airy complexity of flavor that soars into a substantial finish. If every white wine tasted like this, there might not be any reason to drink red. Seriously.

Food Pairing:
I drank this wine with a dish of grilled abalone, soft boiled egg, and garden vegetables. I believe the wine to be a good pairing with any dish that has more complex spices, including milder Indian, Vietnamese, or Indonesian food, and of course any white fish.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

How Much?: $130 these days.

This vintage currently not available as far as I can tell, but other vintages are available for purchase on the internet.