Vines in the forest and amphoras under the sky; where world’s best orange wine is produced.
I like slightly eccentric people who aren’t keen on taking the paths well-travelled – they make for the best stories. Enter Božidar Zorjan, Slovenian no-bullshit no-sulphites winemaker behind Muscat Ottonel Dolium 2016 that Decanter magazine recently crowned world’s best orange wine.
Or amber wine as many winemakers prefer to call these skin-contact wines; white wines produced with red wine methods. Result are full-bodied wines with plenty of character, notes ranging from first summer apricots to rhum soaked raisins, from candied fruits to an almost cognacy feel, especially when grapes are picked super late and autumn sun sky rockets the sugar levels; and with it the alcohol.
Whereas the color of white wine stretches from citrusy pale to sunny yellow, the color palate of skin-contact wines is much broader; starting with deep yellowish towards light orange, then from deep amber and brick-hued all the way to almost scarlet. The range of tastes, colors, smells and aromas of amber wines is so vast that they constantly entice, surprise and keep a drinker on her toes.
Now, the style of these wines might seem hip and for some annoyingly trendy, what with the rise of natural wine bars and bistros, but they are in fact far from being a novelty. Wines like these were produced way back in ancient times and in Georgia, the cradle of winemaking, as it is known. And Slovenia, or better yet, the narrow area that now encompasses western part of Slovenia and eastern part of Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy, has been at the very forefront of modern day skin-contact winemaking.
SKIN-CONTACT WINEMAKING ON THE SLOVENIA-ITALY BORDER
As part of socialist Yugoslavia, Slovenia had to produce wine in bulk, quantity before quality, tons and tons of grapes sent into co-ops where hectoliters of less-then-mediocre table wine was produced. With independence in 1991 all of that changed; and small, boutique, high-end winemakers were able to slowly flourish. But not all of them were exactly building their business from scratch – there were Slovenian winemakers who had already been producing exciting wines.
These winemakers are now regarded as pioneers of the natural wine movement and the amber wine movement alike – names like Joško Gravner, the late Stanko Radikon, Dario Princic … proud, tough-as-nail, extremely patriotic Slovenians but because of historical shifting of the borders in this area residing on the Italian side. Collio instead of Goriška Brda. “Produtto di Italia” instead of “Proizvedeno v Sloveniji”.
GRAVNER’S AMPHORA WINES
Gravner overlooking his vineyard.
They had been taking a different approach in the vineyard and in the cellar way before it became sort of a norm. Much less grapes per vine, low intervention in the vineyards, and even lower in the cellar. It wasn’t a popular approach back in the 1980s. They were called radicals, utopists, and for some downright crazy.
Some of them, like Radikon, even completely abandoned the added sulphites, and some of them, like Gravner, decided that the only vessel for wines like these can be large amphoras – or qvevri, as they are called in Georgia where the winemakers have been using them for centuries. For Gravner, the biggest revelation as to what kind of wine he wanted to produce was a trip to California. ‘It was an epiphany’, he says.
Not in terms of guidelines how to produce great wine, but how ‘not’ to produce wine. “There were so much additives, aroma enhancers and all sorts of synthetic crap added, that it wasn’t resembling wine anymore, it wasn’t reflecting terroir or grape variety. It was Coca-Cola,” explains Gravner, known not to mince his words.
He returned from his American adventure and headed to Georgia where he learned about a completely different way of thinking about wine. He brought home to Oslavia his first gigantic clay amphoras and never looked back. Today Gravner cellar is a temple, resembling more a minimalistic zen fortress. All together 47 amphoras are buried under the floor in the dimly lit cellar, with a wooden chair placed in the middle.
In some of the photos you see Joško sitting on this chair, half meditating, with a serene look on his face. As always in biodynamics, seven is a magical number, so it takes seven years before Gravner wines are bottled. Now focusing almost solely on Ribolla grapes, since he believes it is suited best for the terroir of Collio, he cultivates 15 hectares of vineyards, picture perfect symbiotic green patches of vines, butterflies, fruit trees, cypresses and ponds with water lilies.
