Mateja Gravner met us for dinner at the cozy Ristorante Laite in the postage-stamp-sized mountain village of Sappada, Italy. I have written about Gravner in the past and was always intrigued by the mystery surrounding this biodynamic wine producer located on the far edge of Oslavia, just a stone’s throw from Slovenia. But today was the first time I would meet Mateja in person. Her disposition is kind and casual but gracefully confident. Her wholesome beauty is carried by her medium frame, hair neatly tied back, revealing her expressive brown eyes with a tendency to adjust her jet black horn glasses during conversation.
What she was doing with a group of four wine journalists at this humble Michelin star restaurant was pretty obvious. But why two hours away from her winery? From her earth-sunken amphorae? From her father, Joško Gravner, and his amber-hued Ribolla Gialla? Answers to this became more apparent as the days went on.
After a quick tour of the village, we enjoyed a multi-course dinner, artfully created by chef Fabrizia Meroi and her team. The table’s offerings consisted of venison, lichen, apricots; marinated deer, Swiss pine, tubers, and moss; Chamois ravioli and poppyseeds. These ingredients are what nature provided at this point in time, in this specific place nestled in the Dolomites, and taking Mateja’s lead, we would savor the goodness with respect.
The regions of Friuli and Alto Adige are heavy with venison-based dishes, but admittedly, Mateja disclosed she had become vegetarian for some time mainly due to ethical reasons. But her increased awareness of ingredients and respecting “the source” changed her mindset, and today she is eating meat again on occasion. It’s a good thing, because these dishes at Laite paired so well with her wine.
Among the variety of local wines accompanying the delicacies was her 2014 Ribolla. It splashed elegantly into the glass with all signs of a wine with extended skin contact – rich, deep amber hues quickly washed the pristine Zalto crystal with shimmering colors of fall. The sip was characterful and lively. Alternating with delicate bites, while flashes of lightning came with the storm moving in from the mountains that night.
The following day, we finally headed to her home village of Oslavia in the eastern foothills of Collio, a place of only 150 inhabitants. She provided a full water flask and sent us on a journey by foot to discover her village. Stories of heart-wrenching cruelty of the World War sharply contrasted the sweet discovery of a special bond that farmers have with their land. Narrow, uneven roads led to a series of seven orange benches hidden in the most evocative places. Each one, an invitation to admire the view – with Slovenia within sight – to discover the land’s history and future, and dip into the beauty of Gorizia’s Collio and its wine cellars.
Among mulberry trees, sweeping vineyard views, rustic homes, and the piercing sound of cicadas, we plucked summer-ripe cherries and juicy red and white Amoli plums right off the trees. But Ribolla Gialla would be the star fruit of the wine in this enchanting landscape. Simple and unforced. Deep as its history, suspended between past and future, yet capturing its own fierce and fascinating individuality.
Now, on Gravner’s land, perched at the top of a gentle hill, the breeze was welcoming on this exceptionally hot and humid day. The rainstorm that teased us all afternoon finally cooled us as we huddled under an umbrella of trees. The feeling of Mateja’s love for her land and her community of friends was apparent. She was creating the whole picture, driving a message that is more than just wine. It’s authentic, engaging, contemplative, present, and real.
All this time, we had been meeting her “friends,” including the hundreds of chirping bird species, the natural stream emerging in a tropical setting at the bottom of her vineyard, the cypress trees providing a natural wind barrier, brightly colored dragonflies hovering over the flowering lily pads in the pond that her father built. The family strives to maintain an equilibrium of biodiversity amongst the vines, while tending to them through biodynamic practices.
“He [Joško] loves rocks and had to reflect on which ones would enclose this pond,” says Mateja. “This was good for him, as it helped him stay busy during COVID.”
In shades of gray, sandy-peach, rust, and milk chocolate, the ponca rock is also symbolic of Gravner’s connection with the land. Marly sandstone stratifications of the Eocene epoch tie this place to time and also promote long-reaching Ribolla Gialla roots in search of nutrients. In some ways, the layered rocks drove our inspiration and profoundness for the land even more.
When the rain paused, we strolled down to the family’s original vineyard, where lunch was provided by more of Mateja’s friends, L’Orto Felice, an organic farm situated in the municipality of Udine. The farm cultivates a multi-colored range of seasonal vegetables, favoring ancient and traditional peasant varieties, fruits, and aromatic and wild herbs. Purslane fritters with Sichuan peppers, lemon zest, and mint; kohlrabi, carrot and beetroot carpaccio with preserved lemons and pistachio butter; danishes with peaches, confit red onions, and goat cheese; a medley of barley and roasted fennel. Once again, we were eating off the land with purpose and intention, led by Mateja alongside her wines. The pitter-patter of raindrops bounced off the healthy green Ribolla leaves like nature’s percussion, rhythmically reminding us of the origins.
Later at Gravner’s cellar, a casual meeting with Joško himself. Dressed in a polo and cargo pants, the 70-ish winemaker stood among his sunken amphora like they were his children. The choice of vessel, the amphora, is not an instant reflex to any trend. In fact, he was the first to convert to clay even after many years of success for his wines made in wood.
