Monday, December 20, 2010

the Amari File: Nonino

Nonino "Quintessentia" Amaro
The "Quintessentia" amaro from Nonino differs from most other readily available amari in several notable respects. Firstly, it hasn't been around that long. Although the house of Nonino dates back to 1897, the production of an amaro first began there in the early 1990's. Secondly, it is based mostly on grape brandy. In an amari world where beet liquor is often used as a base, this is a key difference. I think the use of grape brandy partly explains why the texture of Nonino's amaro, which is what I love most about it, is so subtle and supple. Another explanation for the texture could be that the "Quintessentia" sees considerable ageing in oak barrels, which is another difference between it and most other amari. And another big difference is that the recipe and production method for the Nonino amaro are fairly well documented and easily accessible via the company website, when the opposite is true for so many other members of the amari family.

According to the folks at Nonino, the "Quintessentia" begins as a blend of brandies from the company's ÙE line. Nonino began making the ÙE grape brandies, each from a single grape variety and a single vineyard source, back in 1984. They take whole grape clusters and ferment them, later distilling them with a discontinuous still. Today there are several products in the ÙE range, but Nonino uses three as part of the base for the amaro: the brandies based on Ribolla Gialla grapes, Traminer, and Verduzzo. This might seem insignificant except that texture and layered flavors of the "Quintessentia" have more in common with brandy than with many other commercial amari, and the use of a grape spirit base is a big part of the reason why.

The recipe for the Nonino amaro includes a number of usual amari suspects and a couple of ingredients that are less normally met with. The enumerated list includes gentian root, rhubarb, multiple kinds of orange peel, quassia wood, tamarind, galenga, liquorice, saffron, and cinchona. Those items that can be found locally (as opposed to those of South American origin), are apparently gathered from a somewhat mountainous area of Friuli known as Carnia. This is in theory notable to me because I am greatly intrigued by the possibility of localized amari. It is interesting to think of an amari from Friuli that would taste of the herbs of that region, while an amaro from Calabria might have other flavors native to that particular zone. In actual practice I've had less success actually picking out herbal notes with that kind of specificity. For instance I note sarsaparilla and licorice flavors in the Nonino amaro, but I have found similar flavors in amaro from other parts of Italy as well.

Few producers of amari (excluding chinato producers) would seem to age their product in wood for any real length of time. In most instances, if an inexpensive amaro has a deep hue, that is because it has been colored with caramel. So the fact that Nonino ages its "Quintessentia" in French oak and used sherry butts for 5 years would seem notable. Certainly the integration of flavors on the palate that one finds with the "Quintessentia" would indicate the kind of harmony that wood ageing can bring about. All the more surprising then to learn that Nonino also makes caramel additions to its amaro, which they do. Sometimes I yearn for a "Brut Nature" style of non-caramel dosed amaro.

As it is, however, the "Quintessentia" is still high class stuff, and I am usually quite happy to meet with a glass. Which is fairly doable, because it is one of the more readily available amaro in the American market. I think that in general an amaro produced by a well recognized grappa producer has a better chance of getting imported than an amaro that is produced as a stand alone product by a dedicated amaro producer. The chances of an amaro getting tacked on to a larger grappa order seem fairly good. It probably also helps that Nonino is brought in by a pretty active importer that works in several different cities. Anyway, if you want to try the "Quintessentia," obtaining a bottle is certainly not too difficult, although it is certainly not inexpensive for the category.

In terms of flavor, the "Quintessentia" yields up the sarsaparilla and licorice flavors already alluded to, as well as a kind of red iron kind of flavor. I tend to perceive the sarsaprilla more in the mid-palate, and the licorice more towards the quite long finish. This particular amaro really does linger on the palate, and in fact sort of coats the palate nicely. I sometimes sense some red hots flavor notes as well, which may or may not be related to the 70 proof that this amaro brings to the glass.

Outside of chinato or vermouth, Nonino amaro is perhaps the very best amaro I know of to serve as an aperitivo. Of course it is wonderful after dinner as well, but the fineness of texture and delicacy of flavor really work well as an aperitivo. Add a slice of orange and maybe some ice cubes and you have everything you need. I suspect one would see "Quintessentia" in cocktails more often if it were less expensive (it tends to be one of the most expensive of any given set of amari on a retail shelf), but then again, all that wood ageing does bring about more cost. If you do have the opportunity to use it in a cocktail, may I suggest that you try a blend with Barbancourt aged Rhum? It isn't the worst thing you can do to yourself.

Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that the Nonino Amaro bottle is one of the most preferred for reusing. The front label comes off easily, and there is a straightforward shape to the clear glass that reminds one of an apothecary. I have noticed that when folks make their own home brew amaro, they often place it in an old Nonino bottle.

Nonino "Quintessentia" Amaro is imported to the United States by Terlato Wines International (formerly Paterno) of Lake Bluff, Illinois.


Waynegrape said...

Living in Friuli, this seems to be one of the more ubiquitous amari. I honestly consider it a bit of a "beginners" amaro, along with things like Averna... It's too sweet for me, and like you wrote, more adapted to an aperitivo with ice and a slice of orange, rather than a true digestivo.
Nonetheless, another well-researched and interesting post on amaro, which you never see... Thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi- I once lived in Italy but I never tried Amaro- I feel like I am missing out and will now try to get hold of some!

I have been reading some of your blog entries- really well written and interesting.

I myself am an English man living La Rioja, Spain (one of the big wine producing regions here as I am sure you know) and since living here have been getting into my wines..

Unknown said...

oh and we (my girlfriend and I) have a winey riojano blog. Please feel free to check it out: