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Three Sisters are the 5th Generation Distilling Top Notch Grappa

Grappa has been having a moment for quite some time and much of what Italy's most famous spirit has achieved is due to one family's influence.

The Nonino family from north east Italy, not too far from Venice, revolutionized Grappa distilling in 70's by treating it like a fine Wine and insisting on perfectly fresh ingredients expressed through artisanal production. Nonino is synonymous with quality Grappa globally, but the family hasn't rested on its laurels and they keep innovating. 

We spoke to Antonella Nonino who directs Nonino's marketing operation while she's not working in the distillery. She is guiding the company into the 21st century along with her two sisters and parents who remain active in the business.

Antonella Nonino - Photo: Nonino

The past year has been a busy one for Antonella with appearances at huge events like Milan's Food Expo. She made time to talk to us about her family's illustrious history and all the creative things they're working on today.
 
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1. Who are some famous Grappa drinkers?
Grappa and all the Nonino spirits are loved by many of the famous, ranging from Marcello Mastroianni to Claudio Abbado, from Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul to Peter Brook, from Claude Lévi-Strauss to Edgar Morin and Antonio R. Damasio, from Sandro Veronesi to Fabio Capello, from Gualtiero Marchesi a Alain Ducasse, from Davide Oldani to Andrea Berton, from Jackie Chan to Giuseppe Battiston and Bruce Springsteen.

2. What superpower would you like to have?
The ability not to sleep. Why? Because 24 hours in a day just aren’t enough to do everything that I want to do. There’s work, then there are my passions like literature, but they’re not even distinct because they’re all wrapped together in the Nonino Price.

3. What’s your favorite music?
Dance music: My adolescent children Sofia and Gaia keep me up-to-date on the latest.

4. What would you choose to drink with it?
It’s predictable but I love a glass of Amaro Nonino on the rocks with an orange slice. It’s easy to make, beautiful to look at and perfect for the summer or winter.

5. What would you eat and drink for your last dinner?
A well aged Prosciutto San Daniele with fig mostarda paired with a splendid Grappa Cru Monovitigno Picolit which is the legendary Grappa from Italy!

What is Grappa? 
Grappa is the traditional spirit from Northern Italy, specifically from the alpine regions of Friuli, the Veneto, Alto Adige, and Piedmont. It was traditionally produced in the countryside by distilling the leftovers of grapes used in winemaking.

Grappa was part of the rural culture: The owners of the vineyards grew the grape for themselves, they kept the wine for their families and considered the leftovers as waste so they left it to the people that worked on vineyards. Since they were very poor, they considered the leftovers, also known as pomace, very precious and distilled them to obtain Grappa. Grappa was even considered as a medicine.
 
In a famous article The New York Times dedicated to Noninos they describe how “Grappa through uncounted decades was little more than a cheap, portable form of central heating for peasants, fancier Italians disdain it, but that was before the Noninos came to prominence…“

How did the Nonino family come to Grappa?
The first Nonino, my forefather Orazio Nonino, started distilling Grappa in the second half of the 19th century. With his mobile still, he went from house to house and distilled the pomace of the peasants. In 1897 he established his own distillery in Ronchi di Percoto.

Sisters Antonella, Elisabetta and Cristina Nonino - Photo: Nonino

A few years later the reputation of the distiller Vigi Livon had spread all over the Friuli. There’s a letter written by Tobia della Mora, a dairyman in Rivolto, in 1911 which says "Vigi Livon, ai Roncs, al fas une sgnape tant buine…” - “Vigi Livon, in Ronchi, makes such good Grappa.”

My sisters Elisabetta, Cristina, and I represent the 5th Nonino generation of artisanal batch distillers.

Benito’s mother Silvia ran the distillery for many years and when my mother Giannola entered the Nonino family, Grappa was still considered a poor distillate, a legacy of poverty, of the cold and hunger. In Italy no one offered Grappa to their guests on special occasions, Whisky and Cognac seemed nobler and more gratifying for consumers.

