"I think everything has an energy. Your work, what you eat, the music you listen to - it all brings an energy. We should try to preserve positive energy in everything we do and in everything we make, to bring more positivity to the world."
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.
We had the chance to speak with Mateja Gravner, Joško's daughter, to hear the full story.
The Gravner Story
It all begins with 2.5 hectares and a house, purchased by Joško Gravner’s father in 1901. The Gravner family worked in polyculture, the norm at the time; raising cows and pigs, as well as producing grapes, cherries and apricots. It became named Lenzuolo Bianco di Oslavia, because it was the only house in the region still standing during the first world war. Soldiers would shoot from the Sabotin Hill at the white house, which from afar looked like a white bed sheet; “lenzuolo bianco’.
After the war years, the new border between Italy and Slovenia was placed 40 kilometres further east. Oslavia suddenly found itself part of Italy, and it became compulsory to speak Italian, although at the time the most common languages here were German and Slovenian, and there was a prominent Czech and Serbian community. Mateja explains,
“It wasn’t our choice where they put the borders. Before, we had been the southern-most part of this enormous Empire, which meant the region had been the first to provide cherries to Vienna, and we had been providing white and red wines to the Viennese market. In just a few months, we had become the north eastern part of a completely different country. Our cherries were ripe when southern Italian cherries were gone, and nobody wanted cherries anymore. And how can you compare our wines to the wines of Sicily or Tuscany? It became very difficult for the farmers to sell and introduce their products.”
This wasn’t the only change that would occur. The second change was a societal one, which would affect growers across the whole of Italy. In the 60s, people began to move from the countryside into towns.
“Suddenly, being in the countryside was seen as old fashioned. Everyone wanted to be modern; society had changed.”
With it came both positives and negatives. Joško was the fifth child after four sisters, and his sisters were the first generation born in the countryside to go to high school and college. This was an important step for women, but there were unforeseen consequences for agriculture. Mateja says,
“Of course, this was a positive change for women across Italy, but it had a deep impact on the countryside life. The region used to produce a lot of cherries. If you harvest cherries for eight hours, you need them to be checked for the market. Women did this for free after dinner. When these women were no longer available, as they were studying or working, nobody did this work for free. The market didn’t recognise a higher price. In ten years, the cherry production of the region completely disappeared.”
This is of course an inherent fault within the system, but loss of the cherry farms would also lead to a decrease in the health of the overall ecosystem. The second change would be the move away from bulk wine to bottled wine.
“When people think of Italians, they think of 25 people eating together. It was normal to have bulk wine – wine in demijohns – so that everyone in these big families could have a glass with lunch and dinner. When the whole family was no longer at home, it became impossible to drink entire demijohns. This is when bottled wine became fashionable. By drinking bottles, people were saying, look at me, I’m modern, we’re no longer one of these giant families, we’re ready for a new life.”
The modernisation of wine was not simply restricted to demijohns versus bottles. Growers had ditched their indigenous varieties – varieties that were unknown on the newly emerging and competitive international market. Instead, they planted the popular varieties, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, without necessarily taking into account whether they were suited to the climate. Next, lab-cultured yeasts arrived on the market. This meant growers no longer had to leave the skins in contact with the juice to ensure faster and healthier fermentations, like Joško’s father had practiced. Instead, they could take the juice off the skins immediately and inoculate it with these new yeasts. In turn, this meant that white wines no longer had colour.
“These new wines were water-white, and people fell crazy in love with them, because they were wines that said, I’m modern, too, I’m not made by a poor countryside person.”
This drastic change happened almost overnight. Mateja says,
“The connection had been lost. Sometimes, when you change so quickly, you don’t recognise what is positive – and what should be preserved, versus what’s unnecessary and what should change.”
In just a few months, the people who had been buying the Gravner wines no longer came to buy them. Her grandfather couldn’t understand – these people usually came every few weeks to refill demijohns. Her father thought that he had become elderly and no longer understood the market. So, Joško took over the winery and began to produce what he had learnt at winemaking school, introducing selected yeasts and stainless steel. However, the steel wasn’t working. Mateja explains,
“The first thing my father understood was that he needed to return to wood, because wine is alive, and it needs to breathe to evolve.”
