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Gravner 1901 Fondatore

Joško Gravner, Part 1: Back To The Future

As we approach the 100th Anniversary of Biodynamics in June 2024, I couldn’t help but wonder how best to celebrate this Centenary. But then came an invitation to visit Joško Gravner in the Collio Goriziano region of Italy, which borders Goriska Brda in Slovenia.

This visit was a long-held wish from when I first encountered Gravner’s wines in Edinburgh 25 years ago. There’s been a complete transformation over the intervening years, so much so that Joško Gravner has become one of the most influential wine growers of his time.

Though not certified, biodynamics is followed closely, including working according to the phases of the Moon. However, describing his estate as biodynamic does not reveal why his influence has become so far-reaching and profound. Gravner is driven by a relentless pursuit of improvement, whether by addressing small details or making revolutionary changes. In Part 1 of this article, I will attempt to explain why.

Confucius said, “Study the past if you would divine the future”. So, let’s start there.

Origins

The Gravner wine farm was first established in 1901 by Joško’s Grandfather. It occupied just 2 hectares in Oslavia, a small village near Gorizia, and was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Collio was the garden of this vast super-power at this time, supplying wine, orchard fruits, vegetables, and silk to Vienna and beyond. However, this place experienced bloody conflict when Italy joined the Allies in World War I in May 1915.

The Austrian-Italian frontline trenches here were just as futile and lethal as any on the Western Front, which is perhaps more familiar to us in the UK. During many ensuing battles, the village of Oslavia was destroyed and never rebuilt. Only one wall of the Gravner house was left standing – known ever since as Lanzuolo Bianco, after the white bedsheet it resembled.

From 1918, this area became Italian, while Slovenia became part of what would soon become known as Yugoslavia. The vineyards and the house were slowly rebuilt, with the wine sold directly at the Gravner family’s Inn. However, this area continued to suffer during the interwar years and again in World War II. Afterwards, the Iron Curtain descended, separating East from West, seemingly forever.

Born in 1952 as Francesco Gravner (because a Slovenian birth name could not be on Italian Registers then), Joško Gravner started working with his father at age 14. At 21, he was ready to take the reins.

The Border

The Iron Curtain separated families and farms and lasted until 1991, to the end of the Cold War. Then, as Yugoslavia disintegrated, Slovenia became an independent republic, joining the European Union in 2004. Thankfully, with Italy and Slovenia now in the European Union, the border is no longer the obstacle it was, though it still runs less than 200 metres away from the Gravner winery. Hence, Gravner has vineyards in Italy (Runk) and Slovenia (Hum and Dedno).

All that remains of Oslavia

Monument – All that remains of Oslavia

The vineyards flow across these gentle, low hills. They surround the monument marking where Oslavia Church once stood. All you can hear in this countryside is the wind and birdsong, and the land has healed. But you can only fully appreciate the wines of Collio Goriziano (Italy) and Goriska Brda (Slovenia) by acknowledging the past and its legacy. Yet despite many travails, this land has inherited a rich mix of Germanic, Slavic, and Latin influences on wine, food, language, and culture, creating a unique and precious identity.

Terroir

The overall impression of the Collio/Brda is lush and verdant, with splendid vistas of natural woodland, vineyards, and olive groves. Cherry trees are still present, the only reminder that this area was once crucial for soft fruit growing.  Ancient Mulberry trees also mark the long-gone days of the local silk industry. Meanwhile, to protect biodiversity, new vineyard expansion isn’t possible.

There’s usually a benevolent climate. The proximity to the Alps in the north is a little colder and more continental, while it’s warmer and more maritime towards the sea. Oslavia is about halfway between the two. As for the winds, the Adriatic sends the warm and wet Scirocco, while the cold, dry, and fearsome Bora occasionally descends from the Alps. Summer temperatures often attain 35°C. Earthquakes pose a risk, too – one in 1976 was particularly destructive.

Climate change is now impacting this area. Winters seem to be a thing of the past; the Bora wind blows more frequently. There’s more rain, too, but in a different pattern; the rainy August and dry harvests of the past seem to have given way to their opposites.

The relatively low hills of Collio are pre-alpine, undulating, and cut by rivers. Their valleys run in all directions, so gentle slopes occasionally become steep. Hence, the vineyards have different aspects, altitudes, exposures, and diurnal variations. Collio DOC vineyards only ever occupy the hillsides, which are best for vines, reaching a relatively high altitude of 160 metres at the Runk vineyard in Oslavia. Indeed, Oslavia forms one of the five “unofficial subzones” of the Collio and is one of the best places to grow Ribolla Gialla. Oslavia has also become the spiritual home of amber/orange wines, more of which later.

