Italian Grappa is taken like French Brandy or Spanish Sherry, but remains very much in their shadow as it is considered by many to be nothing more than branded moonshine. Italian restaurants all over the world serve this spirit made from leftovers, the vinaccia from wine production. This in itself doesn’t mean it has to be rubbish; many of the nutrients and flavours used in wine are found in the skin of the grape. Historically, as a ‘poor man’s drink’, the belief has long been held that many other ‘rogue’ items have sneaked into the process of making Grappa (see technical stuff for more on this).
Having had a number of bad experiences with Grappa myself, I decided to travel to the roots of one of the first distilleries in Percoto, Udine, in the north-east of Italy. I wanted to understand why this horrid drink was popular in Italy and how much of a moonshine it actually was. The drive from Venice to Percoto was fantastic: the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the Dolomites on the horizon looked absolutely stunning. How can anything produced in this environment be considered moonshine?
So what’s the story?
The first thing you need to understand about Grappa is that unlike almost any other mainstream spirit produced around the world, Grappa remains unregulated. This basically means that any old crap from the wine production can be added to it and it can still be called ‘Grappa’. This is no doubt one of the biggest single contributory factors to its mixed reputation worldwide.
During my background research I had discovered that there were a few vocal opponents against this, who believed Grappa was a high-quality spirit, and were constantly pushing for a standardised approach and proper quality control for all Grappas. None more so than the Nonino family, so I was delighted when I was first greeted by Antonella on my arrival. She is one of the daughters of Giannola and Benito Nonino, the Italian power couple who have repeatedly challenged the whole Grappa industry and are still producing what they believe to be top-quality Grappa straight from their own backyard.
The Nonino brand has been in the same family since the very beginning, 1897. So it was special that someone as passionate and knowledgeable as Antonella took me around the distillery and explained the whole process of production. She explained how they re-established the distillery in Ronchi di Percoto in 2004, where Orazio Nonino first started the production of Nonino Grappa as a drink for his friends and neighbours around the area. I was surprised to find out just how high the standards of Nonino Grappa production were – as good as other regulated distilleries I’ve been to around the world. There was clearly more to this moonshine issue than meets the eye!!
Grappa production should take place only a few months a year when the pomace is freshly collected from the winemakers, and ideally within 24 to 48 hours after the wine has been drawn off. Antonella stressed this point repeatedly; anything after 48 hours and the skins will already begin to ferment and turn – Grappa has a very small window before it will pick up the bitterness and overpowering taste I had found when tasting many Grappas in the past. At Nonino, they do NOT use the stalks. Indeed, they had an elaborate-looking machine for the specific purpose of separating just the skin, again making me wonder about what I had been drinking in the past!
Nonino is fanatical about the process and the production and only uses artisanal methods, respecting traditions by keeping on top of each stage until the bottling takes place. There is no room for short cuts, with Antonella stressing that even if it’s a bad year for the grape, Nonino would rather produce less than make bad Grappa and damage what they believe is a quality product. Unfortunately, not all Grappa producers feel the same.
When Giannola first took part in the production of Grappa, she realised people were embarrassed to serve Grappa at dinner parties as it was still considered a poor man’s drink. She was proud of her husband’s product and wanted to improve it to make it a real competitor with other spirits. In 1973 she had an idea to produce only single-variety Grappa to enhance the flavour of the drink. They produced the first monovitigno from the picolit grape and it was such a success it has since changed the method of producing Grappa in Italy and foreign distilleries. The Noninos collect the vinaccia from different wineries to make Grappa from merlot, prosecco, muscat, chardonnay and many other grape varieties.
They purchased their own plot to grow picolit, which also helped Giannola to come up with another idea. In 1984 they tried to distil the whole picolit grape and created another success in Grape Distillate UE. Even if both monovitigno and Grape Distillate UE have become very popular in the Grappa market, the most sold Nonino product has always been Grappa Tradizione Nonino 41°. It is the original mix of vinaccia from both white and red grapes and still accounts for 60% of total sales worldwide.