“He thought that the best grape we have was not giving out the best wines,” says Mateja, because while the world loved his wines, he wasn’t entirely happy with the result. But then, a bittersweet and serendipitous event changed the course of Gravner.
“In 1996 there were two incredible hailstorms, where we lost 95 percent of the grapes,” says Mateja.
With the few grapes they could harvest, he fermented on skins a few different ways, one with native yeasts and one with selected yeasts.
“Then, in the spring of 1997, he tasted the young wine and finally recognized that the wine with skin contact and native yeast tasted like the grape, Ribolla. The wine should taste like the grape,” says Mateja.
While this was a dramatic moment in Gravner’s history, he discovered what amphora does for his beloved native Ribolla. Gravner stuck to his hunches, ignored any pressures of marketing, and set aside his reputation as a conventional wine producer to do what he felt was right for him.
“Progress is when you increase the quality – of everything,” says Mateja.
Gravner strives for perfect ripeness through harvesting as late as possible and often botrytis-affected grapes. The entire process is about having patience and time. After harvest, Gravner’s ripe whole cluster fruit ferments for up to six months within the Georgian amphora (qvevri). The juice is pressed and then returned to the amphora for another six months, then followed by up to six years or more in large neutral oak barrels of various sizes. Patience and time.
Clearly, respecting the tradition and making the process better is a philosophy that runs through Gravner’s DNA. However, progress provides inspiration for changes, too. Joško Gravner revealed his interest that large-format glass would be the next new fermentation and aging vessel. If glass swimming pools exist, so can bodies of wine, he thought.
Pondering this, I stared at his persimmon-colored shirt when he shared that his preferred color descriptor is amber. Orange is confusing. It’s also a trending name, and Graver is not about trends. He is uniquely his own winemaker focused on making the best products he can with the seasons that are given. Any great chef would agree.
Later that evening, dinner at Trattoria al Cacciatore at the La Subida country resort in Cormons, run by the Sirk family – more friends that follow the source of nature. When you smell musk, resin, farm, and herbs in the air, you know you have arrived at La Subida. Sambuca flower-infused water; Girini or soft crumbles of tadpole-shaped pasta with radicchio petals and pomegranate; squash blossoms with apples cheese, and horseradish; prosciutto d’Osvaldo, La Subida’s Ribolla Gialla vinegar- infused sorbetto, and local Gravner wines. After a restful night immersed in the woods under pure darkness – except for the waxing moon – we rise with nature. La Subida is a place where you wake up to the sounds of singing birds. It is also a place where Mateja finds tranquility.
The next day another friend, Ciro Fontanesi, a wine educator at Alma School in Parma and tea lover, joined Mateja on a road trip to a specific point along the emerald green Isonzo river ( Soča in Slovenian). They would capture the water for a tea tasting later in the evening. The Isonzo river water is famous for its purity and runs north to south just inside Austria, passes through Gravner’s backyard of Gorizio, and flows into the Adriatic. Earlier, Mateja mentioned that when her father, Joško, went to Georgia in 2000 to taste wines made in clay, it was indeed a personal experience for him, in fact, “closer to tea.”
Later that day, another summer rain storm set the stage for the tea and wine tasting on the terrace at Hiša Franko in Slovenia. Ciro led a tasting of two distinctly different teas, made of leaves he hand-picked during his trip to Taiwan. The water he gathered from the river bathed the tea leaves, and teas were served alongside Gravner’s 2005 and 2007 Ribolla. The pairings were more like minglings of emotion and flavors, texturally subtle and eye-opening at the same time. A meeting of east and west, with one central thread that reminded me about the importance of respecting “the source.”
Dinner followed with an eclectic non-alcoholic beverage pairing with umpteen courses by the two-Michelin star kitchen. The menu entitled “Reincarnation 2022 – After every rain, the sun comes out” was delicious and enlightening, featuring housemade kombucha and infusions of fig; nori dashi and pear; dandelion; jasmine and caraway seeds. Artistry, flavors, and origins highlighted the evening with conversation and laughter. We were all in harmony now.
This statement, coming from a woman whose Instagram account is filled with views from her window, is fitting. Thoughtful, intentional, and non-hurried are her wines. And this is how she sees the world, right down to the most seemingly unnoticeable flower petal, rock, bird, or water droplet. Intention and awareness make for a better place to live.
It’s not only about eating local and drinking local. It’s about thoughtfully understanding that the immediate future requires us to behave more responsibly. It’s about engaging with the land and improving the health of soils, water, plants, and animals. Improving the process of winemaking, improving the process of anything, having patience, and living on this earth with dignity.
During these few days, Mateja Gravner brought a few more people into her circle. She and her community renewed our love and respect for life and land. We left profoundly inspired after eating, drinking, being, and opening up our senses. And for this, we raise our glass.
[I’d like to thank Studio Cru for organizing this incredibly uplifting media tour. All travel and hospitality were paid for by their clients. And thank you Mateja and Joško Gravner and the Sirk family at La Subida.]