He tried to buy big barrels, like the ones his father had used, but didn’t get on with the barrel maker – Joško had different opinions on how barrels should be made. So, he began with other small barrels, but was still unsatisfied: the wines seemed universal in flavour when compared to wines from other countries. When he went to Napa Valley in 1987, he was introduced to a Sauvignon Blanc that had chemically added aromas. He was shocked. Mateja says,
“It was a drink, not a wine. He could accept compromises if it was for survival, but this wasn’t necessary. If we decide to drink a bottle of wine, it should be a good one. And if it’s a good one, aside from the alcohol, it shouldn’t have any potentially dangerous impact on our bodies.”
When he returned from his trip, his mother asked what he had learnt. His reply was,
“I’ve learnt what you shouldn’t do.”
With this came the realisation that he should not be producing market-driven wines – he should be producing wines that he believed in. Mateja says,
“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.”
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,
“Often, farmers are scared about birds because they say they eat grapes or fruits. But this isn’t always true, mostly they eat them when they’re thirsty. We also introduced at least one artificial pond in each vineyard. Water is the origin of life, and now we have a lot of life. It’s a very alive world in our vineyards.”
To combat the monoculture nature of the vineyards, they also introduced fruit trees: cherries, chestnuts, peaches, apricots and pears. This coincided with a nearby filmmaker’s research on cherries. He had spent the summer with his grandmother, eating cherries from the tree in the garden. When he asked which kind they were, nobody could answer him, just saying “cherries.” He went from house to house to look at other trees, and today he has isolated more than fifty types of cherries and is reproducing them. Mateja says,
“This is what we want to bring – it’s not about marketing or selling them, but rather bringing biodiversity into the vineyards. The more biodiversity there is, the easier it is for every kind of life to find its own way to survive.”
Insects, birds, frogs, watersnakes and an abundance of animals began to thrive. In the 2000s, Mateja’s brother, Miha, began to research biodynamics with the goal of implementing it throughout the vineyards. Tragically, he passed away from a motorbike accident when he was 27. This was immesenly difficult for Joško and his family to overcome. It wasn’t until a few years later, when Mateja’s sister had begun to use biodynamics in her garden and for her vegetables, that she gently suggested they could look into it again. The rest of the team was reluctant at first – as the natural sprays meant more work – but within a year of practising everybody had brought biodynamics to their own personal gardens too. Mateja says,
“It’s hard to explain to people who don’t work with the earth, but the composition and texture of the soil completely changed. Every single plant has become more balanced and more resistant to extreme conditions – like endless rain or boiling hot temperatures. It’s like human beings – if you’re mentally and physically in a good place, it’s harder for external factors to affect you.”
There were further problems facing them. When the DOC system was first introduced, with the aim of producing “quality wine” adhering to certain regulations, the DOC of Collio had decided that international varieties were the way forward. Ribolla Gialla, their indigenous variety, was excluded. This historically important variety had been shunned. Thankfully, the Gravners kept their old vineyards and believed in the variety, as did others in the region. By 1991 it had been permitted into the DOC, but it took many years for it to become popular again. Today, they are doing the opposite of what the DOC would have advised: they have replaced all of their international varieties by indigenous ones. Mateja says,
“If we harvest ripe Chardonnay here, it can be 17 or 18%. Those grapes become useless. Think about how much water we waste all around the world producing things that cant survive there naturally? Do we want to do this in a world where water is more and more precious?”
For Joško, it was also a matter of taste. Back in the 90s, he couldn’t figure out why his beloved Ribolla grapes weren’t translating into the wine. Mateja says,
“Ribolla has more character compared to some other more neutral varieties. Josko couldn’t understand why the wine coming from such a great grape wasn’t such a great wine. If you have a wonderful ingredient and you produce a dish from it that isn’t great, maybe something in the process went wrong. So Joško started to think about the process.”
Once viticulture was organic and the berries had not been sprayed, Joško began to do some experimentation with skin fermentation, returned to natural yeast fermentation and stopped filtering.
When vintage 1996 arrived, they had terrible hailstorms, losing 95% of their production. They had just a few grapes remaining – only enough for four barrels. Joško fermented one barrel with skin fermentation and natural yeasts, one barrel with skin maceration and with lab-cultured yeasts on the skins, and the same process for the remaining two barrels but without skin maceration.
