The general preconception of grappa is one of near disgust. Most have experienced grappa as a digestif consumed at the tail end of a meal of traditional Italian cuisine, either out of politeness or respect to the spirit of the occasion. Unfortunately the bad stuff is truly bad: reeking of acetone mixed with a foreboding sense of regret. My first experience of grappa was with something similar. Travelling around northern Italy as a student in my early twenties, looking for something exciting, I came across cafe “correto.” This involves taking a shot of espresso and adding a dribble of grappa which leans more towards a ratio of 50/50 depending on how generous the barista is feeling. I must have looked in need of my spirits lifting that day as I felt the full force of generosity! And thus was my conception of grappa formed as something vile.
For a few years afterwards, grappa was always one of those spirits I stayed away from. While my logic has always been that for every grape variety, beer or spirit, there must be at least one person making a great or, at least, passable version, grappa was an exception. There have been a few that put a smile on my face more out of surprise that it wasn’t disgusting rather than out of true quality. That was until I came across one producer who changed everything.
Capovilla Disillati are located in the old cellars of of Villa Dolfin Boldù in Rosa, near Bassano del Grappa, close to the city of Vicenza. Since 1986, Vittorio Capovilla has been producing artisan distillates that some regard as the very best in Italy: quite an accolade. Like the best craftsmen, the pursuit of absolute quality owes much to giving attention to every single detail of the production process: from sourcing the best raw materials, to using the finest equipment, and taking one’s time. But most importantly, it is a respect to the voice of the original ingredient that is paramount. As the greatest winemakers will tell you, their job is to enable the grapes to sing the song of terrior. Capovilla is no different.
Vittorio uses custom made stills produced for him by a German artisan and employs a particularly labour-intensive method of distillation. By heating the pomace in a bain maria very slowly, the maximum flavours and aromas are extracted, giving a spirit that is almost unbelievably characterful. Two different spirits are produced here: a grappa made from grape pomace, and distillates made from a variety of fruits. While Capovilla only own a few hectares of orchards – all farmed organically – Vittorio will go out of his way to select only the very best fruits; most often from old varieties that are uncommon to contemporary agriculture owing to labour-intensive farming practices required, the extremely low yields obtained, and the temperamental nature of certain fruits.
But my word does it all pay off! Dressed in clear glass with vividly coloured wax capsules, these spirits are a pleasure to behold. They look enjoyable; they look delicious! The Grappa di Amarone blew my mind at first. Made using the pomace from famed Amarone producer Dal Forno, this clear, silky-looking liquid gives a heady aroma of dusty red fruit, white flowers, and spice, in a way that is somehow comforting. The real joy comes from the palate which is robust, cushioned, superbly balanced, and so packed full of flavour. Remember that distinct alcoholic burn associated with your late night grappas? Nowhere to be found. Same with the Grappa di Brunello: softer, rounder, more savory, but just as delicious.
Yet, it is the fruit distillates that are really mind blowing. The one I keep coming back to is the Distillato di Pere Williams; a familiar spirit commonly found in dusty drinks cupboards and back country B&Bs. This takes the very essence of the ripest, most perfect pear you could conjure, and reveals itself in layers to you. The aroma is pungent and heady. On the palate, you can taste the flavour of the skin, the juiciness of the flesh, and the crisp satisfying acidity on the finish. It is truly astounding.
Now when I think of grappa, my mouth waters and I think of all the pleasure found in the finest Italian produce, and look for the nearest place with Capovilla!
James Phillips, Spirits Buyer, Jeroboams