Ponca Soil

The Collio has a unique, slippery soil called Ponca. This rock comes from sedimentary deposits in a shallow, turbulent sea. Consequently, it combines alternating layers of sand and clay cemented with calcium. The sands provide excellent drainage, while the clay retains water. This is a valuable combination during wet and dry spells and means that irrigation is unnecessary. Furthermore, the composition and mineral content vary according to location. Ponca is susceptible to water erosion, so while vineyard terraces occupy the steepest slopes, it’s customary for the vineyard rows to follow the contours.

Revolution 1 – Viticulture

By the 1950s, the Gravner winery had expanded and contained a typical Collio mix of grape varieties. These included native (Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Grigio, Laški Rizling/Riesling Italico) and international (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) varieties. At this time, the traditional large old wooden casks gave way, first to cement tanks and then to modern stainless steel.

Joško Gravner, the third generation, took over the winery from his father in the early 1970s. Initially, he rejected his father’s traditional ways and embraced modernity. That meant vines were fed chemical fertilisers. Vinification was in temperature-control stainless steel, and maturation was in French oak barriques for a year or two before the wine release. That’s a typical and familiar story throughout Western Europe.

These modern techniques became the new Orthodoxy—one recognised and taught worldwide. Yet despite enjoying a reputation for excellent wines, Gravner became increasingly dissatisfied with this regime. Finally, he rejected this viticultural model in 1987 after returning from California, which was then at the cutting edge of wine science. Instead, he returned to (uncertified) organic and biodynamic methods to safeguard soil health and make better, more authentic wine.

Such changes have gradually become more commonplace and familiar worldwide. However, many were suspicious of organics then, while biodynamics was simply thought cranky. But Joško Gravner says the improvements in soils and vines were evident after just two years.

Having made that fundamental change, why stop there? If there is a theme in these vineyards, it’s simplicity, respect for the vine and a focus on the best. Consequently, there were more vineyard changes, many intimately linked to more revolutionary changes in the winery and cellar.

Regeneration

Gravner Runk Vineyard

Runk Vineyard

Vineyards are a monoculture. Hence, one noticeable change is that several water ponds were dug in the vineyards – but not for irrigation, which is anathema to Gravner. Instead, these ponds have re-established biodiversity for plants, insects, and animals, and Frogs keep up a constant din. Planting trees in the vineyards serves a similar purpose, as does providing hundreds of nest boxes for birds. The birds don’t eat the grapes here – they only do that where they can’t access water.

Other significant changes include the pruning regime, which became a distinctive albarello-like system with three main stems. Pruning also occurs twice yearly, in Autumn and again in Spring. There’s a summer green harvest, too. Vine density is now lower, and the rows are wider to accommodate bespoke mini-tractors that don’t compact the Ponca soil.

The result is that grape yields are deliberately low, around 20 hectolitres per hectare. For comparison, the Collio DOC maximum is 65 hectolitres/hectare. And because Wild Boars love grapes, temporary fences protect the grapes, but only in that season.

 

Focus on Ribolla Gialla

The Gravner estate now totals 32 hectares, of which 18 ha are vineyards, with the rest left “unproductive.” One of the most significant changes came in 2012. This was the removal of all the other white grape varieties by regrafting to focus solely on Ribolla Gialla, which always performed best here and is now 85% of the vineyard area. At the same time, a couple of inferior plots were returned to forest and grazing. Although Cabernet and Merlot remain in red, they are also on borrowed time. In the future, the rare native red called Pignolo, first planted here in 1998, will become the only red grape variety and occupy the other 15% of the vineyards.

Finally, Ribolla Gialla is a late-ripening, thick-skinned variety left on the vine for as long as possible to ensure optimum grape ripeness. In some years, Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) naturally occurs on Ribolla’s small, compact bunches, adding complexity to the wines. Harvest is a slow and painstaking process that can take more than two weeks.

Revolution 2 – Fermentation

Those first nonconformist steps in the vineyards described above were vital – you can only make great wine if you have great grapes. However, enormous changes came in the winery and cellars. Gravner had already replaced a high-tech pneumatic press with a traditional basket press, but more was to come.

1996 was year zero. As mentioned above, Collio usually has a benign climate, but two hailstorms on 19 and 20 June 1996 destroyed 95% of the crop. This left 18 quintals (about 1800 kg) of Ribolla Gialla grapes insufficient for commercial purposes.  It was a disaster, with no wine to sell for a year, so why not experiment and rethink?  Before the First World War, Ribolla Gialla was occasionally made as a skin-contact wine, but this practice had died out. This means fermenting a white grape as if it were red using maceration. Here, fermentation uses grape skins, pulp, pips and stalks, not just the grape juice.

Hence, Gravner made his first amber wine using an old wooden vat, natural yeasts, and no temperature control. An ancient tradition was reborn.

Enter Qvevri

Encouraged by the results, Joško Gravner abandoned all modern stainless steel and barriques and, the following year, only made skin-contact wines from the entire harvest. Meanwhile, his reading of the encyclopedic Naturalis Historiae by the Roman scholar Pliny The Elder suggested that more could be done. Pliny’s detailed observations of wine growing included grapevines, cultivation techniques, and wine production using Clay Amphorae.

