Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bassano transforms waste into alcohol

Ask the Internet and there are many different stories about how grappa was invented, but for the inhabitants of Bassano del Grappa there is no doubt. The local spirit made from distilled grape stems, seeds, skin and other residue left over from the wine production, was named ‘grappa’ after the local mountain, and it was here in 1779 Bortolo Nardini found a way to refine the process.

The problem involved in the distillation of grape pomace is that it produces wood alcohol, which is highly toxic and can cause blindness and sudden death. Wood alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than drinkable alcohol, so it has to be "cut off", before the grappa pops up. At the same time pomace must not burn as this would destroy the taste, so the heating in a bain-marie or by steaming. For this purpose, professional distillers have developed intrinsic devices and appliances, which make the brandy vaporize and condense into small glass containers. It seems very complex, and the job requires so much skill and knowledge that in Italy only authorized grappa makers are permitted to distill pomace. Grape pulp from Southern Italy must therefore pass through a distillery in the North before it can be sold as grappa.

How grappa is distilled today and how it was done 100 years ago, when the distilling master traveled from farm to farm in the early autumn, after the wine had been harvested and pressed, can be seen at the Poli museum in Bassano del Grappa, which also gives you an opportunity to buy and taste the spirit.

And across the street from Poli at the bridge over the Brenta river you will find the "Osteria sul ponte" still run by the Nardini family. On Friday afternoons people are queuing the bridge for a glass, indicating the important role of grappa in the local culture.

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