Josko, the universe above the wine

I do not know of any other craft so deeply connected – and for such a long time – with a material so changeable and abundant and that poses always new challenges.

Rendition object (11807)

"I want to create the 'Garden of the amphorae' to let the wine ferment in contact with the Universe. Wine is meant to live in communion with the Universe, to breathe together with the moon and the sun, so it can convey emotions to those who drink it which would otherwise be lost”.

Lenzuolo Bianco, a hamlet near Oslavia, in the province of Gorizia. Here the border between Italy and Slovenia meanders through hills and valleys. On the west side of the border, the Gorizia hill is known as ‘Collio’, while to the east, locals call it ‘Brda’, two names for the same hill. The landscape is identical on both sides but was split in two by the Iron Curtain, which brought about only suffering.

The ‘Garden of the amphorae’ is Josko Gravner's ultimate challenge.

When you think of Gravner, an iconic image comes to mind: dozens of Caucasian amphorae buried underground, an impressive Holy of Holies. It’s a process of perpetual natural osmosis between the earth and grapes which fully respects the balance of nature as it does not require any filtration, clarification, artificial yeasts, enzymes or shavings but only a dash of sulphur, an ingredient that has been used for over two thousand years.

Josko Gravner went through some big changes in his life and that of the Garden of the amphorae is going to be his greatest challenge, a line he did not dare crossing before.

For those who haven’t heard of this farmer before, suffice to say he’s probably the one who has left the deepest mark in the history of modern winemaking.

At the beginning of his journey in the world of winemaking, Josko, with the fervour and ambition typical of his young age, wanted to be ahead of his time. Without thinking twice, he sold the huge old barrels and replaced them with thermally-conditioned stainless-steel tanks and added any sorts of cutting-edge gadgets he could get hold of. However, he soon noticed that the results were trivial and lacked character, so he realised that steel alone was not enough to create complex and fine wines. He then decided to invest in new French oak barrels, a very popular oenological trend in Italy in the 1980s. Gravner's production started to arouse great interest, and soon enough he was riding the wave of success – his wines were so much in demand that his stocks ran out quickly. He was broadly recognised as one of the best producers of white and red wines in Italy. Gravner could have simply remained Gravner.

But in 1987 Josko flew to California and on his return, he announced: “I've learnt what not to do.” He found that all wines were the same, banal, standardised and too similar to his. He rejected the dogmas of making wine following an instruction manual and the criteria that had been established by decades of standardised processes. He was looking for clean water and he found it at the very source. Instead of settling for his extraordinary success, Gravner felt like he was at a standstill. That day, Josko met the darkness, and he didn't like it. He took a break and went back in time when not doing was the only wisdom known to man. He delved into the past, went up the river and reached the source, where the water was clean and the glare of the sun was dazzling. His second trip was to the Caucasus. That’s where wine was born, in a time when many things were not known to people yet they had vast knowledge, five thousand years ago. The freshly pressed grapes were stored underground, sheltered, guarded and ‘educated’ in earthenware vessels, which local people call kvevri: fired earth pottery. In those containers, the embrace of the grape skins lasted long, so that no parts of the fruit went wasted, with gentleness and at the right time.

Josko ventured out on a new road, which was actually a centuries-old road. No more international vines, ageing in barriques, conventional techniques and filtering. The vineyards were removed to make way for the woods. Enough of Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Italian Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Josko uprooted all the vines he had on the border between Italy and Slovenia, in front of his grandparents' house. No more temperature control, applied biodynamic practices, biodiversity in the vineyard with repopulation of microfauna and botanicals, exclusive use of sulphur; no more destemming, slow ageing – endless, from a commercial point of view – twelve months in an amphora, at least four years sitting in the barrels and as many in bottles. The Bianco Breg 2012 was the last vintage because the grapes with which it was made no longer exist. The only grapes used for white wine would be Ribolla Gialla, which has been on that soil for over a millennium, just like Pignolo, the only grape of choice for the red. It took him thirty years to understand it: “I apologised to my father too late. I didn't understand what he was trying to teach me. I just didn’t get it”.

