"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.