The six ‘Nobel’ prizes of the vineyards. Bringing together scientists, filmmakers, painters, historians, sociologists, pacifists, conductors, publishers, winegrowers: it is the miracle generated by the shoot that crowds the vines, the Barbatella d’oro (Golden Barbatella), in Friulian Risit d'aur. This is the name of the prize conceived in 1975 by Giannola and Benito Nonino, the “global ambassadors of grappa” honored even by President Ciampi: the purpose was to save and obtain official recognition for the grape varieties native to Friuli Venezia Giulia, which were at risk of disappearing.
Other sections of the prize were to come later: Nonino Letteratura (Nonino for Literature), Premio Internazionale (International Prize), A un Maestro del nostro tempo (To a Master of Our Time). And, in the past fifty years, the stage set up on the last Saturday in January at the distillery, in Percoto-Udine–amidst the vapour of the stills, the fragrance of freshly distilled grappa, Friulian songs and dancing, the long, decorated tables–has featured Luigi Veronelli and Father Turoldo, Gianni Brera and Rigoberta Menchu, V. S. Naipaul and Ermanno Olmi, Peter Brook and Claudio Abbado, Peter Higgs, Fabiola Giannotti and Giorgio Parisi, Emilio Vedova and Edgard Morin... And sorry if I don't list them all, the faces are crowded in my mind, I don't forget them, they are as unforgettable as the evenings at Borgo Nonino–with winter mists, fires lit and glasses full–celebrating peasant culture and all culture.
December 1 marks the watershed date for the world-famous Friulian company (Grappa Nonino exports to 85 countries and has accumulated prestigious awards, including ‘Best Distillery in the World’ in 2019). It marks the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Grappa Monovitigno®, that is, grappa made from the distillation of the pomace of a single grape variety, whereas before then pomaces were mixed together, at random, thus resulting in a product with no precise identity.
It was from that moment that the chrysalis of the poor man's distillate, swallowed down almost without tasting it to fight the cold, began to transform into a butterfly suitable for the finest palates. Giannola [Nonino]–stubborn and feisty–even presented a bottle to Gianni Agnelli, in the elegant cruet with the brand label. The gift was much appreciated and he put in an order immediately.
“On December 1, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Monovitigno® Nonino with a big party. Dad and Mom deserve it; they dared to experiment and they came out winners,” says Antonella Nonino, who with her sisters Cristina and Elisabetta and niece Francesca works for the company, taking the brand around the world.
But the exploit was not easy. “It was a gamble that was initially paid for dearly. On December 1, 1973, when the Percoto stills distilled grappa made only from the pomace of Picolit grapes, Benito and Giannola could have cried. That year, however, the product didn’t sell. It cost too much, and buyers weren’t convinced by the refined contents of the blown-glass cruets, with the brand story on the label: the origin of the raw material, specification of the 100% craft discontinuous steam method, which we have always stuck to without fail, which is why it would only be just for a standard requiring the profile of the grappa to be shown on every bottle.”
But why did it cost so much? “Because winegrowers didn’t want to waste time separating the pomaces. Mamma Giannola used to make the rounds of the vineyards, saying, if you sell them to me sorted by type, I will pay you even fifteen times the usual. So, the winegrowers' wives–at that time financially dependent on their husbands despite working on the farm–accepted my mother’s request to earn a bit on the side.”
The winegrowers didn’t want to waste time separating the pomaces. Mamma Giannola used to make the rounds of the vineyards, saying, if you sell them to me sorted by type, I will pay you even fifteen times the usual. So, the winegrowers' wives–at that time financially dependent on their husbands despite working on the farm–accepted my mother’s request to earn a bit on the side.
A gamble. “It was possible because even back then, Nonino was a valued brand in Friuli. It started with Horace in the late 1800s: he used part of the grappa produced to pay for the pomaces, then considered waste and left by the vineyard owners to the workers. He established the distillery in Ronchi di Percoto, whereas before he distilled it using a traveling still on wheels.
The business continued with Luigi, Antonio and Silvia, my grandmother, who, when widowed, rolled up her sleeves and ran the distillery, the first Italian woman to do this job. Then it was her son Benito's turn, together with Giannola, who followed her husband into the profession in order to assert herself in the face of a hard-working but somewhat overbearing mother-in-law. The company was commercially sound, which allowed our parents to experiment to achieve the highest quality. Which is how they created the first Monovitigno®. It was a great personal victory, which would be followed by market success in equal measure. But, at the same time, they realized that so much agricultural culture was about to be lost: Schioppettino, Pignolo, Tazzelenghe, Ribolla gialla all risked disappearing for good. So, my parents, who wanted to distill grappa from these vines but couldn’t get hold of sufficient quantities of pomace, established the award to encourage winegrowers to cultivate endangered varieties, and Mom began the bureaucratic process of applying for official recognition from the European Community. This led to the creation of the Risit d'Aur.”
There is a sculpture that is lit up in the evening at the entrance to Borgo Nonino made by Marco Lodola. The colored Plexiglas depicts the ‘Dionysian’ silhouettes of Antonella, Cristina and Elisabetta dancing and crushing grapes.
“It represents our vitality and at the same time crystallizes our connection with the vineyards. When we were little girls, Mom would take us in the car for a ride through the rows of vines. Back then, school started in October, so we got to see the grape harvest. I remember that the workers would offer us little ones fruit juice, and my mother a glass of wine. But we would sometimes visit in August as well, as my mother would go to check on the ripening of the grapes. The setting enchanted me because Nature was already beginning to take on the colors of fall. Now these wine tours are all the rage: people visit the vineyards on hikes or cycling tours, or by scooter. My sisters and I also got a taste of harvesting. In Friuli, even today people who own a family vineyard harvest on weekends to make wine for their own use and then bring the pomace to us at the distillery in exchange for grappa. Being on the weigh-in on Saturdays and Sundays was one of the jobs of us girls. This sharing strengthens relationships with the local community.”
In Friuli, even today people who own a family vineyard harvest on weekends to make wine for their own use and then bring the pomace to us at the distillery in exchange for grappa. Being on the weigh-in on Saturdays and Sundays was one of the jobs of us girls. This sharing strengthens relationships with the local community
Does this custom continue in the family? “I took my daughters to the vineyards so that they would experience the harvest with the smell and taste of freshly picked grapes and learn to recognize fresh pomace. Now school starts in September, so I organized it on weekends and on a few occasions I had them miss a few days of school! Or we would go in November, when we harvest the Picolit, a spargola grape that suffers from flower abortion and reaches maturity with grapes that are few but rich in flavor and fragrance, which are then found in our Grappa.”
In the Friulian dialect, grapes are called ue. “That's why the distillate my parents made in 1984 from whole grapes and dedicated to us three sisters is called ÙE®. And the aromatic scents of ÙE® Nonino Fragolino are found in the Aperitivo Nonino Botanicaldrink made with herbs, fruits, roots and flowers. It is 100 percent plant-based, a reinterpretation of the recipe of grandmother Silvia, Italy's first woman distiller.”
Mario Soldati also reveled in the harvests. "He was the first to teach Italians that it is reductive to classify wine as white or red. When the owner of a trattoria asked him to choose between the two colors, he would blurt out: Orrore, orrore! (What horror!) Indeed, in his TV program Viaggio in Italia (Italian Tour), he clearly explained all the aspects of winegrowing. Along with Father Turoldo–who has very strong ties with Friuli tradition–, Veronelli, Ermanno Olmi and Gianni Brera, he simply had to be part of the first juries to judge the Nonino Awards.”
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