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30 Years of a Grappa Fanatic’s Work

Gianni Capovilla makes prized spirits by distilling rare fruit and the leftover pomace of top Italian winemakers.

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.

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.

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.”

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