Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Booze Tourism: Grappa Trail

picturesque stills at Distilleria di Francesco

Not being the kind of people to be content with moving house, having a new bathroom installed and a first child being well on the way all at once, the Cake family (minus Ruby the cat, who’s a bit of a homebody) decided another trip to Italy was due – before it was impossible for Mrs Cake to travel. It was to be like the Tuscan Adventure we took you on er… year before last, was it? Only this time we (or rather I) would do a bit of planning in advance.

We selected, somewhat arbitrarily, the general area of Lake Garda in Italy’s north. We could fly to the airports of Bergamo or Venice for reasonable prices, and both of these would be within easy driving distance of our final destination.

You don’t really need to know how we arrived at our various decisions, but we flew into Bergamo (to the East), and found a nice mountainside apartment overlooking the bay and town of Salo on Garda’s west shore. If you like what you see and read here, you can book the same property through Roy, here


The Tuscan Adventure sure was fun, but we’d somehow gone with the expectation that everything would just fall into our laps, which it didn’t – at all. We still got to try lots of wine (or Mrs Cake did, at least. I was drivin’), but this time there would be more at stake. For one thing, Mrs Cake’s birthday fell right in the middle of the week in April that we chose to go, so it would be worth ensuring there were one or two special excursions organised to assure success. For the other… this is grappa country. To the west of Garda you have Brescia, where they make grappa. To the east, you have Bassano del Grappa, home of the Grappa Museum, and where grappa was actually invented. Then, to the north you have Trentino where grappa, if not king, is the king’s favourite son. Together it all forms a kind of grappa triangle. Yes, if I was a little disappointed with the focus they seem to place on grappa in Tuscany, there would be no chance of that this time around.

I set about doing as much internet reseach as possible, and found lots of potential places to visit –but we’ll go into a bit more detail about that as we progress. On with the show.

Supermarket – Franciacorta and large beers

The first stop, after collecting our car that Sunday morning and driving the hour or so from Bergamo to our apartment in Peracque, was always going to be finding the local supermarket and stocking up on supplies – most importantly beers and grappa, for drinking during the week.

The beer selection at the Italmark was a bit disappointing. I was hoping there would be a selection from the nearby Manerba Microbrewery, but the only Italian beers I found were the standard (though excellent) Morettis and Peronis. Other than that, it was all German beers. They at least would count to my distinct beers tally, so I opted for 4 or 5 of those, figuring we’d find the microbrewery later in the week. They weren’t spectacular; Dreher, Forst, Ceres and Wuhrer were all average, while Viktor was sub-standard.

The grappa section was an entirely different matter – so many choices, and so cheap… I could have fulfilled my take home quota of three bottles quite happily right there, but I didn’t consider that for a moment. I already knew it was going to be almost impossible to restrain myself as it was. It was only Ryanair’s luggage policy that would be keeping me on track. We had paid to bring only one item of hold luggage, and that entitled us to only 20kg in weight. We’d managed to keep that down to 15kg on the way out, but we’d kept our hand luggage light and were prepared to layer up on clothes if necessary. Considering that Mrs Cake would want to be bringing wine back also, that looked the most likely outcome. Time would tell.

There was no need to worry at that stage however. There was a whole week to enjoy first, starting with my supermarket grappa selection. I wasted no time in selecting the Grappa di Pinot Franciacorta, basing my choice on the fact that it came in a champagne style bottle with 43 ABVs. It turns out it was a fairly local product, being from Gussago, in the north west of the town of Brescia.

It’s been quite hard to find definite information on this one, but it seems that while this is a white grappa, it may have been aged for between 6 and 12 months. It certainly has what I would call a more syrupy mouthfeel than other white varieties of grappa that I’m certain are unaged, and I can confirm that I enjoyed it very much over the ensuing week.At just over 15 euros for 70cl I’d consider this one a definite bargain.

Grappa tour

Tuesday was the day I was most excited about. That was the day I’d arranged to drive up to the Trentino region to try and visit some grappa distilleries, rounding off with a tour of the Mezzacorona winery. Why had I decided upon the Trentino region north of Garda, when our base was actually in the environs of Brescia (to Garda’s south west), and Bassano del Grappa was just north of Verona, to Garda’s east?

