Gravner has come a long way. He was one of the first to introduce (unfortunately, in my view) new oak into the wines of Friuli. More recently he reverted to large old barrels and long macerations. Now, for the 21st century he is making white wines in huge clay amphora buried in the cellar floor, a method apparently in continuous use for millennia in Georgia. To simplify a bit, the process is essentially this: de-stem and crush the grapes, put the whole lot in amphora for 6-8 months where fermentation occurs with natural yeasts, rack off the resulting wine and mature it for a few years in large old barrels. There is nothing but a bit of sulphur used - the wines fall bright and clear naturally.
The result of the long macerations (I should mention by the way that the full amphora process only began with the 2001 vintage) is deeply coloured wines with quite intense noses suggestive sometimes of red wine. People have claimed, perhaps over-influenced by the colour, that the wines are oxidised. I think not: the style of winemaking is (like fine old-style Rioja, for example) probably tending a little that way but the wine itself is fresh with exciting flavours rather than oxidative flabbyness. The wines will of course horrify those who believe the aim of white wine-making is to produce those ultra-fresh, squeaky-clean, forward-fruited, cool-fermented wines that have no real sense of place, and even Jancis Robinson remarked that they are too idiosycratic for her. I like them a great deal though - they have a great intensity of flavour, a huge sense of individuality and they are just so different from the run of modern winemaking. My suspicion is that they will age very well too - certainly they will keep but I suspect they will all improve too.
My favourite was the Ribolla, which has a honied purity that sometimes seemed to be upstaged by the Breg - an odd blend of grapes that had an exciting range of flavours. I kept coming back to the Ribolla though. My favourite vintage was 1999 - an excellent one apparently and pre-amphora. It will be interesting to see how the fully amphora-made wines compare. The 2001's both seemed quite closed now but full of promise.
So these are exciting, fascinating and above all supremely drinkable wines and anybody interested in wine should try them, particularly if they have an old-fashioned palate. There is a small downside in that in buying the wines one is aiming at a moving target - the wine making seems to change every year and it is consequently hard to get a grip on. I feel there's a danger of the whole project getting too wrapped up in its own philosophy. The prices are huge too (although no worse, I suppose, than Grand Cru Burgundy) and I wonder if that is leading to a disconnection from reality: it is an odd set-up in that a back-to-basics, almost primitive wine-making style is being pursued with a thoroughly modern dedication and with no expense spared.
Having got that off my chest, I'm glad somebody is following this line, the wines are undoubtedly very good, and perhaps in the fullness
of time the style will settle down, and perhaps beneficially influence white wine production in Friuli generally, and perhaps even more widely.
It would be fascinating to taste some white Burgundy made in a similar way - is it possible that it once was, I wonder?
There are reds too which are good, if rather more mainstream (partly, I think, because this extended maceration game is not on for them).
For some reason, these sell for the same sort of prices as the whites, and while I would be happy to be served them I don't think they are a must-try in the
way that the whites are.