Bassano del Grappa, Still the One

Bassano del Grappa's Ponte Vecchio, designed by Palladio in 1569.
Bassano del Grappa's Ponte Vecchio, designed by Palladio in 1569. (By Jerry V. Haines)
Sunday, October 7, 2007

In 1898, GioBatta Poli, erstwhile tavern operator and maker of straw hats, began what may be the ultimate door-to-door service: He became a wandering distiller. Loading his copper still onto a cart, Poli would go from farm to farm in Italy's scenic northern Veneto, essentially transforming castoffs into elixir. Farmers gave him their leavings from winemaking; he gave them back grappa.

In northern Italy, it is true that, as one of my Italian language teachers observed, "Wherever you have wine, you have grappa." But could there be a better place to learn about it than a town with "grappa" right in its name? Particularly when Bassano del Grappa is so thoughtfully photogenic.

A long wooden bridge designed in 1569 by Palladio straddles the River Brenta and, during prime drinking time, becomes the overflow space for happy imbibers spilling out of Nardini's small grapperia. A resident swan just downstream watches a wading fisherman casting his line.

To the northeast, Monte Grappa looms at the edge of the Dolomites. There's a comfy cafe and alfresco dining scene in the town piazzas, particularly enjoyable if you time your visit for spring's white asparagus season. And in the shops and bars will be bottle after bottle of grappa.

Grappa gets an unfortunate bad rap, perhaps traceable, like that of American "white lightning," to amateur distillers with little regard for quality control. (It also is confused with brandy. Brandy is made from wine, grappa from winemaking's leftovers, grape pomace.) Notwithstanding the occasional put-downs, grappa can be as sweet and delicate as angel tears.

GioBatta Poli's itinerant still launched a family business, now in its fourth generation. Their story and the story of grappa in general are explained in Poli's Museo della Grappa, a museum in a small palace near the eastern end of Palladio's bridge. Its graceful copper vessels and reptilian tubing resemble something envisioned by Hieronymus Bosch in one of his more whimsical moods.

Among the museum placards displaying relevant literary quotes is one from a 16th-century Sienese doctor who, speaking of distilled spirits, said "it preserves the life of those who drink it . . . warms the stomach, comforts the mind, sharpens the intellect, clears the vision and the memory." (Argue if you will, but that man was a doctor.)

After your tour, you can comfort your own mind, sharpen your intellect, etc., with some tasting, either in the museum's reception area or at one of the nearby grapperias operated by Nardini or Bassanina, two of Poli's local competitors.

Grappas can be blended (farmers originally threw in whatever grape skins they happened to have) or made only from specific varietals -- merlot, traminer or pinot, for example. Young grappa is so clear you could read La Repubblica through it. As it ages, however, it grows mellower and dark, like rum.

It can be infused with honey or herbs or fruit, my favorite such concoctions (so far) being rue and the blueberry-ish mirtillo. And, of course, there's taiadea, which is half grappa, half quinine liqueur. The term "grappa" legally can be used only with the Italian product, by the way; the French counterpart is known as "marc."

Intense grappa-philes can (by appointment) tour Poli's distillery, a 20-minute bus ride away in Schiavon. (Oddly, the sign on the museum reads "distillerie" and the one on the Schiavon distillery says "museum.") Poli distills grappa only in the early fall, when the pomace is still fresh, but the company bottles year-round, and the facility can be toured in any season. GioBatta's original equipment is there, still in use, supplemented by more-modern stills and vats. And a "tax counter," of course -- Italy has revenuers, too.

The process hasn't changed much since GioBatta's day. Pomace is loaded into a still and heated to 173 degrees, alcohol's boiling point. The alcoholic vapor is collected and condensed, producing spirits of about 75 percent alcohol, subsequently diluted with distilled water to about 40 percent. (The typical 700-milliliter bottle of grappa represents about 10 kilos of pomace and 100 kilos of grapes.) The inferior spirits produced at the beginning and end of each two-hour cycle ("head and tail") are bled off. The grappa destined to be aged is sent to the cells of the cavernous basement, to rest in oak barrels for two to 13 years.

Again, distillery guides will invite you to taste to your heart's content -- although, before we had our second round, our guide did discreetly ask whether we had come by car. Young and flavored grappas usually are drunk neat and slightly chilled.

Poli serves them in specially designed glasses that discourage your hot little hand from warming the contents. (But young grappa also is one of several spirits that can be added to hot espresso to make a doubly eye-opening "caffe corretto.") Aged grappas go best at room temperature.

The traveling grappa distiller, unfortunately, has gone the way of the American milkman and egg lady. The image of grappa as a rough drink for tough people also has faded. Indeed, today's grappa often is marketed in elegant, blown-glass bottles. But it still has power to warm the stomach, comfort the mind, and . . . . Um, you didn't drive here, did you?

-- Jerry V. Haines

Museo della Grappa (6 Via Gamba (Ponte Vecchio), Bassano del Grappa, 011-39-0424-524426, is open from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily. Distillerie Poli (46 Via G. Marconi, Schiavon, 011-39-0444-665007, has tours by appointment only. Admission and tastings at the museum and distillery are free. Bassano del Grappa is about an hour by train (and trains are frequent) from Venice.

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