Quiet days in Venice tasting and reflecting on Gravner wines – International Montreal Butler Academy

Gravner wines: Are orange wines game changers or Hyperprism?

Josko Gravner is an Italian producer from the Friuli region. Mr. Gavner created a reputation for himself from a radical winemaking technique that he has espoused (amphora) and the original wines that he produces, the so called orange wines.

By the way, Orange wine is not made with oranges.

Gravner’s Damascus moment came around 20 years ago when he visited California. One can see him on his website in a video relating this experience. He realised that Americans were making wines for 50 years or so and couldn’t help contrasting this with the (ex USSR) Republic of Georgia where they have been making wine for 5000 years. Somewhat dissatisfied with what he experienced in the US, he travelled to Georgia and had an epiphany : he liked the taste of the wines there and decided that he would champion this wine making technique in Friuli (Italy). He proceded to order large clay amphoras from Georgia,  buried them in the ground and decided to use a very long maceration technique plus a prolonged big vat (seven years!) finishing of the wines. Resembling Fukuoka’s The one straw revolution, his techniques for grape growing and wine making are rather radical : do nothing. Let Mother Nature take care of the process, intervene as little as possible and and…wait. (see how he does it on his webpage : link).

The results are surprising.

After all this time, the wines are of an amber colour with orange hues. One could expect heavily oxydised wines but the wines are nothing of that sort. There is an oxydative expression in the style of the wines but the taste is so special, so particular that it doesn’t resemble anything. Although difficult to figure, the wines for a part seem to be sitting in between categories but at the same time could not be dimissed as a simple curiosity or the production of somebody who tries to be clever and outsmart his fellow (conventional) winemakers.

The wines have complexity, a long finish with a strong, imposing salinity (that I personally appreciate) and one wine striked a remarkable balance.

Some say that Gravner wines are whites that perform like red wines (they have tanins due to the long maceration time).

I personally like these brandy aromas. If you are a scotch drinker, it may make you think of a light scotch.

For this tasting note, two wines were tested :

One is called Breg and is a blend of Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay

The other is simply called Ribolla and is made 100% with the Ribolla Gialla grape.

Nota : The wines were sourced and tasted while in Venice during the last week of November 2017. I have controlled the Gravner Ribolla against the Ronchi di Cialla Ribolla Gialla version. Wines were tasted three times over a period of three days as standalones and with some food.

I will not comment on the Breg. The wine with its 14,5 % abv had a strong alcohol presence and seemed unbalanced. There was also an unpleasant presence of volatile acidity. Maybe it was a defective sample, I therefore reserve my judgement .

The Ribolla on the other hand was a model of balance, with a refreshing acidity and a long saline mineral finish that lingered.

Although an atypical wine, Gravner Ribolla controlled against the fresh Ronchi di Cialla one (and nothwittanding its completely different style and taste profile) still captured the DNA of the Ribolla grape.

So, is this a good wine?

So called orange wines are actually a hot item for the hipsters Sommeliers and have found their audience.

Not everybody are part of it though, Hugh Jonnson OBE apparently dissed the orange wine phenomenon as “A sideshow and a waste of time”. I personnally wouldn’t say that. On the contrary, it is more « challenge & work in progress » for sommeliers and chefs who should band together to create imaginative pairings.

I personally found pairing it with cured ham and mascarpone cheese satisfying and I wonder if orangy citrusy sauces and fatty fish (smoked salmon, eel) wouldn’t be good dancing partners for the Gravner 2007 Ribolla. We know that scotch and smoked salmon work well together as do smoked oysters. Maybe it would be worth tearing a page from the scotch-pairing songbook and see if it would suggest good solutions for the Gravner.

Having asked a young Venice sommelier, Elisa Pantano, from the Osteria Anice Stellato (who has Damijan et al. on her well curated wine list) if she was thinking that orange was the new black? She said that the wine pair good with fatty fish but she thinks that, at the end of the day, these orange wines are better enjoyed as standalones, maybe late at night, in front of the fireplace. I concur.

Orange wines are not for everybody, maybe it is a fad, but in my opinion, wines like the Gravner Ribolla are serious, well structured, and built to last. Hence their presence is required in a comprehensive curated wine cellar. We have created at my butler and wine schools a strong program leading to a Master in Wine Cellar Managment. Gravner wines should be acknowledged and suggested (especially) to patrons who are partial to both scotch and wine.

To sum it up, “A sideshow and a waste of time” they are not.

This tasting commentary is long, but allow me to add a personal conclusion by way of an analogy suggested by the Gravner Ribolla:

During the years when I was a student at the Conservatory of Music in the seventies, I remember relishing the musical analysis class. When we studied Bach the Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080) or, for example Beethoven 8th Symphony, we were collectively in awe, marveling at the creative power, the intelligence and the genius of the great classical composers. During these musical analysis class, we discovered modern and contemporary music too. I remembered that we analysed Hyperprism from the French composer Edgar Varèse. Being guided by an enthusiastic teacher, we were all appreciative of how clever Varèse was, producing this sort of architectured avant-garde music for the time (Hyperprism was composed in 1923).

I remembered as well having bought the record to listen to it a lot, trying to get a feel for it.

But, once this music course was completed, my interest somewhat disappeared. I stopped listening to Varèse Hyperprism and my other comrades’ interest for this composer fell by the wayside.

No such thing happened for Bach, Beethoven, Mozart… though. The older one gets, the more it grows on you (it certainly did that to me).

So, can orange wines become “classics” and avoid the originality trap?

Wine own food and orange wine will find a place at the table, sorry, on the table, if it inspires good sommeliers and chefs in collaborations to create new and delicious dishes (judiciously paired) to add to the gastronomic canon.

In Vino Veritas!