I don’t need another liquid pleasure—the world of wine is big enough.
But I recently visited Vittorio Gianni Capovilla in northern Italy and discovered another realm of complex aromas and flavors, in Capovilla’s prized grappas and other distilled spirits.
“Taste this,” said Capovilla. At 70, with his bushy eyebrows and gleaming gray eyes, he looked like a mad scientist as he held out samples of some of the world’s most sought-after distillati. Over 30 years, Capovilla has helped raise grappa—traditionally a lowly spirit made from the grape pomace (skins, pulp, seeds and stems) left over after winemaking—to distinctive levels. Part of his success comes from his slow, low-temperature distillation technique and part of it from impeccable ingredients.
After a few sips—and then a few more—I became a believer. Great grappa can show off nuanced flavors.
In his centuries-old farmhouse-turned-distillery near Bassano del Grappa, in the Veneto region, he also produces other distillati from a variety of fresh fruits such as wild raspberries and blueberries, heirloom variety peaches, mirabelle plums and loquats, as well as from beer. “The world of distillati is infinite,” he said.
Artisanal distillation has boomed in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. Bassano del Grappa (named for the mountain not the spirit) has become a hub for high-end family-run distilleries, such as the 118-year-old producer Poli, which runs a grappa museum here.
But no producer has a more fanatically exacting image than Capovilla, a former race-car mechanic and winemaker, who releases small quantities of about 60 different spirits for a cult following in 15 countries. His production totals about 40,000 half-liter bottles annually.
Some of his more exotic products include tobacco-infused grappa di Amarone—the liquid equivalent of a Cuban cigar. He also makes spirits from fruits I’ve never had, such as rowanberries and sloe. In addition to organically cultivating 10 acres of his own fruit, Capovilla is also an obsessive fruit seeker, known to forage for wild fruit from trees in the nearby mountains.
“The old fruit varieties have stronger, more stable aromas,” he said. “The modern ones are pretty, but not good.”
Capovilla’s work has even taken him across the ocean. Ten years ago, he branched out from fruit distillates, becoming a partner in a small producer of rhum agricole (distilled from sugar cane juice) in Guadeloupe, under the Rhum Rhum label.
Capovilla was drawn to spirits in the 1970s while working in Germany and Austria as a sales representative for Italian enological equipment. In those countries, he discovered small-scale spirits entirely different from those made by Italy’s big regional grappa distilleries.
“Artisanal grappa didn’t exist in Italy,” he said. “The production is still not geared to quality, but to produce the maximum amount of alcohol the fastest and cheapest possible.”
Capovilla brought his first copper still—a low-temperature bain-marie (water bath)—from Germany, later tweaking it to hone his craft. He experimented for a decade before he went commercial in 1986, producing about 2,000 half-liter bottles of distilled beverages, along with about 30,000 bottles of wine made from grapes he purchased from Friuli and the Veneto.
But as his spirits obsession grew, he went all in and stopped making wine.
The first step of making fruit distillates is fermentation similar to winemaking. The day I visited, Capovilla and his crew, which now includes two daughters and a grandson, were fermenting apricots from Mount Vesuvius, near Naples.
After fermentation, the fruit “wine” is distilled twice in 500-liter stills, by heating a water bath to just under the boiling point. This method, he says, is 10 times more time-consuming than industrial stills that use direct heat, but has the advantage of extracting the maximum amount of aromas without undesirable elements. All grappa production is a process of editing—discarding the first part of the distillation (the sour tasting “head,” containing toxic methyl alcohol) and the last part (the “tail,” containing seed oils and unpleasant aromas). The art of the distiller lies in being able to identify the optimal “heart” of the spirit for bottling.
Italian law allows producers to add sugar and flavoring to grappa and other distilled spirits—up to 5 percent of the volume without having to list those ingredients for consumers—but Capovilla uses no such additives.
After distillation, Capovilla lets his spirits age in either small steel tanks or oak barrels for about five years. Then they are cut with spring water, bringing the alcohol levels down from more than 60 percent to about 40 percent, and bottled.
“It’s like red wine: There is an evolution, and with age you have deepness, complexity and balance,” said Capovilla, who has also evolved.
He has learned that some aromas can be captured by fermentation and distillation and others, such as those in strawberries, are too elusive.
“There are no maestros in this work,” he said. “There isn’t the science and level of understanding you have in wine. The maestros of distillation will come in the future.”