Purity of purpose
Artisan-made grappa has made a lively comeback
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.