But Giannola was convinced of the quality of Benito’s Grappa. They decided to make the best Grappa in the world and to transform its quality and image.
 
In 1973 my parents invented the first single varietal Grappa by distilling only the the pomace of the Picolit grape in a special copper pot still. It was a revolution!

In December 1973 my parents invented the first single varietal Grappa by distilling only the the pomace of the Picolit grape in a special copper pot still. They had to convince the winemakers to avoid the practice of blending pomace and they payed extra money to have the Picolit separated from the other grapes. The hard work paid off. They created a very elegant and smooth Grappa that preserved the specific characteristics of the original grape. It was a revolution!

They decided that such a wonderful Grappa deserved a special hand blown bottle. I must admit that the first production remained unsold because it was too expensive. The label was written by hand by my mother who decided to include all the information such as vintage, varietal name, and liters produced.

My mother invented our marketing philosophy spontaneously; instead of lowering the price of the Grappa she decided to offer to important journalists, businessmen, and the famous so that they could appreciate the quality.

Little by little the Nonino Grappa Monovitigno from the small village of Percoto conquered the national market and obtained a special reputation all over the world.

How does your family work through the process of Nonino Grappa and why is it unique?
Our family personally takes care of the purchase of the pomace and we follow the various phases of distillation to guarantee the maximum quality of the Grappa.

We distill only fresh pomace that we collect from the winery on the same day the winemaker presses the grapes to make their wine.

Antonella Nonino - Photo: NoninoCristina works with my dad in the distillery. We distill only fresh pomace that we collect from the winery on the same day the winemaker presses the grapes to make their wine. As soon as it arrives in our distillery we ferment it in stainless steel tanks. Immediately after the fermentation is completed, we distill in small copper pot stills.

We use only artisanal equipment to distill all the different Nonino Grappas and Acquavits. That’s why our production only takes place during the grape harvest from the end of August to the middle of October. During this period the stills are working nonstop, 24 hours a day, to keep the freshness of the grape in the distillate.

Our production only takes place during the grape harvest from the end of August to the middle of October. During this period the stills are working 24 hours a day to keep the freshness of the grape in the distillate.

The Grappa comes out from the pot stills at an average of 76% alcohol, before bottling the alcoholic content is reduced to about 40% by adding distilled water. Part of our production is then sent to the cellar for aging.

We are very proud that our Aged Grappa and Grappa Riserva follow a natural aging process. We don’t use color additives. The flavors and the amber colors come from aging in small barrels. Nowadays we have 1855 barriques of different types of wood like oak casks from Limousin, former Sherry or wild cherry wood barrels that give different tastes and wonderful aromas to the Grappa.

It is the use of the very fresh pomace together with the centuries-old artisanal techniques that makes Nonino so unique.

What other distillates is Nonino producing?
In 1984 we marked a new turning point: We began distilling the whole grape and created the Grape Distillate ÙE® which means “grape” in the Friulian dialect. It is a spirit obtained by distilling the skin, pulp, and juice of the grapes in a single operation.

We went on experimenting and in the year 2000 we started producing Gioiello®, a distillate of pure honey.

Amaro Nonino and Nonino Frozen - Photo: NoninoBesides Grappa we also make a special amaro called Amaro Nonino Quintessentia® based on our grandfather’s recipe which contains mountain herbs and sugar. We ennoble it with a grape distillate aged in small barrels. People fall in love with it because it’s elegant and balanced, not too dry and not too aromatic.

You can drink Amaro Nonino on the rocks with a slice of orange or use it to prepare a punch in the winter and to mix incredible cocktails. For example, the Nonino Frozen is a type of mojito made with Amaro Nonino Quintessentia instead of Rum.

What glassware do you suggest for serving Grappa?
For Grappa I usually suggest an open tulip shaped glass. It gives oxygen to the Grappa and this emphasizes the scent. Pour about 30 ml of Grappa in the glass, swirl it carefully, and smell it. You don’t have to keep the glass directly under your nose like wine. Sip and enjoy the Grappa.

