Monday, October 15, 2018

Nonino Single Varietal Grappa - A Concept Before It's Time

 “We are the only distillery in the world with 66 artisan pot stills for distillation”, Elisabetta Nonino

In the modern environment of craft or artisan distillers, the concept of a single varietal grappa makes perfect sense. Yet, 45 years ago that concept was revolutionary -- in all phases of the production cycle -- from suppliers to producer to the consumer. And that's what Benito and Giannola Nonino faced when in 1973 they introduced the first-ever single variety grappa, Nonino Monovitigno, made from Picolit - an indigenous grape from the distillery's home region of Friuli Venezia Giulia.

The concept was revolutionary in that suppliers combined the pomace (the post pressed pulpy matter of grape skins, flesh, seeds, and stems) for all grape varieties into the same bins. The combined pomace was then fermented and distilled into grappa. And most winemakers were reluctant to change this process until Giannola recruited the wives to separate the varieties in exchange for higher payments.

On the producer side, this concept involved additional capital and labor expenses. Nonino utilizes separate stills for each varietal so that the initial investment was minimal yet the number of stills directly correlates to the number of single varietal grappas. As their portfolio expanded, so did their capital expenses. Thus today the distillery operates those 66 artisan pot stills mentioned above. And in order to maintain freshness the distillery operates 24 hours a day during harvest so that the pomace from white grapes are fermented and distilled immediately while the already fermented red grape pomace is distilled on arrival. This preserves the inherent characteristics of the original grape variety.


As one can image, the processes that Nonino has adopted has increased the overall quality of the grappa but at a higher retail price point. And consumers have rewarded the distillery such that "in 1984, Benito and Gianolla solidified their status as industry leaders by introducing the world’s first single-vineyard, single-grape distillate produced using whole grape clusters".

Nonino was founded in 1897 by Orazio Nonino in the Friuli region of Italy and has run through six generations as Benito and Giannola passed control over to their three daughters Cristina, Antonella and Elisabetta (the 5th generation).  This month Elisabetta and sixth generation Francesca visited the United States to showcase not only the single varietal grappas but also their popular Amaro and GIOIELLO® honey distillate spirits.

The duo stressed quality as in the artisan nature of the distillery and furthermore, each specific run. In this respect Nonino grappa could be a Certified Craft Spirit™ via the American Distilling Institute (ADI). This is relevant because Italy provides a lax regulatory environment regarding grappa and allows for the industrial production of the spirit -- which widely accounts for the general lack of esteem for grappa. Elisabetta stressed that in order to combat this perception the "distillery independently declared its grappa as 100-percent artisan, and that any products with the Nonino name are produced and bottled at the distillery, made using artisan methods, with no added coloring or caramel".  Here are a few comments on each of the artisan products they presented at out tasting.  Cheers.

Grappa Nonino Picolit Cru ($178.99, 100 proof)
Yes expensive and the highest in abv, this is current iteration of the original Monovitigno released in 1973. It is also made in the ÙE (“Oo-ay”) style being a single cru grappa made through the distillation of premium, single-varietal, single-vineyard pomace of selected Picolit grapes.  There's a slight burn due to the 50% alcohol, which can be alleviated with an ice cube, but the grape flavors quickly dominate the palate.

Grappa Nonino Il Moscato ($71.99, 82 proof)
This grappa is 100% Moscato from Friuli di Aquileia and contains the grape's inherent floral characters.

Grappa Nonino Vendemmia ($44.99, 80 proof)
This is a blend of Pinot, Prosecco and Malvasia grappas that have been individually fermented and distilled. As expected there are multiple sensations produced by this smooth spirit.

Grappa Chardonnay ($71.99, 82 proof)
The Nonino's consider 40% abv as grappa's sweet spot and this delicious version weighs in at that level. It is completely devoid of heat both on the nose and in the palate and includes slight oak characters from mild oak treatment. Excellent.

Grappa Antica Cuvee Reserva ($118.99, 86 proof)
Another blend of single varietal distillates, this time Cabernet, Merlot and the local Schioppettino aged from five to twenty years in Limousin, Nevers and Grésigne oak barriques and in small ex-Sherry barrels. Because of the longer aging process, the warehouses and barrels are under seal and permanent surveillance by the Customs and Monopoly Agency - similar to the U.S. TTB. This grappa is complex with spices and almonds, but so smooth - perfect neat or with a cube

Grappa Vendemmia Riserva ($49.99, 82 proof)
For this spirit the Monovitigno® - single varietal grappa - are aged over 18 months in Limousin and ex-Sherry barriques providing color and oak sensations such as vanilla, chocolate and spices. In this case, the quality-price ratio is exceeding high.

Amaro Nonino Quintessentia® ($54.99, 70 proof)
The recipe for the Amaro dates from  Elisabetta's grandparents and contains a grappa base that was aged in French oak and ex-sherry barrels and then infused with with herbs and other botanicals.  The grappa is a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Moscato, and Malvasia from the Eastern Hills of Friuli.  This is quite the unique spirit, floral and citrus with some caramel and vanilla and just hints of licorice. Hit the cocktail recipes for this one.
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