Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Behind the Scenes at the Nonino Distillery in Italy

[Photographs: Elaine Brown]

Note from the author: On a recent press trip hosted by Terlato Wines International, I visited the Nonino family in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy touring their distillery and vineyards, and tasting through their famous collection of grappas and amaro. Nonino is one of the few artisan grappa distilleries still remaining in Italy.

The Nonino distillery has been active in Friuli, Italy since 1897. Prior to that point, the family operated a moveable still, which was transported from vineyard to vineyard to make grappa on site.

Grappa can be thought of as the final production of a grape, as it is made from the pomace—skins, seeds, and stems—after the fruit has been used to make wine.

The tradition of grappa finds its truest home in the Northeastern regions of Italy—Friuli, Veneto, and Alto Adige—where farmers turned the leftovers of their harvest into what was then seen as a healthful elixir. Having gone through the distillation process, grappa was safe to drink, warmed the body, and was believed to kill germs. People would take a nip when feeling ill, or before stepping out into the cold. It is more recently that grappa and amaro have come to be seen as quality spirits that can be sipped on their own after dinner, or used in cocktails.

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The Nonino Family, from left: Giannola, Cristina, Antonella, Elisabeta, Bonito Nonino

Since the 1960s, owners Bonito and Giannola Nonino have made it their mission to both continuously increase the quality of their distillation process, and raise the prestige of the beverage from a working class elixir to a world class spirit.

Today, with the work of Bonito and Giannola's daughters too, the Noninos are one of the most famous grappa houses. They were the first commercial distillery to make single varietal grappa, and the first to make a whole grape distillate as well. Their grape-based amaro is a favorite among drinkers and bartenders, and they also produce barrel aged and vintage grappas, as well as a distillate from chestnut honey, named Gioiello. The drink tastes remarkably like honey, but without any sweetness.

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In 1973, Nonino became the first distillery to produce grappa from a single grape variety. Traditionally, winegrowers harvested many different types of grapes from their vineyards, and, after making their wine, would throw all the grape skins together into one pile. The distiller would then come to the vineyard with a portable still and make grappa from the mix of grape skins, taking a portion of the grappa as part of their payment.

As she tells the story, Giannola Nonino first fell in love with her husband Bonito, then fell in love with his grappa. She believed so strongly in Bonito's work, she wanted to celebrate both his skill and its potential. Her father had also raised her to celebrate the unique culture of Friuli. In combining the passion for heritage of her father with the talent for distillation of her husband, Giannola came up with an idea for making grappa from a single grape type indigenous to the region of Friuli.

With the harvest of 1973, Nonino distilled and bottled Picolit on its own. 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of their first single varietal bottling. Still, 65% of the grappa produced by Nonino is a traditional mixed pomace style.

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Picolit almost ready for harvest in the Nonino Vineyard, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Part of what is so incredible about Nonino's story is the real difficulty associated with growing Picolit grapes. Picolit is most often used for making a sweet wine. The grape regularly drops flowers, and is not self pollinating, meaning clusters are notoriously small, and the fruit is expensive to grow.

Giannola chose Picolit as their first single varietal distillate because she believed it to be most emblematic of the region. It is a grape that originates and only grows there in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Today, the Noninos grow their own Picolit, and produce distillates from many other grapes local to the region as well.

In 1984, the family became the first commercial distillery to produce a full grape distillate (made from whole grapes, not pomace), named Ue. The approach yields a spirit with the vigor of a grappa and the subtler flavors of a wine. Today, they produce single varietal as well as mixed versions of the Ue Grape Distillate.

Head over to the slideshow for a peek at Nonino's distillery and the process of making grappa from grapes »

About the author: Elaine Chukan Brown travels and writes about wine and spirits. She currently lives in Sonoma, California.

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