Well, the reason are threefold:

First, on searching for grappa distilleries in the Garda area, I immediately came across a website that is devoted to Trentino grappa producers, thus making it very easy to find out which ones were obviously open to visitors, find out exactly where they were, and contact them to see when we might visit them. Nothing of that kind existed for Brescia (as far as I could see – take note, Brescia), while the area around Bassano del Grappa seemed [at least] to have a far lesser concentration of distilleries. In Trentino there were at least 27 within around an hour’s drive of each other.

Second, Google Maps suggested the drive up to the Trentino region would be far more interesting and picturesque – as it hugged the Garda shoreline almost the whole way – than would a drive along the highways and motorways that would take us west or east.

Third was the website I found that suggested visits both to the winery of Mezzacorona and the estate of Tenuta San Leonardo that I had arranged for us to see on the Friday (that we’ll be talking about a little later). Mezzacorona was near the town of Trento, and therefore a mere 40 minute drive further than Distilleria di Francesco, the first distillery on my itinerary, after which, another hour and a quarter’s drive further north would lead us to Distillery Dallavalle Rossi of Anaunia.

That all seemed very doable at the time of planning, but as you’ll see, while that wasn’t so much the case, what actually transpired was much better anyway.

Beyond those initial considerations, my criteria for distillery selection was based upon how interesting the output of each potential distillery appeared to be (based upon a cursory glance at the products on their websites!). I had to rule out Segnana because they told me we could visit their winery, but that the distillery would be closed during the period of our visit. Nevertheless, I was hoping that once we got to the region we would see signs pointing in all directions, leading us to more distilleries than we could possibly take in.

As the holiday approached, the reality of being able to make those three stops began to seem more remote. It would pretty much mean 4 hours of driving in each direction, which might be a bit much for the pregnant Mrs Cake, who was designated driver, to handle. I decided to take one for the team as it was the week of her birthday, and crossed Distillery Dallavalle Rossi of Anaunia off the itinerary.

So away we went, leaving our base at around 11am with a list of Trentino distilleries and addresses, which would hopefully give us time to make our first stop and have lunch before the tour I’d arranged at Mezzacorona began at 1530. I’d tried very hard to schedule actual timings, but beyond responses from distilleries saying, “yes, you can come and visit, just let us know when”… I’d received nothing further, so I didn’t know what time they would like us to arrive. I eventually stopped worrying about it, and figured we’d just rock up when we got there.

We rolled into the village of Frazione Santa Massenza around lunchtime and, despite specifically looking for Distilleria di Francesco, we actually found it was home to five distilleries in total, all situated within YARDS of each other. But it was lunchtime, and we would soon find out that everyone is closed at lunchtime which, you know, is fair enough, but you would have thought that someone at one of the distilleries I had e-mailed about visits and timings would have said, “don’t come at lunchtime”. Again, to be fair, they don’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Italian – a problem I intend to remedy (by learning Italian, not teaching them English) – before the next time I visit, but still.
at the Maxentia distillery
 It wasn’t a massive problem. We pulled into the car park at Maxentia and figured we’d knock on some doors. A guy came down, took us into his showroom and offered a tasting. I asked if we could see the distillery first and he agreed, though seemed surprised that we wanted to. It was basically a small still setup in a garage (kind of), but that made it even more interesting to me. The last stills I’d seen in the flesh were the ones at the distilleries on Islay, stills which are… Christ, I don’t know how many times bigger than this: big.

He didn’t speak any English, but he explained how the process worked and where the grappa came out. We excitedly tried to make out what we could and carry on a conversation. It would have been nice to have been able to ask some questions like, how many bottles does he produce, how often do they run the still, where do they get the marc from, where is the product distributed… oh, all kinds of things. It is also nice to retain a bit of mystery.

We went back to the showroom and were given very generous samples of four, five, maybe even six expressions – all, as ever, reasonably priced. I decided my first purchase would be a standard white variety, the Nosiola, which you will be able to read about in a later post – after I’ve opened it of course.

Before we left, we asked if he knew whereDistilleria di Francesco was, since that was where we were intending to go in the first place, and he pointed us around the corner, but didn’t give any indication that we should maybe wait until 1.30 as Francesco would be likely to be having lunch and might not want disturbing.

Francesco’s distillery was gated, and the gate was closed. We rang a couple of buzzers outside but, receiving no response, thought we’d go and knock on at any other distilleries we could find. At this point we didn’t know quite how many of them were just around the corner, and we hadn’t connected the lack of access to lunchtime yet. We just thought that maybe people weren’t in. They probably didn’t get many visitors, so it wasn’t likely they’d be waiting to greet us.

