Photo via Un architetto in cucina.
I’m posting today from Friuli where the spring has arrived early and the arrival of spring here means that bladder campion (silene vulgaris, above) is in season.
Known locally as sciopeti, the herb is used in a variety of dishes and so far, I’ve been served two risottos with this gently bitter green (see below).
Nonino’s first grappa made from a single grape variety — i.e., monovarietal grappa — was made from Picolit. Here’s a short backgrounder on the grape…
Picolit is one of Friuli’s most fascinating and prestigious indigenous grape varieties. Highly prized for its delicate aromatic profile, Picolit has been the favored wine of royalty for centuries.
In high-quality vineyards, farmers do whatever they can to reduce the fruit yields so that the vines concentrate all of their energy into a smaller number of grapes. Picolit, however, has its own unique process of slimming down yields. The vine undergoes a spontaneous flower abortion that results in a grape cluster that does not have all of its berries. Its name, in fact, comes from the Italian word piccolo, meaning small, a reference to the yields and also the size of the grapes. The fruit that does grow on these sparsely populated clusters is much more concentrated and, in the end, creates a wine of unparalleled complexity.
Picolit saw the height of its popularity in the royal courts of the 18th century. Count Fabio Asquini is credited with helping the variety reach international fame. He recorded his methods of successful farming of the difficult grape, but production went into decline nonetheless due to the high cost of cultivation. The worldwide Philoxera epidemic was also a factor.
High levels of acidity and sugar make Picolit ideal for dessert wine. The most common styles are passito (drying of the grapes in ventilated rooms) and late-harvest (allowing the grapes to dry slowly on the vines).
Grappa is the ultimate expression of vineyard economy. It is technically a brandy, but is made from the pomace (skins, seeds, and stems as opposed to the must in traditional brandy) leftover from the winemaking process. Nothing is wasted.
So how do we define grappa? How is it set apart from other, similar distillates? The following criteria must be in place: Grappa can only be produced in Italy, San Marino, or Italian Switzerland; it is made from pomace, and no other additives (such as flavoring or water) can be included in the production.
In the United States, we often drink grappa on its own, usually after a meal, but more often than not unaccompanied by food.
When my wife Tracie P and I were guests in the home of Giannola and Benito Nonino back in January 2011, they served a grappa at the end of lunch (I’ll post about our meal later). It was accompanied by a shard of aged Parmigiano Reggiano and a dollop of honey.
The aromatic character of the grappa tamed the piquant flavor of the cheese while the sweetness of the honey played against the fruit aromas and flavor of the distillate.
The dates of the mixologist trip to Friuli were planned so that team Nonino would get to see grappa being made.
The day we visited the distillery pomace for Picolit and Fragolino grappa had just arrived. The mixologists donned their aprons and gave the distillers a hand.
The secret to great grappa that expresses the aromatic character of the grape variety, explained Elisabetta Nonino (in the photo above) is the freshness of the pomace. The Nonino family uses special refrigerator trucks to transport the pomace to the distillery and it pays the grape growers an extra fee to keep the pomace from different grape varieties separate after vinfication.