Pu­rity of pur­pose

Ar­ti­san-made grappa has made a lively come­back

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Malaysia - NOR­MAN MILLER FEATUREWELL

IF a bar has spe­cialised in sell­ing just one spirit since 1779, you’d expect that spirit to be pretty damned good but you might not expect it to be grappa.

Like te­quila in its cheap slam­mer days, grappa has im­age is­sues. But at Nar­dini’s An­tica Grap­pe­ria in the town of Bas­sano del Grappa in Italy’s Veneto re­gion, what’s be­ing served is as en­tic­ing as the view of the ma­jes­tic pal­la­dian cov­ered bridge and the rav­ish­ing pas­tel build­ings that line the River Brenta.

Huge open shut­ters light a worn wooden bar and stone­floored space dec­o­rated with vin­tage dis­till­ing me­men­tos.

Bor­tolo Nar­dini bought the bar in the 18th cen­tury to show what his dis­tillery could do with castoffs — the grape skins, seeds and stalks known as po­mace, the af­ter­thoughts of wine­mak­ing.

The ini­tial pale dis­til­late is grappa bianca, today ca­pa­ble of sub­tlety and ele­gance, but in the past of­ten made from de­graded po­mace and badly dis­tilled.

If at least 85 per cent of the po­mace is sin­gle grape, the grappa can be des­ig­nated a va­ri­etal, a sta­tus-boost­ing line kick-started in 1973 by Gianola Nonino. Moscato is still the best known va­ri­etal, of­fer­ing smooth dry­ness and flo­ral notes to tempt gin lovers.

Aged in wood for two to 15 years, bian­cas be­come dusky ris­er­vas — file un­der rich, pow­er­ful, com­plex. Here, Ja­copo Poli’s dis­tillery’s 13-year-old beauty is a punt for open-minded whisky fans, while Nar­dini’s 15-year-old can hold its head high among the cog­noc­s­centi.

Flavoured grap­pas, such as renowned honey ver­sions by the likes of Nonino or the lemony slug of Nar­dini’s Ac­qua di Ce­dro, add to the range.

‘‘It doesn’t make sense to speak just of grappa,’’ says Poli, whose great-grand­fa­ther launched the Poli brand in the 1890s, sell­ing grappa off a mo­bile dis­tillery-on- a- cart. ‘ ‘ Each de­pends on the grape, the soil, the year, even the ef­fect of dif­fer­ent stills. You have hun­dreds of va­ri­eties.’’

In Bas­sano, bar lists run to 20 grap­pas, served in the por­ti­cos of glo­ri­ous pi­az­zas or on me­dieval cob­bled lanes.

As well as an af­ter- din­ner di­ges­tif, Bas­sano ma­jors in summer thirst-quenchers — if you fancy a bas­sano mule, take Nar­dini’s bit­ter­sweet fresh cherry liqueur Tagli­atella and serve long with gin­ger beer.

The rea­son grappa has clung to an im­age of peas­ant rotgut is that for a long time most of it re­ally was peas­ant rotgut, dis­tilled on farms as raw com­fort against win­ter chill or liq­uid pain re­lief.

‘‘And then it be­came in­dus­tri­alised,’’ be­moans Poli. ‘‘Seventy mil- lion bot­tles were sold at its peak, but it was very poor, anony­mous.’’

In­dus­trial pro­duc­tion also dec­i­mated ar­ti­san mak­ers. Then the 1980s brought what Poli de­scribes as a mir­a­cle.

‘‘Some con­sumers be­gan to search for grappa made the old ar­ti­san way, and the few small dis­tillers that had sur­vived were brought back to life.

‘‘Even if peo­ple didn’t know the tech­ni­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween poor and good grappa, they knew there was a real dif­fer­ence.’’

Poli has sought to guide con­sumers by pub­lish­ing a flavour chart plot­ting dif­fer­ent grap­pas against cri­te­ria such as dry­ness, aroma and fruiti­ness. Va­ri­etals are la­belled by dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­is­tic rather than grape, on the grounds that peo­ple un­clear about grappa gen­er­ally will be even less clear about spe­cific po­maces.

So Poli’s mer­lot grappa is branded secca (dry), moscato is mor­bida ( smooth), gewurz­traminer is aro­matic and pinot noir, el­e­gant.

Poli has also cre­ated a sig­na­ture cock­tail, the holi poli, for bar­tenders to push — two parts mar­garita mix, one part Poli honey grappa and one part straw­berry liqueur, shaken and served over ice.

A dif­fer­ent grappa star is Capovilla. Sur­rounded by or­chards of pear, peach and cherry that sup­ply his renowned fruit spir­its, vet­eran Vit­to­rio Capovilla’s rus­tic dis­tillery is a shrine to pu­rity of pur­pose. Scorn­ing laws that al­low grappa mak­ers to add up to 50g of sugar and other stuff per litre, he in­sists sim­ple in­gre­di­ents stand alone.

Capovilla spec­i­fies vin­tages. His bian­cas are rested for sev­eral years in steel vats be­fore bot­tling or go­ing to cask — ‘‘Har­mon­is­ing not age­ing,’’ he stresses.

Many bot­tles are hand- fin­ished, sealed from bub­bling pots of wax, with hand­writ­ten tags not­ing the year and de­scrib­ing the grape and its qual­i­ties.

I’m not sur­prised Capovilla is the only dis­tiller pro­duc­ing a grappa al­lowed to bear the tag di Bas­sano, made solely us­ing local po­mace.

Heard the old j oke about grappa com­ing in two va­ri­eties, leaded and un­leaded? Time to fill up with the good stuff.

grappa.com

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