Just to the other side of Maxentia was another distillery, though I’m afraid I seem to have lost the map that I was relying on to remind me what it was called. It seemed to be at the bottom of an apartment building where the various doors were unlocked, but there was no one around. A few old bottles were on display, and we were able to pick up a leaflet which had mapped out all the distilleries in the village. We headed on to the next one, which was just around the corner, that again, I was relying on the lost map to remind me of. At this one, the radio was on, but there was no one around.

the old still at Casimiro
The final distillery was Casimiro. We knocked once again, and were let in by the owner’s daughter who was able to tell us in good English that it was lunchtime, but it was fine for us to come in, though it wouldn’t be possible for us to see the distillery, as a lady upstairs said so. In the end though, the father, who I am assuming is Bernardino Poli,  came down, and said that would be ok also. Once again, it was a small operation, but as well as the new still, we were able to see the original one which had only recently been replaced.

I opted to purchase the Ritocchi nel Tempo this time, which we were told was aged for 2 years (though it says a minimum of 18 months on the website), and we went back to sit in the car for 10 minutes until it was 1330, which is when we had now been informed that the various distilleries would be open once again.

And so on back to Distilleria di Francesco, where this time the gates were wide open. Mrs Cake urged me to just drive in and park up. Still there appeared to be no one around, so Mrs Cake approached the distillery building, knocked, and then tried the door.

Look at this,” she said. I went over and peered in to see a spacious and tidy display area with two pristine stills in one corner.

This is a bit more encouraging,” I ventured, “though I’d feel more comfortable if there were someone around…”

It was then that a familiar face from the Trentino grappa web page emerged and I offered a greeting. Like at the previous distilleries, he seemed bemused as to why we should be there. Is it that it wasn’t peak season? Do they just not get many visitors? They must do, given the well appointed display room each distillery has for tastings and such, but still… perhaps we just seemed more enthusiastic than your average visitor. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t get so many from the UK.

Well, as you can see, we got a couple of pictures, and I bought a five year old variety this time as well as two grappa glasses. I thought I probably should have gotten more of those, but at that point we were expecting to come across more, branded with the names of various distilleries. We didn’t, but thinking about it, it’s unlikely I’m ever going to need more than two grappa glasses at a time anyway – as I keep saying, I’m the only one in the UK who seems to like it.

Thanks to the friendly and welcoming people at these tiny distilleries, and the generous samples they provided… it was time for Mrs Cake to take over the driving for the next leg. I had a nice grappa glow going on, and any further driving for me would not be smart. Mrs Cake had restricted herself to one or two sips, and thusly it was onto the drive to Mezzacorona. There were two distilleries in Santa Massenza that we didn’t go back to, but by this point I’d already bought three bottles, which was my full allowance, so I didn’t want to go and get free samples from other places and not be able to buy anything – it would seem a little rude. We’ll come to Mezzacorona next time, but I’ll leave you now with some closing remarks.

First, let me urge you once again to give the spirit world of grappa a chance. I really don’t get why it is such an unknown entity among so many people, and an un-liked entity among others, but that’s by the by. If you do get into it, there’s a whole country of it (Italy) out there where it is plentiful and reasonably priced. Yes, it is more expensive in the UK and there isn’t as much variety so, really, you do have to go to Italy, but why aren’t you going to Italy anyway? You should be. And if you do, I recommend you do a bit of a grappa trail of your own. You don’t even need to announce yourself or arrange any tours, just show up – but not at lunchtime.

This was a real thrill for me, and a bit of a surprise that these distilleries were very small scale, artisan operations. There are companies producing grappa on a grander scale in Italy, but if like me, you’re always on the lookout for something unusual that you probably can’t get in a supermarket and definitely can’t get back home, these are the kind of places you owe it to yourself to go to.

I did have a good look around everywhere we went, at the grappa in the boutique liquor stores and in the supermarkets, and there was a dizzying array of interesting varieties, but I never saw any of the ones I picked up in Santa Massenza. I suspect distribution is limited and, in all honesty, that was the only day we spent in the Trentino region. Perhaps the more immediate environs of Lake Garda tends to stick to varieties more local to itself. That’s something to find out next time – I fully intend for there to be a next time.

So if they’re reading this, to the producers we met on this trip, thanks for your hospitality and keep up the good work. To the ones we missed, hopefully we’ll see you next time.

As for you, readers, if you join me next week, you can read part two, where we’ll be visiting a couple of wineries, summing up, and commiserating over things we missed. I’ll hope to see you then.

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