“From the naturally fermented, skin macerated wine, Joško finally recognised the taste of the Ribolla grape in his wine. This has always been his goal: to bring the taste of the Ribolla grape into a bottle.”
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. In the 2000 vintage, the maceration period was 12-14 days when the wooden barrels were still being used. Once they had some amphorae in 2001, they did three months of skin maceration. This difference in maceration period is made possible due to the cooler environments that the qvevri provide. The wines of 2001 were released in 2004, but they felt they were too young. They wanted to make the ageing period longer, but this was difficult to do: there would be no space in the cellar for new vintages, and at the same time they needed to make money. It took them ten years to be where they are now: releasing the wines after seven years of ageing. Mateja explains,
“Our wines are not exactly cheap, but we think it’s important to release and provide wines that are ready to be enjoyed. When you buy a bottle of our wine, you aren’t just giving us money, you’re giving us your time. We can’t get time back. We have to respect your time and be sure about what we produce. When you buy the bottle, you know you can drink it now, or you can keep it. It’s our job - not yours - to age the wine. When you go to a restaurant, they don’t give you a steak to take home and cook.”
Since 2016, they have used all the stems in fermentations as they feel this creates wines that are more stable. If it has been a very rainy year, they just ensure to pick out any stems damaged by rot. The maceration period for the wines is always between three and five months in the qvevri, before the juice is drained and placed into the old barrels for several years’ ageing. In total, the wines are aged for seven years before being released.
“Seven is the number of years it takes for all our body cells to be completely renewed. It is a number with many meanings. We believe a wine which has been aged for seven years is strong enough to go out into the world.”
The wines see very small sulphur additions. In the 90s, Josko experimented with no sulphur, but wasn’t entirely happy.
“Joško prefers not to filter the wines, to preserve the natural microorganisms in the wines. We believe that having a little bit of sulphur is less dangerous than taking away the microorganisms.”
Aside from the tiny sprinkling of sulphur, nothing is added to the wine. Mateja queries why some people complain so much from hangovers these days, saying,
“A few years ago, I saw a guy telling his friend that he had such a big headache and felt so hungover. I was like, really? I wasn’t surprised because he was drunk, but he spoke as though after you’ve been drunk you have to pay for it. But it’s not true. Why do people think that feeling sick is normal? This is connected to other things. If you get food poisoning every time you go to a restaurant, you’d stop going. But nobody is checking why you feel so terrible after drinking a certain wine. What was the reason? A lot of people care about what they eat, but what about what’s in the bottle?”
For her, wine is precious, and should be celebrated, never abused. She says,
“Well-made wine is a wonderful way to bring joy. If you are a sensitive person, you can perceive the energy in a wine. Others might think you’re strange or crazy, or have been reading too much Harry Potter, but I think everything has an energy. Your work, what you eat, what music you listen to – it all brings an energy. We should try to preserve positive energy in everything we do, and in everything we produce, to bring more positivity to the world.”
From 15 hectares, they produce between 25 and 34,000 bottles depending on the year. According to law, they could produce more than 100,000 bottles, but they wouldn’t feel happy with the quantity. It is a true labour of love.
“Joško couldn’t live with the idea that he wasn’t trying to do his best. If you know there’s a different way – perhaps a harder way, but a better one - and if you don’t take that road, you’re being lazy. If you do something with passion, you always try to do better.”
Mateja also emphasises that collectively they have learnt there is no such thing as a good or a bad vintage. Of course, some years may be easier than others – even affording them a break to the seaside – whereas others might be full of endless work, but Mateja stresses that the resulting wine is testament to that year, and to their hard work. We nod, entranced as she says,
“Quality is being able to accept what nature is giving us, and to allow this product to have the best evolution it can. It’s like if you have kids and one becomes a doctor and one becomes a mechanic. The doctor isn’t the clever one, and the mechanic isn’t the stupid one. Just be the best mechanic ever, we have Ferrari in Italy! Whatever you are: do your best in every single way. When you start thinking like this, every vintage has something interesting to tell you. Why should we compress or force a wine from one year to be like the other? It’s nice to have similarities, but differences are important, else - it’s just a bit boring...”
She has encapsulated such an important aspect of wine in just one short paragraph. Wine is our unique gift from nature, that allows us a glimpse into history: of a year, a place, and a person or family.
All photographs by Gravner Archive, photo Alvise Barsanti