Old wines never cease to fascinate me. They invariably come to the table with a story to tell, with baggage attached, with secrets and profundities that cannot be found in the latest vintage.
This 1997 Breg from Friulian master Josko Gravner is laden with resonance – it’s the first year that Gravner bottled his then “new” style of wine, abandoning steel tanks, French oak barriques and modern presses entirely, for long skin contact and ageing in large, neutral Slavonian oak vessels. It’s also the last year that Gravner kept his old label – the now iconic twisted vine replaced it from the 1998 vintage. It also predates the switch to amphora, which began in 2000.
1997 must have been a troubled time. Gravner’s vines had barely recovered from severe hail damage the year before, and customers were hardly comfortable with the shocking dark colour and brooding autumnal flavour of these “amber wines”. This was well before hip New York Sommeliers or natural wine fans had discovered the style.
The bottle I opened did not look like it had been well stored – the level was right down to the bottom of the neck. I was concerned, but without cause. Breg 1997 turned out to be in tip top condition, giving a gentle yet precise reading of Gravner’s now familiar white blend: Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and a handful of Welschriesling.
Suprisingly for a 19 year old wine, there are exotic fruit aromas, also plenty of fruit on the palate – not just bruised apple, but also persimmon, quince and damson. The texture is soft and supple, with barely a suggestion of the tannins that must have been present in youth. There are hints of salted caramel, and other savoury elements. I cooked up a favourite Rick Stein recipe – grilled oysters with a black bean and ginger dressing – as accompaniment. It was a match made in umami heaven.
Perhaps I was expecting slight uncertainty or a lack of self-confidence in this wine. After all, Gravner was still figuring out the way forward. But it wasn’t there – this wine tastes complete and assured, perhaps with more wood influence than the later amphora bottlings, but that is very subtle.
Then again, just as people develop over a lifetime, so do wines. Maybe this Breg did feel a little gangly and unsure in its youth – but on the cusp of old age, there is contentment, depth and a rich history to recount.
I found some keenly priced bottles of this wine, and other old Gravner vintages at online store Any Wine. I would be a little concerned about the storage conditions, but their customer service is great, so buy with confidence.