Monday, November 26, 2012

Gianni of the Spirits

Gianni Capovilla was in town recently, during his first ever trip to New York, and I was lucky to attend a tasting he led of his distillates. It was a pretty great event. At the age of 70, Gianni could stand back and take credit for a lot of what he has done for Italian spirits, but instead he took pains to tell me that he "hasn't invented anything" and that his true search is for fruit of the highest quality. Finding the best raw materials to translate. That for him is the goal.

Gianni's talk was held in the cellar of the original Il Buco.

It is a space with some real atmosphere.

I especially enjoy to see what is lying up on the cellar ceiling racks. There are always bottles of something special up there. Like a 1983 Roulot Meursault-Perrieres, for instance. Unfortunately that wasn't open to sample.

But of course there was plenty that was very special and that was open to try, and I got right into it.

The Grappa di Bassano, pictured above, is made from the pomace of several different grape varieties, all grown in the Veneto. It includes Vespaiola as well Cabernet Sauvignon pomace and others, and is the only grappa Gianni makes that is not monovarietal. As with all of the Capovilla distillates there is a fine textural weave with the Bassano Grappa. That weave is anticipated by the aromas, which play off of and build on each other.

We also tried Gianni's Barolo Grappa, made from Nebbiolo pomace sourced from the likes of Parusso and Giorgio Rivetti. It held a svelte texture, and fruit character that lingered in the mouth. I don't usually think of blueberries as a Nebbiolo signature, but there was plenty of blueberry fruit in that grappa. Also some burnt mandarin orange. Gianni labels his spirits with a wax that is the same color as what he associates with the fruit of the distillate. He labelled his Barolo grappa with a blue wax, so I assume he sensed some blueberries in there at some point as well.

Gianni has the pomace for his grappa shipped overnight from the wineries, and he distills it the day it arrives. When you speak with other producers making a filigree style of grappa it becomes clear that an emphasis on fresh pomace is something that they all share. Something else that they tend to share is a copper alembic still. Gianni brought his in over the border from Austria originally, and tinkered with it until he was satisfied with a modified design of his own. He distills with the aid of a hot water bath, in the bain-marie style, instead of the direct flame method that was used by Romano Levi.

One thing that Gianni is very unique in doing in Italy is a beer distillate. A brewery that he works with makes a special double malt batch just for him, and he distills it down. In this way Gianni took his cues from the producers in Germany that make beer distillates. In Italy this wasn't something that was done, so much so that the Italian government didn't even have a category for such distillates when Gianni first produced his. In terms of the taste, the malty beer flavor comes through as the liquid is drunk. It sort of fills the mouth with the sense of beer, but the effect is much different than drinking a beer would be. Less suds, for sure. Everybody should try this birra distillate at least once. It actually takes Gianni 100 liters of beer to make 1 liter of the distillate, which he subsequently ages in small steel vats for 2 years before adding water to dilute it sourced from a spring in the Alto Adige.

Perhaps my favorite Capovilla distillate of those being brought into the States right now is the Moscato brandy. It isn't a grappa, in that ths is a distillate of the Moscato juice, not the pomace. The intricate linden and citrus notes that Gianni teases out are many, and that's what I like most about it. It is a distillate for people in love with aroma. And for me it is perfectly pitched on the palate between sweet fruit and dry distillate. Many of Gianni's distillates have a kind of softness to them, a roundness on the finish. Never harsh. But I like the texture of the Moscato brandy especially.

The kind of distillate for which Gianni is best known in Italy itself is probably most summed up by the Ciliegie, which is a cherry eau-de-vie. Gianni loves to source fruit. Especially the fruits that he ate in Italy as a child. He goes to great lengths to find special parcels where organic fruit that he likes is grown, and he travels to Trentino to source the cherries for this distillate. If you get a chance you should really see his tree shaking skills in action, in this wonderful film on his website. Fun stuff.

The Ciliegie from Gianni revealed for me the darker tones of a cherry, such as you might find close to the pit. I imagine it could be great in a cocktail.

I am told that the Apple Brandy from Gianni is his biggest seller curently in the New York area, and it isn't hard to imagine why. It is softly textured, deeply fruited, and very drinkable, and it probably appeals to buyers used to only finding thin apple brandies when they venture outside of the Calvados zone.

I personally found it quite a treat to try the Amarone Grappa, which was aged in French oak barrels. It was my first opportunity to try a grappa of his that had been raised in wood. There are of course very good examples of wood aged grappa available in the States, so I was curious to see how this one stacked up. And the answer was very well. The taste was a bit too soft and caramel laden for me, though. I maybe would have liked it just a touch drier. Gianni sources the grapes partly from Romano dal Forno in the Veneto, so another famous name producer. I was starting to think that Gianni only worked with modernists, but then I remembered that he also makes a Gravner grappa, although it is unfortunately unavailable in the States.

Something that is newly available in the States is the white rhum, and boy is it excellent. I remember a few years ago I tried to source a great small production white rum that didn't taste like chemicals, and how difficult that was. If only this had been available to me back then! Gianni partnered with a small rhum agricole producer on the French Caribbean island of Marie Galante to start making this sugar cane spirit back in 2006, and the results are tremendous. The smooth texture that Gianni brings to his distillates was very welcome in this one.

Gianni made us up some of his favorite rhum cocktails with a bit of ice and slices of lime peel rubbed along the rim of the glasses and then dropped inside. Really delicious and very aromatic.

This wood aged rhum that Gianni is making is aged in French oak barrels formerly used by Sauternes producers. The sugar cane is slowly fermented over 7 days, then there is distillation in the bain-marie, with no water added during the process. The result spends 3 years in the French oak, and is then bottled. The taste is of a subtle, golden caramel in an understated style. There is a bit of welcome smoke flavor on the soft finish. Easy to sip, and neither as dry as some rhums, nor as sweet as some rons.

It really was a great tasting. I was as happy and excited to meet Gianni as the several other people who lined up for a picture with him. Even Gianni's soft spoken importer Jan d'Amore, who had dressed up for the occasion and not worn his usual orange pants, stepped into the frame at one point.

A fun day indeed!

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