Spirits: Lifting a Spirit

  • David Lyon

Grappa is not what it used to be, according to Antonella Nonino. “You would never find grappa in the liquor cabinets of the well-to-do,” says Nonino, whose family has been distilling the spirit since 1897 in Friuli, in Italy’s northeast corner.

Grappa’s ascension began in 1973, Nonino explains, when her parents, Giannola and Benito, created Cru Picolit from skins and seeds of Picolit grapes, which until then had been reserved for sauternelike dessert wines. (Like other grappa producers, the Noninos previously distilled only multivarietal leftovers, known as pomace, which winemakers either sold to grappa makers or sent to pig farmers.) Over the years the family experimented with recipes for the spirit and, in doing so, helped elevate its status from a workingman’s snort to a respectable, if not fashionable, after-dinner drink.

In November, the Nonino family will release the 2007 edition of its flagship Ùe Monovitigno Picolit ($1,900, 700 ml). Older bottles (the first vintage was 1987) have sold at auction for as much as $3,000. Only the 400 collectors possessing a coveted position on the company’s reservation list will receive the current release, which will be packaged in art glass decanters from Venini of Murano. Nonino Ùe made from the Verduzzo and Moscato varietals still is available and retails for about $150 per bottle.

In contrast to how it makes Cru Picolit and other grappas, Distillatori Nonino produces Ùe (pronounced Oo-eh and named after the Friulian word for “grape”) from single-estate, whole-grape clusters—from the fruit’s juice, seeds, and skins. The spirit tastes like a rounder, smoother version of Cru Picolit, with the elegance of brandy and the temper of grappa.

Antonella and her younger sisters, Cristina and Elisabetta, were small children when Cru Picolit first trickled from the Nonino stills. Now grown women with children of their own, the three sisters effectively have taken over operations at the Distillatori Nonino and made a significant addition to the company’s offerings: a line of eight single-source honey distillates called Gioiello. Of these, only the citrus tree honey and chestnut honey versions (each priced at $54 for a 375 ml bottle and $90 for a 750 ml bottle) are available in the United States. The former has intense overtones of orange blossoms, while the latter possesses a spicy chestnut flavor that pairs well with Pecorino cheese.
 
While producing these distillates that depart from the technical definition of grappa, the Nonino sisters—who represent the family’s fifth generation to run the company—continue to make nearly two dozen true grappas, all from single-varietal grapes. Like their parents, the siblings process the pomace within 24 hours of fermentation, thus avoiding a buildup of methyl alcohol. This is a problem that often plagues industrial-scale grappa production, where the mixture might sit for weeks before distillation. The Nonino method lends subtle flavors to a drink that once was better known for its kick than for its taste. 

This past spring, the Nonino company completed a new facility that includes 66 small-batch stills. (When Giannola and Benito took over the family business four decades ago, they had three stills.) The new distillery offers the sisters plenty of room to continue trying out new recipes. “We like to experiment,” says Elisabetta. Adds Antonella, “My sisters and I have our own stills now. We compete to introduce new products.” Undoubtedly, many of those will make their way into liquor cabinets of the well-to-do.

Distillatori Nonino, www.nonino.it

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