Today the company is run by Giannola and Benito, who are both still working full time – Giannola always on the frontline, leaving husband Benito working hard on the production side. Amazingly, their three daughters, Antonella, Elisabetta and Christina, all travel around the world marketing Nonino products and holding tastings to educate people on Grappa. Their challenge is to explain the correct ways of producing Grappa and help people to understand the difference between their products and the horrid stuff that has unfortunately been served to many fools like you and me worldwide.
The moment of truth – how does it taste?
The final part of the day with Antonella was to finally taste the Nonino Grappa the family is so proud of. When entering the beautiful tasting rooms I was hoping the Grappa would not taste like any other poor product that is out there, or else my exit from the distillery might have been uncomfortable considering Antonella had to drive me back afterwards. To my relief, I could not have been more wrong, as the Nonino Grappa was absolutely fantastic. Each variety I tried during the tasting was much better than I expected. They’ve got so many products there is definitely something for everyone, although I am slightly concerned perhaps they spend too much time creating new exciting varieties and miss focusing on marketing the great core product range. Nonino products are suitable for many occasions, not just for serving after dinner in a restaurant. They really should rethink their marketing to reach the right customers and expand their markets. Just a thought.
After tasting five different products I was taken into another room for some cocktails and canapés. I had the honour of meeting both Benito and Elisabetta as they joined us for more drinks. To finish off the day we were served a five-course lunch with matching Grappas. Overall, I must have tried at least 15 different products (sipping of course!). They had cocktails made with Grappa, even the good old G&T got new meaning through replacing Gin with Grappa! Such an interesting day in the company of lovely, knowledgeable and passionate people. Benito must be proud of the life he has created for his family.
It is unfortunate Italy does not have set standards for production of Grappa and therefore most of the Grappa served for tourists in Italian restaurants is in fact anything but distilled from fresh product but is made with large distillation machinery rather than the individual care and control of the distiller. Nonino, along with a few other distilleries, have lobbied for clear EU regulations for Italian Grappa production, but as they do not receive the support of the bulk of the market, nothing has happened and it remains unregulated. None of the others want to make changes as the current way allows fast and low-cost production, where the quantity far outweighs the quality.
Even more frustrating is the bottlers who purchase full-proof Grappa and dilute it with water, which allows them, by law, to claim that they have ‘produced and bottled’ it. Basically, in Italy there is simply no way of telling a good Grappa by reading the label. The same can be said about the production method; the bottle may say artisanal production, but as, under Italian law, there is no description of what actually qualifies as an artisanal method, you just can’t trust that the information given is correct.
How to drink it
Grappa is a very versatile spirit and there are a number of ways to enjoy it;
It is recommended to keep Grappa chilled but never in the freezer. On a hot day it will be a refreshing drink on its own or mix Grappa Nonino 43° with tonic, fresh lemon and plenty of ice to create an alternative G&T. There are also several cocktail recipes for different Nonino products, check recipes to find out my favourites. On a cold winter evening it is ideal to keep the Grappa at room temperature and sip on its own to warm up from inside.
You can also use Nonino for cooking with fish as a replacement for wine; drink Gioello (honey distillate) with cheeses; or add one of the fruit or berry flavours into your dessert. If you struggle with a full stomach or terrible hangover why not try caffé corretto, espresso with Grappa?
Sum and substance
There are clearly great Grappas (such as Nonino, Bocchino, Berta or Bepi Tosolini) out there, and in some ways, Giannola has succeeded in placing Grappa on the same level as other spirits. However, it is down to us spirit drinkers or bartenders to make the effort and carry out the appropriate research before choosing the Grappa we like to drink or serve. Don’t be defeated if you go through a few moonshines along the way, as the good stuff is worth the effort!
Currently you can order Nonino through Enotria, or visit Harrods, Rocca or Pall Mall Wine in London. If you ever end up eating at Carluccio’s or Prezzo ask for Nonino rather than just Grappa.
How to impress
- Did you know the logo of Nonino is a medieval symbol for alcohol?