Now it’s time to go back down in the amphora cellar in which we started this story. Here you feel disoriented, speechless – the environment is surreal. Deep chasms open in the earth: they are the fleshy mouths of the Georgian amphorae where the wine ferments. Inside here, the skin sticks to the flashy part of the Ribolla Gialla and Pignolo grapes. The cellar looks still and visually empty, because everything you would expect to see, like steel barrels, taps, basins, pumps and the like, simply is not there. The only thing you can find here is the young wine fermenting, stirring underground with movements that repeat season after season.

Amphorae, time, a ‘not doing’ approach and returning to the essential are Josko's present and future. Knowledge is the foundation of serenity that gives you peace of mind to wait for the harvest to be ready and for the wine to age for at least seven years.

"Who knows what tomorrow will bring?", wonders the man who has seen everything and has gone through many changes. "Who knows what tomorrow will bring?", wonders the man who sought clean water from the spring. For the man who wanted, sought and found, tomorrow has come and has brought the Garden of the amphorae. Just listen to the moments of quiet, when the voice becomes softer, to understand that tomorrow is here, next to his wife Marja, his daughter Mateja and his nephew Gregor, in the place where Josko dropped the international vines to fully devote himself to Ribolla Gialla: this is the Garden of the amphorae.

His strength lies in his capacity to question everything, including himself.

Joško Gravner is truly the father of the modern movement of amber/orange/macerated wine.

His courageous and revolutionary approach that rejected classic winemaking practices in 1997 had an enormous influence not only in Italy but throughout the whole world. His travels to Georgia and the adoption of the Kvevri as the ideal container for fermentation led to the rediscovery of centuries-old winemaking traditions typical of that ancient land, inspiring the new generation.

That's why we at Tuorlo started from here.

Maybe he won't like being called that. Josko is a resolute man, apparently without nuances. His stubbornness led him to be a (scorned) prophet in his own land, venerated by those who are far from him, feared by those who approach him. Because whoever goes there, already knows who he is. Josko is a free man. Free from agricultural and oenological protocols, fashions, empty words and that rampant machismo – so popular nowadays – that never allows a mistake. He apologises when he is wrong, always.

He squeezed my hand tightly and I did the same. And the smile that drew on his face swept away everything that up to that moment you could have thought or assumed about him. I met a curious and respectful man. His strength lies precisely in his capacity to question everything, including himself.

A Josko thought

I do not know of any other craft so deeply connected – and for such a long time – with a material so changeable and abundant and that poses always new challenges.

Wine is born and takes shape in the vineyard. Wine happens in the vineyard, in a difficult land, with the light and colour of the sun, with love for the plant that must be reaffirmed every day. At the time of planting, by choosing only the best soils. Then, knowing how to interpret its needs, containing his exuberance – trimming, pruning, tying, looking, touching. The vineyard will pay back your love generously, following the course of the seasons, to give a sweet and ripe fruit. The fruit is now ripe, the farmer has removed the excess and kept the best parts. After the summer, the plant does not waste anything, it treasures all its fruits. The season, the weather, the sunny days and the gloomy ones discolour the hills and slopes, while the moulds embrace the ever sweeter and darker berries. The fruit comes from the earth and returns to the earth, enclosed and protected in the darkness of the terracottas. The hands of man have only touched it for a short time, leaving the discarded grapes on the vineyard, where they came from, keeping those that were glorified by noble moulds.

Time is the most precious tool in the cellar. The must murmurs in the underground enclosures, with nothing besides it but the embrace of the earth and the strokes of the stick that stirs it. If you hear carefully, when the stick descends into the darkness to violate the must’s intimacy, in the depths of the amphora, the wine then grumbles for a long time. Initially, as an insatiable lover, it demands attention day and night. Six crushings a day with a long stick during maceration in the amphorae and hand-harvesting of the solid part during racking. Then the encounters start decreasing until the wine is finally satisfied: six months have passed, fermentation is over, the press is ready. Eventually, only the essence remains. And it goes underground for another six months.

Then the only thing left to do is to check that the grape yeasts do their job in the wooden tuns. Once the wine has been transferred to the barrels, the winemaker can only keep an eye on it, intervening as little as possible. Without filtration, the wine will finally find its place in the bottles, where it will stay for at least seven years, before embarking on a journey to the outside world.

Thanks to Stefano Caffari for the ‘Josko thought’.

Rendition object (11807)

All the most interesting news in one place, selected for you.