Italy's Philosopher-Genius of Wine

Josko Gravner taking samples of his wine from a buried amphora Courtesy of Gravner
By Ray Isle Posted February 05, 2015

Josko Gravner is one of Italy's most idiosyncratic, brilliant winemakers. I tasted seven vintages of his amphora-aged Ribolla. Here's a rundown.

Italy’s Josko Gravner is the only winemaker I’ve met who keeps a simple wooden chair in his cellar just so he can sit down there and think about his wine. Is he making it the right way? Should he have a different approach? Is it truly the wine he wants to make?

Gravner’s career is a series of drastic decisions. In the 1980s, he says, he realized stainless steel was a mistake and brought wooden barrels—and, when he later realized those were also a mistake, botti, traditional large wooden casks—back to his winery. In the late '90s, he abandoned wood for earthenware amphorae. (He tried completely abandoning sulfur as a preservative, but in the end decided against it.) As he says, “There are two ways to make wine. One is to look at the customer and make something to please them. The other is to look inside yourself and make wine you want to make, that fulfills you. I expect 90 percent of the population not to like my wines. That doesn’t bother me.”

I’m in the other 10 percent, because at a recent tasting in New York, I thought Gravner’s wines were stunning. They are unquestionably different from what most people expect from white wine—or really any wine. Graver’s Ribolla (the grape is local to his home region of Friuli, in northeastern Italy) is made using only wild, native yeasts; it ferments slowly in clay vessels buried in the earth for upwards of seven months with the grape skins and seeds. There is no temperature control, no filtration and no additives or chemicals of any kind. Then he waits years before releasing it. By that time the wine is a golden-cidery color with surprising tannic grip, and it is far more savory than fruit-driven flavors: Think of earth, nut skin, citrus peel, dry spices. “As a child,” Gravner said at this tasting, “I fell in love with the earth.” One taste, and that’s easy to tell.

We tried seven vintages, from the current vintage 2006 Gravner Ribolla Anfora ($115), which had notes of orange peel and earthy resin, back to 1998. Of these, my favorites were the lightly saline, caramel-scented, nutty 2005 Gravner Ribolla Anfora (around $95); the 2002 Gravner Ribolla Anfora (not available), which was the most dried spice-like of the wines (it suggested black tea, sage and toasted cumin seeds—to me, at least); and the more flamboyant 2003 Gravner Ribolla Anfora (not available), which showed the warmth of the year with dramatic floral and rancio aromas and apple peel and dried spice flavors. The vintages before those, from the time before Gravner started using amphorae, were very good but not as compelling—the wines were broader, less vibrant.

Of course, all these words might not mean much to Gravner himself. As he said at one point during the tasting, “I’m not a very good communicator about wine. I only have two words—vivo or morte. Alive or dead.” Fair enough. You could even apply that to people.

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