Discover with us  the magic of Italian wine heritage

krater-wineOenotria, “land of vines”, this was how the ancient Greeks called  Italy. Its variety of landscapes and climates, from the Alps to the shores of Sicily through  chains of hills, mountains and volcanoes, offers an astonishing range of grape varieties that have been cultivated for thousands of years  in their terroirs.

mappa-x1 vectorized

Under the Romans,  vines were planted throughout the Empire, grapegrowing and winemaking techniques became more advanced, the varietals that best matched soil and climate were selected to improve  quality.

The concept of vintage already existed, as the ancient books report that the fabled Opimiam wine of 121 B.C., an excellent vintage of Falernum, was aged and drunk decades later. 

This red thread that leads to modern times was never cut, though invasions, wars and fights split the country into city states, duchies, kingdoms along two thousand years of entangled events . 

Enjoy a glass of History!

PostHeaderIcon Sisters are doin' it for themselves!!!


Do you remember the famous feminist song by Annie Lennox? 

It went on proclaiming “we got lawyers, doctors, politicians too”, and I could add, now, wonderful producers of Grappa, too! ( Imagine what could happen in some countries where alcohol is prohibited and women are persecuted..)

nonino sistersThe Nonino sisters and one of the judges invited to the visit

For those who don’t know what Grappa is, let’s call it the “cognac” of the poorest workers and farmers, until 1960. Whilst Cognac is made from wine (an undrinkable one but good enough to be distilled), Grappa is made from the pomace, that is the discarded skins and seeds of the wine.

That was all the lower classes could afford to warm up in the long, cold winters of the northeastern regions of Italy, where this spirit has been made since the Middle Ages : Veneto, Trentino and Friuli. It was a rough thing, not so different from any grain alcohol made in other countries of the world which have chilly winters.

Among those who decided to start to produce a quality Grappa in ‘70s, Giannola Nonino is THE pioneer, along with her husband Benito. They were the first to make grappa from a single varietal, Picolit, an indigenous, fine, flavourful grape that grows only in Friuli. At first they used to sneer at her ambition to make better such a coarse liquor, but she didn’t dishearten and went on offering her grappa to gourmets, restaurateurs, and journalists. 

The Nonino’s started to make other monovarietal grappas, choosing the best producers for their pomace, setting up a wider distillery, until success at last smiled at them and now even more at their three talented daughters, all friendly and beautiful , Cristina, Elisabetta and Antonella.

Let’s listen to Elisabetta’s own words :

“ Unfortunately in Italy to make Grappa we don’t have to follow strict rules as established to make Cognac, therefore it’s difficult for the consumers to be sure of the quality of the grappa they are buying. This worries us because the lack of regulations allows shrewd producers to make grappa that back up the prejudice that it is a cheap spirit.

So we gave ourselves the rule to always aim at high quality.

My parents were the first in December 1973 to distil a pomace from a single varietal, Picolit, and that remains the flagship of  Nonino. We are the only ones in the world to have 66 artisanal vats of distillation. This search for quality has led to reinvest the profit always in the distillery and from 22 potstills at the beginning we grew to have 66, those you can see over there. This was imperative because we distil only during the harvest, Saturday and Sunday included, as we want to do it from fresh pomace. By law in Italy you can distil until June, that means that most distilleries keep under vacuum the pumace and they produce grappa within that term. We distil only the fresh skins immediately without storing them for months, because putting the pomace under vacuum you lose a lot of aromas and volatile compounds.”

Actually, I had read that under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the law was that the pomace had to be fermented within 24 hours of the grapes being pressed. The Old Empire left a legacy that affects positively Friuli in so many things from organization to earnestness, cheered up by the Italian    warmth and openness of the people. But I don’t interrupt Elisabetta, who goes on explaining .


“We have so many containers for fermentation for two reasons. If we want to distil a single variety we have to keep it separate from the others, and if we don’t want the pomace to deteriorate – as I said before we don’t keep it under vacuum – we have to ferment it right away, so we need many tanks at work simultaneously.


The different silos for the different varietals

The pumace of red wines goes directly to the potstill, while the pumace of the whites, which hasn’t undergone fermentation (to make white wine the grapes are just  pressed lightly to release the juice and then discarded, not going into the fermentation vat along with the juice) is put into these huge tanks, where we ourselves mastermind the fermentation.

We buy the pomace from more than 251 producers we have an agreement with : from the pomace we see the quality of the grapes, check if the wine producers did the right job, not pressing too much the skins, as we need raw materials but humid, with some liquid of the wine. Fermentation takes three to four days, then we take the pomace out of the silos and we immediately carry it to the potstills.

