The defining white grape variety of Collio in northeastern Italy, on the border with Slovenia, is Ribolla Gialla, and Joško Gravner has given it a completely new interpretation. Every now and then you encounter a wine grower who has really made a difference, challenging accepted practices. Gravner is undoubtedly one of them.
Usually a lightly perfumed variety, in the hands of Gravner, Ribolla Gialla becomes intensely rich, and the reason is his use of amphorae. These days there is a sense that amphorae are becoming rather fashionable in some circles, especially with the growing interest in the wines of Georgia, which had been overlooked for so long and which suffered from a Soviet regime that demanded quantity rather than quality.
A pioneer in the region
However, in Europe, Gravner is seen as a pioneer. His daughter, Jana, explained that his eureka moment came on a visit to California in the mid-1980s. There was much talk and tasting focused on selected cultured yeast, and he thought: If this is the future, I do not want to be part of it. He looked at the old methods and discovered that the amphora is the oldest wine container. Indeed, if you visit the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, you will see an amphora that was used for wine making in 6000 BC. The presence of tartaric acid indicates a fermentation, rather than merely the storage of the grapes.
It took a few more years before Joško brought amphorae from Georgia. Jana remembered how they arrived, from the Caucuses in a Georgian lorry, in December 1996. They had bought 90 amphorae, but only 45 survived the long journey by road completely intact, despite being protected by large rubber tires. There is something about the clay of Kakheti, the region of eastern Georgia, that is particularly suitable for the production of amphorae, and in addition Georgian clay is free of heavy metal, whereas European clay tends to contain lead.
The underground cellar
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A cellar of amphorae, or qvevri, as they are called in Georgia, is a wonderful place, with an atmosphere all of its own. In fact, there is very little actually to see, as the qvevri are buried in the ground. To build a qvevri cellar, you begin by digging a large hole, as though you were building a swimming pool. The qvevri, which are no bigger than about 2,000 liters, are then put in place, and the soil replaced around them.
Working with qvevri demands minimum equipment. The interior surfaces are treated with beeswax in Georgia, and then again when they arrive in Collio, as the beeswax provides a neutral protective coating. The soil provides a natural temperature control for the fermentation, so no refrigeration is necessary. The grapes are de-stemmed — they may use some of the stalks, as that helps break up the cap of skins — and the wine is left to ferment, and then once the malolactic fermentation is finished, the amphorae are sealed and the young wine is simply left to its own devices. It will fall clear naturally. The 2015 vintage was pressed in March and was then returned to the amphorae, where it will stay until the end of September. And then it will be kept in a barrel for a further six years before bottling. Joško and his daughter attach great importance to the seven-year cycle, and their riserva wines are aged for 14 years.
A constantly changing wine
And what does the wine taste like? We tasted the 2007 Ribolla, which I would suggest is one of the most original wines I have ever tried. The color is amber and the wine is not a DOC Collio as the color does not conform to the DOC regulations. Ribolla Gialla, when it is ripe, has light golden brown skins, which may even be brown when the grapes are very ripe. The nose is very intriguing. There is a touch of dry honey, and yet it is firm and dry and stony. There is a streak of minerality, which Jana said came from the amphorae, and there is a streak of tannin, which originates from the length of time on the skins. In some ways, the wine is quite austere with a firm linear character. But it is a wine that changes in the glass, constantly leaving you guessing — and returning for more.
Main photo: In northeastern Italy, on the border with Slovenia, winemaker Joško Gravner has taken old techniques to give the defining white grape variety of the region a completely new interpretation. Credit: Photo courtesy of Gravner winery.