Gravner also met Georgian refugees in Slovenia, from whom he learned more about Georgian Qvevri. Georgia is one of the cultural cradles of winemaking, and the traditional Qvevri (huge buried terracotta amphorae) are still used for winemaking. After visiting Georgia in 2000, Gravner used Georgian Qvevri to ferment white grapes from the 2001 vintage onwards. The Reds followed suit in 2006. These Qvevri are buried in the cellar, with capacities ranging from 1,300 to 2,400 litres. This was no easy transition, but there are now 47 of them here, with another 18 buried outside in the garden. Gravner introduced whole-bunch fermentation in 2017, and the resulting wines are still maturing.

Gravner Qvevri Cellar

Qvevri in the Cellar

While wine lovers are now more aware of Georgia, Qvevri/Amphorae and orange/amber wines, this was certainly not the case 25 years ago! Hence, Part 2 will cover Gravner’s employment of Qvevri in more detail.

In the Qvevri, the wines ferment slowly, usually for around six months (Gravner’s most prolonged Qvevri fermentation took 14 months). After drawing it off and pressing it in the basket press, the new wine returns to a clean Qvevri for at least five more months.  There is minimal sulphur, but a little is essential because the wine is still faces a very long maturation period.

Maturation

Joško Gravner insists on releasing the wines only when they are stable and ready to drink. Those wines from the first vintage in 2001 had 3-4 years of maturation, and with hindsight, he considers this insufficient. Hence, all the wines mature in large wooden casks for six years. The barrels are kept topped up to avoid obvious oxidation. In my opinion, this aspect deserves more appreciation. A seven-year wine production cycle must be a cashflow nightmare, and the angels-share must be considerable. However, it also ensures that the wines have time to develop unmatched flavour and texture characteristics through the slow exchange of oxygen.

Bottling in the winery is without fining or filtration, using a distinctive brown bottle and a Mureddu Sugheri cork. The wines are IGP Venezia Giulia. The viticulture fits DOC Collio rules, but the winemaking, unsurprisingly, does not conform.

 

The Present Day – Amber rules

Another advantage of using Qvevri is that the winery needs little energy. The fermentation and maturation need no humidity or temperature control, so daily winery electrical use is less than 4 kilowatts, about the same as an average house. Only the bottling line (kept to ensure quality control) uses more. There are only 22-30,000 bottles of Gravner wines each year, depending on the vintage. These small-volume, hand-crafted, and labour-intensive wines take seven years to make.

Gravner Qvevri Garden Overlooking Slovenia

Qvevri Garden Overlooking Slovenia

Joško Gravner’s influence on winemaking has been profound and two-fold. First, when he started making skin-contact wines, the results had no wine category. He called them Amber wines, but the market subsequently called them Orange wines. Oslavia became an orange/amber wine enclave and its spiritual home, with a consortium since 2010 (APRO) comprising seven winemakers, including Gravner*. In turn, this influenced other winegrowers – in Italy, then beyond. Orange wines are always skin contact, but the use of Amphorae varies.

Orange wine has recently become an increasingly popular category (maisvergoren in German, vino naranja in Spanish, bianco macerato in Italian). The movement is now worldwide, given that the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) included Orange wines as a specialised wine category in 2020.

Secondly, Gravner’s use of Qvevri has also enriched winemaking techniques. It has also helped highlight the method in their Georgian homeland, where Qvevri making has restarted and has been recognised since 2013 as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

And Finally (for now)

And what’s next? At 72, after a lifetime of achievements, Joško Gravner shows no signs of retiring, and his energy is undiminished. When I asked about this, he laughed and told me he wanted to live to be 114 and pass away quietly one day in the vineyard. In the meantime, there are always more new ideas to try, and I hope to share some of them in the future – going ever backwards is the way forward.

Joško Gravner and his wife Marija remain devoted to their estate and wines. Their daughter Mateja plays an essential role as the complementary communicative force that brings these wines to market. I am indebted to her for spending so much time patiently and meticulously explaining what these wines are all about.

Part 2 is about Joško Gravner’s adoption of Qvevri in more detail.

The final part, Part 3, will concentrate on the wines, containing tasting notes on several cuvées and different vintages. It will also suggest how best to serve them and offer food-matching ideas.

For now, let’s say that Joško Gravner wines are not just life-affirming; they are life-changing.

 

Location

Azienda agricola Gravner Francesco
Località Lenzuolo Bianco, 9
Oslavia 34170
Gorizia (GO)
Italy

 

What3words Location

Notes

 

*APRO (Associazione Produttori Ribolla di Oslavia) comprises the Gravner, Radikon, Primosic, Fiegl, Prinčič, Il Carpino and La Castellada wineries. All the wineries are within 3 km of each other and make great examples of Orange skin-contact wines. However, their approaches all differ. For instance, Gravner is the only user of Qvevri.

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