Imagine your region becomes a war zone, everybody is evacuated, your house becomes a first aid Red Cross base, and then one day you wake up and you find yourself in a new country? That is what happened to the Gravner family when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved after the first world war, borders were moved, and they found themselves in Italy, not Slovenia. The family was suddenly thrust headfirst into a completely new wine market. Later, this market would develop into something considered very modern at the time; international varieties were planted, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, instead of the indigenous Ribolla Gialla and Pignolo. Technological winemaking – lab-cultured yeasts and stainless steel tanks were introduced in the 70s, replacing the traditional methods of skin maceration and barrel ageing. Although his ‘modern wines’ were selling well, and there was consistent demand for them, something didn’t feel quite right to Joško Gravner. On a trip to California in the 80s, he was shocked by the new additives being used in winemaking and decided to change course. Little did he know when he threw these modern techniques away, that he would one day be considered one of the thought leaders of a modern return to ancestral winemaking.
LITTLEWINE spoke with Mateja Gravner, Joško's daughter, to hear the full story
"When we talk about the market - who are these people? Who already knows exactly what they want? Why should we adapt our production and force plants, in order to produce something which is not the best thing our area and our terroir can provide? That is stupid. You waste something your area can produce."
People: Joško & Mateja Gravner
Place: Oslavia, Collio, Italy
Varieties: Ribolla Gialla, Pignolo & Merlot
Wines: Click here
Did You Know? In 1997, everything was produced on the skins for four days in big wooden barrels, with natural yeast with no temperature control. This was absolutely radical at the time. Joško also received some small Georgian amphorae, which he fell in love with. These 200L amphorae, also known as qvevri, were buried in the soil, meaning the fermentations were naturally cool and lasted longer, making it possible to keep the juice on the skins for a longer period. Next, he went to Georgia to try to find somebody still making them. It took him four years to make the trip, due to political unrest, but he had met some Georgians living in Slovenia who helped him to organise the journey. In May 2000, he finally found some qvevri to buy and bring home. Sadly, the amphorae only arrived in November, too late for that vintage, and nine out of 11 had smashed in transit, impossible to fix. It took the Gravners five years to collect all the amphorae they needed.
To move away from this modern way of making wine, the first decision that Joško took was to stop spraying. Majeta explains that in the late 80s, Josko used a new recommended spray in May, only once. In the early 2000s, for other reasons, they had to do an analysis on that wine. In the wine itself they still found the chemical molecules of this spray.
“How can we say that what we eat or drink is healthy, when you use a spray like this? We understood that if we were spraying the vines or grapes, we were poisoning ourselves. Everything you put on a wine will be introduced into your body. A wine isn’t a necessity in life – it’s for pleasure – so how can you accept to drink chemicals? You never know how your body will react.”
So, they converted to organics in the early 90s, feeling that it was crucial to reestablish a healthy ecosystem.
“We are using everyone’s environment for what we produce. Why should people who don’t drink wine accept damage to the environment for the sake of wine? So, we try to bring our impact as close to zero as possible.”
They had noticed that there were less and less birds in the region. Human beings had damaged the environment so much that it had become impossible for birds to have their own nests. The Gravner family studied which birds used to live there, and introduced bird boxes and 200 of these birds in the early 90s, and 200 more last year. Mateja says,