For the premium distillates such as single varietal Grappas, I recommend a serving temperature of 12 °C (54 °F). In the summer you can cool it a bit more, like white wine, because the Grappa will get warm faster.

For Grappa I usually suggest a open tulip shaped glass. It gives oxygen to the Grappa and this emphasizes the scent.

Do you think Grappa should be used in cocktails?
Cocktails are a wonderful introduction to Grappa, our Grappa is so harmonic and it is ideal for cocktails. For seven years we have been proposing wonderful cocktails with Grappa.

Grappa Nonino Tradizione with Tonic - Photo: NoninoJust last summer we launched NoninoTonic®, the new way of drinking Grappa Nonino. It is fresh, thirst quenching, and easy to prepare.

Use Grappa Nonino Tradizione or another white Grappa, Grappa Monovitigno® Moscato, for instance. Put an ice cube in a glass, pour 30 ml of Nonino Grappa over it, top with tonic water, garnish with a slice of lemon and finish with a little squeeze of lemon.

A lot of fantastic Grappa cocktail recipes created by international bartenders are listed on our web site. You can even find cocktails made with Grappa Nonino Monovitigno Chardonnay aged in barriques. Recently even Wallpaper dedicated an article to Nonino cocktails.

Do you suggest that Grappa be consumed primarily after dinner or can it also be paired with food?
We have been working on food and Grappa pairings for many years.

Grappa Monovitigno┬« Picolit - Photo: NoninoI recommend pairing a soft and aromatic Grappa like the Monovitigno® Moscato with shrimp or langoustines. It’s also a nice complement to the flavor of fish, it’s perfect with salmon. Sip just a little, it’s very rich.

For our Grappa Monovitigno® Picolit, a legendary Grappa with a flavor of quince and acacia honey, it’s so elegant and rich that it can be paired with San Daniele or Parma ham, it is fabulous.

Last February it was even displayed in the window at Harrods London along with the best spirits of the world.

Nonino Riserva AnticaCuvee - Photo: NoninoThe aromatic Grappas like Grappa Monovitigno® Fragolino, Moscato or Prosecco are excellent served with cream cakes and ice-cream.

The full-bodied Grappa AnticaCuvée Riserva and Grappa Prosecco Riserva go very well with chocolate or cheese.


Nonino also sponsors a prize, can you tell me more about what the prize represents and how it came about?
The Nonino Prize was established in 1975 by my parents. After distilling Picolit pomace they intended to distill pomace of other grape varieties native of Friuli, but they realized that they were disappearing because in the 70’s the European Union made an official list of grape varieties that would be recognized but the grape varieties native to the Friuli such as Schioppettino Ribolla Gialla and Tacelenghe didn’t make the list. Since growing those varieties was forbidden winemakers abandoned them.

My mother could not accept the idea that the varietals native to our region which were such a strong part of our story could be lost. With my father they established a prize to award one or more winemakers who decided to grow those grape varieties.

Two generations of Nonino women - Photo: NoninoAfter years the forbidden varietals were authorized by the European Union and were even recommended. In 1977 the prize was expanded with a literary section to highlight the constant relevance of rustic life.

Last January the prize reached its 40th anniversary, it was a special event for us! After 40 years it is impressive to see the prestigious jury governed by V.S. Naipaul and members such as Peter Brook, John Banville, and Claudio Magris.

My family organizes and finances the prize without any external assistance in order to preserve the freedom of the jury. Every year we organize a special distillation for our 600 guests which they can sample after the award ceremony and a lunch with specialties from Friuli.

Long live the grapes...and Nonino Grappa!

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone

About the author: Max is cofounder of Mezcalistas, a website and event company that covers the world of Mezcal. When he’s not writing about agave spirits he can be found drinking espresso, sampling the San Francisco dining scene, or helping his clients set their content strategies.

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