Elizabeth Helman Minchilli
I love having people over for dinner. I adore the entire process of shopping, cooking, setting the table, and enjoying the meal. But I get really excited when we get to the after-dinner drinks. "Anyone want a grappa?" And sure enough, at least one (if not most) of my guests say, "No, I hate grappa." So, I bring out the bottles of amaro, limoncello (yuck!), and even cognac. I also bring out at least three bottles of grappa. But not just any grappa. It's Nonino grappa, and since the bottles are so distinctive (much more classy and elegant than anything else on the table), this is the first thing that gets my guests' attention.
"Well, okay ... I guess I'll try some." And usually, all it takes is one sip and they are grappa converts. As it turns out, the grappa they've tried up until then has almost nothing to do with what I serve.
I can understand their hesitation. Even though much has changed in the world of grappa in the last decade or so, most of the grappa out there is still dreck. That there is even any attempt at producing artisanal grappas and aquavits in Italy is almost entirely due to the Nonino family, who I had the pleasure of getting to know about 12 years ago when I wrote a feature about them. I have been a huge supporter (and, I admit it, drinker) ever since. (For the full story, I'd love to direct you to my article, but it's not online. But I introduced Frank Bruni to the Noninos, and he wrote this wonderful piece.)
A bit of background: traditionally, grappa was a working man's drink, made by farmers with the leftover pomace (stems and skins) after winemaking. The musty smelling pile was fermented and then distilled into an extremely strong drink that provided much-needed calories during the winter.
By the 1960s the Nonino family, which started out with a portable still that they brought to farms, was producing a high-quality grappa. Even though they had upgraded to a more advanced method in their plant, it was still made using winery leftovers. Enter Giannola, who married Benito Nonino and decided to completely flip the grappa-making process on its head.
Rather than use mixed-up, old leftovers, she had the bold idea to pick up the freshly pressed pomace within hours of their pressing and distill single varietals using a discontinuous still, which would preserve (she hoped) the aroma of the original grapes. Her husband, Benito, is the mastermind who devised the method, but it was Giannola's vision and passion that resulted in the first single-grape grappa using the Picolit grape variety. Most people thought Giannola was crazy, but once they tasted her brew they were smitten. She had done what no one had done before: produce a grappa that retained the perfumes and essence of the original grape.
Over the last three decades the revolution that the Noninos started has changed the way the world thinks of grappa. Their stylish bottles are widely imitated, as are their smooth as silk grappas and aquavits. But no other maker distills grappa with the same passion and artisanal skill as they do. They continue to process every drop of the clear liquids in their own distillery, full of gleaming copper stills.
Most of the grappa in Italy that is supposedly made by high-end wineries using their own pomace is made by a third party and often employs a more industrial method. And I won't even get into the truly industrial stuff served in most bars. So I can understand why my guests are so grappa-wary. "It burns." "It tastes like nail polish remover." These are the comments I hear most often. But like I say, the Nonino stuff has nothing to do with this, and you realize this from the very first sip.
I hadn't seen the family for ages, so I was really happy to hear recently that they were coming to Rome to present their grappas. Benito and Giannola came, along with their three daughters—Cristina, Antonella, and Elisabetta—who now pretty much run the show. Besides revisiting some of my favorites (see below), we were treated to a barrique-aged 19-year-old UE Riserva Monovitigno Moscato, Cru Besenello Vallagarina. There is only one barrel of this, and it hasn't even been bottled yet for sale. It will be soon, although there will be only 500 bottles.
While I really appreciated the chance to taste something as rare as the 19-year-old Riserva, some of my favorites are still the following:
Grappa Cru Monovitigno Picolit: This is the very first single varietal grappa the Noninos produced, but it remains one of my favorites. Made from the Picolit grape which grows only in a small region of Friuli. Amazing aroma, smooth finish.
Gioiello: Not a grappa in the strict sense of the word. But this is always the one my guests fall in love with. It is a honey distillate. And don't ask me how they do it, since it is a carefully guarded secret and as far as I know, no one else is doing it. Depending on the year and honey harvest, the Noninos produce various kinds, including versions made from chestnut, orange blossom, and acacia blossom honey. Its perfume retains all the complexity of the original honeys.
UE Fragolino Cru: A full grape distillate made from the extremely rare Fragolino grape from Friuli. This may be the most aromatic of all the UEs (grape distillates), with hints of blueberry and wild strawberries.
Il Cerasus di Nonino Kirsch: Like the Pirus, which I also love, not really a grappa, but a wild cherry distillate. They don't make it every year, but if you see it make sure you grab a bottle. The smell of cherry hits you, but it's the bite of the pit, and cherry blossom, not the sticky fruit. Heavenly.
In my continued efforts to convert the world to grappa, a few years ago I hosted a grappa tasting meal and managed to work grappa into three courses. Here are two of the recipes:
• 2 ounces of Grappa Cru Fragolino
• 1 ounces of pomegranate juice
• 1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses
• place in cocktail shaker with ice, shake until chilled, then pour into chilled martini glass.
Grappa Fruit Salad
Make your favorite fresh, seasonal fruit salad. It's nice if you have a mix of colors and textures. About an hour before serving, toss with one tablespoon of sugar per two cups fruit. Add about two tablespoons of grappa for each tablespoon of sugar (I used the Carasus, which I happened to have on hand, but you could use Moscato di Nonino Grappa, Grappa Cru Fragolino, or Grappa Cru Picolit). Toss and let sit for an hour.
Added note on storing grappa:
After years of thinking I must be drinking grappa in my sleep, I realized that the high alcohol content (from 38 to 45 percent) meant that my precious grappa was evaporating away. Now I always store opened bottles with a small sheet of plastic wrap between bottle neck and cork.