We even have one line of stills for each member of the family : I’ll show you “ gli alambicchi di Elisabetta”, my stills!

gli alambicchi

First the immediate fermentation of fresh pomace, then its immediate distillation are crucial to keep intact the taste and scent of the wine varietal and prevent the formation of toxic secondary alcohols like methanol. We don’t need to demethylize, a process that would clean the spirit but at the same time alter the aromatic profile of the grappa.

Our method of distillation is artisanal, with discontinuous cycle-stills, essential to obtain a high-quality grappa. We have exactly 5 distilleries with  12 small batch steam stills in each one, created by Benito Nonino to achieve the best possible distillation and preserve the character of the grapes, eliminating heads and tails to get the heart of the Grappa.

In 1984 we created Ue (which in our dialect means Uve, grapes) from the whole berry, skin and pulp, our Acquavite d’Uva, which has the characters of the wine and of the grappa at the same time.

But we also managed to make a  grappa distilled from different types of honey, which required all the Noninos skills and, on the other hand, patience with bureacracy to obtain the authorization – as honey is not provided for by law, being of non-vegetal origin. The production is very limited, though.

Since 1981 we Nonino have insisted to apply the same disciplinary to make Cognac, but those in the business were the first against establishing strict rules. So we feel lonely in this category, as the others don’t understand that a better quality grappa would really  improve the idea of grappa in the world. It is such a lovely liquor when it’s made with care and passion!

The only good thing in the law is that grappa cannot be made from grapes outside Italy.

At least those distillers that buy grapes all over Europe, they have to call it “acquavite di vinaccia”.

Grappa was born in Friuli, Veneto, Trentino, only lately  grappa is produced in other regions, as a way to exploit the discarded skins and increase the profit of a winery. But only if you follow the rules we ourselves are following you make good grappa. The law unfortunately doesn’t state that a producer must print on the bottle who actually made it and where, which variety the skins comes from, not even if the process is artisanal or industrial.

There were talks of streamlining regulations to obtain  the DOCG for grappa, but we walked away after two meetings, because in the disciplinary production they didn’t want to limit it to artisanal distillation, they didn’t want to put the provenance of  the pumace, and they wanted to extend the docg to other two regions where grappa has never been made. That’s the best way to ruin the reputation of grappa!

DOCG should guarantee a higher quality, so what’s the point in making a docg grappa in the industrial way with non DOCG grapes from the same regions where grappa has its origin?

Okay, then, we said, we won’t sell Grappa, we’ll sell Nonino!”

Just as well, Elisabetta is right, Nonino has become a synonymus for grappa.

In 1989 the Noninos bought in Buttrio 40 hectares of vineyards with Picolit, Ribolla Gialla, Fragolino, Schioppettino, all indigenous wine varieties, plus Sauvignon, that comes out so well in this area. They are used to produce Grappa and Acquavite d’Uva Ue, in order to control the raw material from the start and give the best quality possible to the customer.

elisabettaElisabetta explains how her “alambicchi” work


What about ageing the Grappa ?

“We have 1870 barriques to age our grappas. We use mostly new barrels, the rest are ex-Sherry which are very good for ageing.

We don’t use caramel. By law, caramel is allowed also for cognac and whisky to enhance the ageing aspect, but we feel we would cheat the consumer. So, no caramel. And we declare it on the label. As we declare how long the grappa has aged, even if the rules merely say that “invecchiata” is  12 months old and “riserva”  18 months old aged in oak. This is not sufficient for us. We age many of our products for longer.

We have a special riserva, one barrel per year, where every detail is written down: which wine variety, which type of wood barrels, how may bottles produced.

We make a Riserva 8 years in barrique, and Antica Cuvée, a blend of red varietals aged from three to twenty years. But you’ll have a chance to taste them, don’t worry. As long as we hurry up towards the headquarters. The meal is ready!”

groupA group of judges of the “ Concours Mondial du Sauvignon”, at the center Cristina Nonino

I’m here with Rocco, and Rocco is here in Friuli because he is one of the judges of the “Concours Mondial du Sauvignon” and we have all being invited to visit the Nonino Distillery. So we all take our cars and a bus for three minutes, back to the main building, a big wooden beamed beautifully  restored farm, and under the pouring rain I’m the first to step inside through the glass panel door, between a lit-up sculpture of Marco Lodola and….

I’m greeted warmly by Benito Nonino, smart in  in his casual Missoni jacket, who a moment later seems to argue with Cristina and Antonella. – Take no notice – says Cristina – we always argue about something, we even shout in front of everybody, it’s just our way of being, there is no hypocrisy here, no veiled remarks. We burst out, and five minutes later we carry on as usual, kisses and hugs. – I feel immediately at ease, caught up in the family feeling that is everywhere.

Three angelic girls come to meet us and seem to enjoy the atmosphere, while Cristina is preparing the cocktails with one of Nonino’s grappe.

- Aren’t you bored to stay here with the visitors ? – I ask. – Oh, no – replies an angel, Elisabetta’s eldest daughter – we rather enjoy staying with people we don’t know, it’s fun!