Gravner cellar is a temple, resembling more a minimalistic zen fortress. 47 amphoras are buried under the floor in the dimly lit cellar, with a wooden chair placed in the middle.
The relatively high price of wine reflects all the work that’s being done in the vineyards, especially with a harvest that can drag into late November, a gamble with which Gravner sometimes also pays a high price. But the result is impeccable.
Gravner wines are pure perfection, liquid copper with intoxicating aromas. And it’s not just the wines – it’s his legacy that counts for so much. Entire generations of winemakers all over the world have studied Joško’s approach to winemaking, trying to achieve that same perfection. Some more, some less successfully. Gravner’s bar is set extremely high.
Gravner’s wines are liquid copper; with intoxicating aromas.
One of those winemakers is also Božidar Zorjan, but unlike many others, he never tried copying Gravner. Rather, his story has run parallel with him, both sourcing heavily from Rudolf Steiner’s book on biodynamics, both firm believers in nature as winemakers’ guiding light, not chemicals, and both experimenting with amphoras, though not really keen on wasting time with people who are questioning their approach.
Zorjan is in many ways more radical than Gravner and it also took him longer to make a name for himself internationally. But now, thanks to some key players noticing him, he’s one of the hottest exports from Central Europe. With only four hectares, his supplies are limited, but he says that’s just the perfect size. He grows his vines on magmatic rocks, on the edges of ancient forest of Pohorje in Slovenian Styria, and his cellar used to be part of the Carthusian monastery dating all the way back to 12th century.
Zorjan’s cellar used to be part of the Carthusian monastery dating all the way back to 12th century.
Him and his wife Marija inherited the vineyards in 1980 and it took them only two years to switch to organic. Back then nobody was talking about natural wines, about biodynamical wines and nobody had even heard of Georgia and its qvevris.
Zorjan brought amphoras in 1993, but unlike Gravner – or most of the winemakers who use them – he didn’t put them in the cellar, instead he buried them out in the open, under the sky, left to forces of nature, not even with a protective inner layer of beeswax. That’s how much faith he puts in the power of nature and the daily inhalation and exhalation of the soil. There’s no pre-process – once the grapes are picked, they go straight to the amphoras, seeds and grapes included. “It’s like cooking a soup, basically,” he muses.
His analogies are colorful, sometimes to the point you’re not quite sure if he’s trolling you. Like his explanation on how he manages to grow one vineyard in the middle of the forest, left to the mercy of deer, wild boar and other game that makes winemakers so crazy. Not Zorjan, ex policeman with, apparently, a close connection to Divine forces; otherwise it’s hard to explain why animals, for some reason, aren’t even touching his vines.
Zorjan’s vineyard is just four hectares of land situated within the ancient forest of Pohorje; a perfect size, Zorjan declares.
In animals, he trusts. ‘It’s the people that are the problem’, he says. He is a firm believer you cannot claim to be biodynamic if you don’t have a self-sufficient farm and animals that add another dimension. He has sheep and also deer that supply high-quality preparations he uses in the vineyards, usually filled inside cow horns and buried all over the property.
There’s no shortcuts with him, he’s 110% dedicated to this, going as far as not allowing cell phones in his cellar not to mess with the energies of nature.
Same with the label – a primitive drawing of male and female figures shaped like trees, their roots intertwining – his are full, because he brings flint to the earth, hers are void because she brings the water element and the power of reproduction. There are drops on the label, which could be interpreted as drops of sperm, since there’s a playful, almost kinky side to Zorjan as well. And he doesn’t really give a damn as to what he should or shouldn’t put on his label. That’s why there’s also no vintage written on it. ‘Because of the damn sommeliers who come in with preconceived notions,’ he grins.
There’s also a tiny crossed out picture of a cellphone on the back. No photos, wine is for drinking, not influencing. At least not in that sense. Božidar also doesn’t really pay attention to accolades or points or how to market wine. He lives in his bubble, rarely setting foot outside of Slovenia, not really bothering to learn English to be able to reach a broader international audience. ‘If people are open to my wines, we find a common language somehow,’ he laughs as he pours a generous amount of his amber elixir in my glass.