The final Spring tour has taken Tim and a lovely mix of longstanding and brand new wine tourists back to Bassano del Grappa, in the heart of the Veneto, from where we will be discovering Prosecco, the wines of the Colli Orientali de Friuli and Friuli Isonzo, and the little known area of Breganze. This blog is being written by Fliss, Tim’s wife.
Everyone arrived perfectly promptly at Venice airport, and Tim was somewhat startled to announce that we were ahead of time (by 1 minute) as the coach set off at 1pm. We drove straight to Schiavon, to have a snack lunch at the Poli Distillery and then embarked on a tour and tasting.
While I’m afraid I have not acquired the taste for grappa, our afternoon with Ilva Vezzaro convinced me that it should be taken more seriously (talk of ‘made from tyres’ quickly banned). I learnt that unlike brandies, which are made by distilling wine, grappa is the distillate of the re-fermented ‘marc’, the skins, pips and stalks that are left once white grapes are pressed prior to fermentation, and the pomace of red grapes after fermentation. These may be ‘blends’ of different grape varieties, or single varietals such as moscato, gewürztraminer and pinot noir. Sufficient sugars remain to create alcohol from the marc, which is loaded, 400kg at a time into the alembic pots through which hot steam passes for three hours, carrying the alcohol into tall separation columns where the water condenses and alcohol continues into condensers, which contain serpentine pipes surrounded by cold water. The tiny area in which all this happened and beauty of the equipment, made from brass and wood, was very notable.
The 400kg of marc produce just 20 litres of alcohol at around 65% abv, the first 2l (the heads, which contain aggressive flavours and undesirable alcohols such as meths!), and the last litre or so (the tails, which smelt far more fragrant but we were told contained unpleasant oils) are discarded, and the ‘heart’ is then destined for further work, under the supervision of the excise department, who undertake weekly checks.
The final step for all grappas is to freeze the distillate under pressure, which solidifies impurities, these are filtered out. Basic and flavoured grappas (various herbs and spices are used) are diluted to 40% abv with pure water, while aged grappas go into wooden barrels (any type of wood is permitted but Poli use mainly oak), for at least 1 year, and for Poli’s top of the range aged grappas, up to 12 years.
Despite the area in which distillation takes place being so small, the entire site was huge, and while being very ‘functional’, it had the feel of a place that was much loved and had had much care given to its design. Ilva described how one section of the corridor was part of the original building, the next part of a 1950s expansion, the next more recently. Several generations of the Poli family have continued to build the business which was founded by GioBatta Poli in 1898, and the short video we were shown revealed what a big part of the local community the distillery was, and still is.
We walked past the bottling line and through a huge underground barrel cellar into the tasting room where we were allowed to follow our fancy and try any of their complete range of traditional, aged, and flavoured grappas, and the brandies, liquers, vermouths and gins that Poli also make. My favourite (on the nose) was the simple grappa made from moscato grape marc, and I could taste the increasing smoothness of the aged grappas. I couldn’t resist trying the Sassicaia grappa, made from pomace shipped up from Sassicaia and aged in Sassicaia barrels.
A quick visit to the shop, for more admiration of the beautiful bottles, in different shapes and sizes, all with slender necks, and one or two purchases, and we were back on the coach and arrived in Bassano del Grappa a tiny bit behind schedule.
After settling into our rooms in the Belvedere Hotel which is on the edge of the old town and looks out to the mountains, we assembled in the bar for some prosecco, and transferred to the restaurant for fabulous first night dinner with wines from the Angarano estate that we will visit on Sunday. We enjoyed smoked duck/chanterelle starter, followed by pasta with guinea fowl ragú and sublimely tender beef. We’d been fascinated by the description of pudding – which when it arrived was indeed a mushroom, though not made from mushrooms!