A personal view on Joško Gravner by Simon Woolf

Josko contemplating in the qvevri cellar, September 2016. Photo Simon Woolf.

Our adventure about Orange wines started last year with a glass of the wonderful Andreas Tscheppe’s Hirschkäffer 2014. Since then we have been doing a lot of research, study and of course, tastings. We have been very passionate about this style of wine and about the great people producing it and somehow involved with it. In the early days, we discovered a website which rapidly became our main source of knowledge and reference: The Morning Claret is run by Simon Woolf, who is even more passionate about Orange wines. Simon is columnist for Decanter Magazine and also serves as juror in wine tournaments across Europe. He is a reference for us and we can say now that www.themorningclaret.com and www.orangewines.es have become the main European websites about orange wines, if we are allowed to compare ourselves to him. In 2018 Simon will release the first-ever book on Orange wine history, Amber Revolution.

Simon Woolf

Simon recently visited Joško Gravner, the Godfather of Orange Wines in Friuli. Today we are proudly presenting his thoughts on his visit. Please welcome Simon Woolf, from The Morning Claret:

Looking behind the scenes at a winery is always enlightening. Wineries are places of work – farms by any other name – yet many also double as tourist attractions, or at least see a constant flow of visitors: wine lovers, journalists and wine buyers.

There are those wineries where the well appointed tasting room is something close to a facade – a holding pen for visitors so they don’t need to see the chaos that lies beyond its polished wood doors. And then there are estates like Joško Gravner’s in Friuli Collio.

Every square centimetre of the Gravner’s property appears to be immaculate – not showy, or overdone, but beautifully kept and completely clear of clutter. This even holds true if you stray from the winery’s public areas into the family house.

There’s a considered, yet minimalist approach to everything, from the architecture to labelling and of course the wines. Gravner has spent the last two decades perfecting his stripped down, ultra traditional methods. The operation has the feeling of calm, of a well-oiled machine. But it wasn’t always so straightforward.

Abandoning all of the modern technology he’d bought during the 1980s, Gravner’s first commercial vintage of his now famous skin macerated style was 1997. These wines, with their deep amber/russet hues and profound autumnal aromas and complex flavours were nothing less than a shock to their public when they were released onto the market at the end of the 1990s.

Gambero Rosso published a famous article titled “Josko Gravner has gone crazy – please come back Joško” – a reference to how well loved this pivotal winemaker was for his barrique aged white wines in the 1980s and 90s. The article stated in no uncertain times that the new Gravner wines were a disaster – faulty, oxidised, undrinkable.

The coup de grace? Gambero Rosso had not been sent any samples of the wines, and had not tasted them. Gravner admits that he shed tears over the incident. And there was worse to come. The article had been published just as the new vintage was being shipped to customers all over Italy.

Partly due to the bad press, more than half the winery’s customers returned their shipments without even trying the wines.

It’s hard to imagine now just how vehemently the wine world turned against Gravner during this period. But Joško, a man for whom the word “uncompromising” could have been invented, didn’t balk.

Not only was the new direction for his wines maintained, there was more to come. Gravner finally took delivery of the first batch of Georgian qvevris (amphora-like vessels) in 2001, gradually converting his entire production to qvevri by 2005.

Then in 2012, after many years of planning, Gravner grubbed up the last of his vineyards still planted with international varieties. Now, the estate has only the area’s indigenous Ribolla Gialla and the noble red Pignolo – plus a few token rows of the Georgian Rkatsiteli grape (“It’s a homage to Georgia”, says Joško.)

Gravner’s inability to compromise has cost him a few friendships. The close working relationship with near neighbour Stanko Radikon (who died in 2016) broke down around 1995, although the two reportedly met for the last time just a few weeks before Stanko died.

He refuses to work with six other wineries in Oslavia who founded the “Ribolla di Oslavia” association to promote their local grape, as in his eyes their continued new planting of international varieties makes no sense if Ribolla is acknowledged to be the best.

A 20 year working partnership with superstar pruning consultants Marco Simonet and Pierpaolo Sirch has also finally run its course. Gravner’s latest project involves new plantings of his own American rootstocks next to ungrafted Ribolla Gialla vines – the two will be conjoined in a couple of years time. “It all starts with the roots” he says “and ultimately pruning can’t help you if the roots aren’t any good”.

Gravner is now 65, but looking forward to many more years of perfecting his craft. He’s increasingly aided in the cellar and the vineyards by his younger daughter Jana, while elder daughter Mateja is the estate’s sales, marketing and communication engine – and public face. Photos of Gravner’s son Miha, who died tragically in a motorbike accident in 2009, are prolific in the house and the winery.

“I’ve made a special agreement”, he smiles, looking heavenward, when I ask what the future holds, “I’m going to live until I’m 100”. He does however add slightly grimly “but just in case it doesn’t work out, I’ve also reserved a burial plot”.

Simon Woolf’s forthcoming book “Amber Revolution” tells the full story of Gravner’s journey and much more about orange wine in Friuli, Slovenia, Georgia and beyond. It can be pre-ordered now on kickstarter.

Photos (c) by Simon Woolf

El pase de diapositivas requiere JavaScript.