Exhuberant Cristina is mixing an aperitive, the “Nonino Sisters”: 4 cl of Grappa Nonino Sauvignon Cru - 3cl Sour Apple liqueur - half a lime , half a fresh ginger – 2tsp of cane sugar. Delicious !

Bless Cristina! Waiters are gliding with theirs trays carrying fried small fish and courgettes blossoms in tempura. They are so light, yummy and gorgeous like lilies! I don’t want anything else, I like them so much that even when I fry them at home, my garden’s blossoms,  I don’t need to eat anything else. But this is only the beginning, because Cristina and Antonella shout to direct us to the big dining room.

roc cristinaRocco, Cristina Nonino and a Judge from the Concours

So the happy crew of wine experts move on under the Murano chandeliers, from room to room with large glass windows with a view on the magnificent garden under the rain, until we sit down at the round tables dressed with Fiandra tablecloth, silverware and…what are those shapely glasses for?grappe

Surprise! – roars Cristina – this is the surprise! Every dish will be matched to a different Grappa! No wine allowed here! – There is a general astonishment, followed by an applause and cheers. Cristina is contagious.

The first grappa served is a Monovitigno Sauvignon Cru Nonino Vineyard of Buttrio (Collio Friulano). It is aromatic , with an aroma of bread and, as Rocco suggests, of white flowers and green pepper. Definitely unusual, but not out of place at all with the lobster, the smoked salmon and the sea bass which are really gratifying.

Then we taste the Nonino Riserva AnticaCuvée, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Schioppettino grappas aged for a different number of years, 3 to 20, in small Limousin oak barrels and former Sherry barrels. The colour is that of amber (there is no caramel colouring, remember?), the bouquet is very intense of bakery’s aromas plus the spicy ones from the oak. This a limited release grappa, in numbered bottles.

grappaAnd here it comes, to pair it, a “risotto scampi & scampi”, a masterpiece of Romeo Struma, the cook. Instead of a splash of white wine, there has been a splash of Nonino Anniversary Riserva 5 years! A perfectly creamy texture, “all’onda” wave effect, the dainty little lobsters, the hint of grappa I never tasted before in a risotto… celestial!

I feel like Tilda Swinton in the film “I am Love”, when she is aroused relishing the scampi…I’m falling in love with Romeo, even if I don’t know him.

There is a lot of pleasant noise in the big dining room, people are chatting away, smiling and laughing, while the Nonino sisters get up from time to time to present the grappas and cheer us all.

I move my chair away from Rocco, to talk with another judge at the other side of the table, and we comment very favourably the whole event. He is from Alba, the paradise of gourmets, so his opinion is significant. The next course will be “Vitello Tonnato antica ricetta” ( vitello tonnato ancient recipe, a Piedmont speciality ) and we wait for it with prejudice : it can’t be better than in Alba.

The waiters pour Acquavite Ue from Sauvignon, the one mentioned before by Elisabetta Nonino, made distilling  grapes, not only the pomace, so it’s not grappa but acquavite – eau de vie de vin, brandy -. It’s clear, light, white flowers and honey, herbs. Then it’s the turn of Vitello Tonnato.

I go back to my place around the table, smell it. It has been marinated in the same acquavite, instead of vinegar. I taste it. Delicious. I must kiss Romeo. I glance at the judge from Alba. He nods gravely, waves a hand, it means : perfect.

Even the other judges at my table, from Belgium, France and Croatia, agree. Everything is exquisite. I’m getting used to the grappas, as it seems to happen with all the people in every table, now talking loud to each other and smiling all the way. Grappa makes happy, folks!

Riserva Nonino aged 14 years in barriques – la Riserva dei cent’anni – is served. From 1998, to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the distillery, the Noninos take out four barrels of  Ue, aged 14 years. You can imagine the aromas and the texture of it : dried fruit, spices, even saffron, velvety, intense, long lingering. After a luscious chocolate cake I finally meet Romeo and I compliment him. I’m suddenly too shy to kiss him…

renata grappa

A final toast with Grappa of Cru Monovitigno Picolit, also named the Legendary, probably the most esteemed grappa of Italy. Scent of figues, honey, bread, so pleasant!

It’s time to go, it’s half past four! I’m looking out of the window, to the garden shining with the drizzling rain. Cristina puts an arm around my shoulder, I turn and say : - It’s a pity that it rained all these days, it spoilt our visit to Friuli, it must be beautiful. -  She smiles - Yes, true. But don’t you think that today it bound us to stay all together, sheltered here, feeling cosy?grappe40

She is a ray of sunshine herself. She is genuine, everything here is genuine. Of course this visit to the distillery had a promotional intent, but there has been more to it, a humanity, a joyousness which are authentic. I tell her. She beams and says:" It’s the power of Grappa!"

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