05/12/2012
AN INTERVIEW TO BE SIPPED RESPONSIBLY

The following is an interview of Francesco Fabris by Paola Perfetti for EJournal.


     "The telephone rings. Call from Conegliano to Milan. There’s a smile at the Conegliano end of the line, belonging to Francesco Fabris, son of Pier Liberale, and head of the Board of Directors of standout distillery Andrea Da Ponte. What then unfolds is a long chat that unravels the story of one of those one-of-a-kind, true-as-the-earth Veneto grappas that are a 100% Made in Italy phenomenon, just one more Gold Medal that the “Bel Paese” offers for festive toasts across the globe.

Let’s just say that it’s a history that must be slowly sipped. The roots of the story go back 120 years, and it has been passed down by those who love to promote “the culture and the art of distillation, values that bring to life the unmatchable flavours of Andrea Da Ponte grappas and spirits. Fabris performs his work as a personal vocation, with his gaze always on the future and on his innovations. He finds his strength renewed by the energy that each new day brings, inspired in his search for those special, unique qualities that make his spirits so prized around the globe.”

This is such an exciting journey and told with such passion that one seems to be actually comfortably seated out under the skies, in some Veneto agriturismo, with the Valdobbiadene hills in the background, heart beating as the fragrances of a Prosecco DOCG waft about the rustic scene.


Let’s start with an important item. In the year of its 120
th anniversary, the Distilleria Andrea Da Ponte is able to boast of a new and extremely prestigious tribute that burnishes its history even further: enrolment in Italy’s National Register of Historic Businesses, established by Unioncamere to further honour historic firms and to strengthen their role in the Chamber of Commerce organisation.

Let’s talk about distillation and distilleries. Unfortunately, here in Italy, confusion still reigns on this subject. Let me explain. In Italy, any facility that blends grappas, licensed by the Revenue Office, can be called a distillery. All you would have to do is add water to my product and you can write Distillery above your front door. So what we really have to do is distinguish between true distilleries and manipulators of grappa. Today, Italy has 107 true distilleries. In the past, though, there were thousands, so the number has gone down because of the demonization of alcohol in our country. But we can say that the best of them have survived, due both to good technology and good marketing. Each one stands out for something special. Da Ponte, for example, has been fortunate in its history.


The story, please!

Da Ponte was founded in 1892 by Andrea Da Ponte. Andrea’s brother, Matteo Da Ponte, had a very productive relationship with Enrico Comboni, who at that time had been teaching for three years at the local oenological school, in Conegliano. These three individuals are the ones who made our Prosecco famous as a varietal wine. Of course, today we don’t call it Prosecco any longer, just sparkling wine, and we refer to the grape variety as glera. When glera is grown in the area of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, and then refermented according to the production code, it becomes Prosecco DOCG.


Well, how is that different from the other Proseccos that we drink?

There was a tiff with the town of Prosecco, near Trieste. For us here, “Solomon’s decision” was that we could call it Prosecco DOCG Conegliano e Valdobbiadene, given over 20 years of history. For them, the name became Proseccar.


But let’s go back to Andrea and Matteo Da Ponte.


Andrea went on with the distillation facilities. His brother Matteo, along with Comboni, studied and carried out experiments. In 1895 Comboni moved to the oenological school in Asti, and in 1896 Matteo had printed the
First Manual of Distillation. That’s an important date, because a few years later, Hoepli Publishing in Milan decided to reprint the manual, updated by Matteo Da Ponte. There were four editions. So the first was by Cagnani in Conegliano, then the Hoeplis followed, in 1901, 1909, 1922, and 1935, the year Matteo died and the end of the Hoepli editions.We’re talking here of real collector’s editions, manuals that are still sought-out by anyone seriously interested in the field, they’re in the Scuola Enologica in Conegliano, and in every oenological school.


So from that point on, the distillery refers to the Da Ponte Method.


That’s right, since while Matteo studied and did research, Andrea put those rules into practice, procedures that are still utilised today to produce spirits that are extremely clean.
The judicial verdict in our favour, the “verdict of the distillery,” allowed us to distil the grape that was called Prosecco in the past, and now glera, a variety that is very delicate but with rich aromatics. In 1960, Pier Liberale Fabris (husband of Bruna Da Ponte, Andrea’s daughter, who took over the reins of the distillery after their wedding) had the brilliant idea of ageing traditional grappa in oak barrels. From that time on, grappa became a very high-quality product indeed.


Why is that?

Oh, there are some letters and documents that are quite eloquent on this point. Here’s just one: a modest restaurateur in Paris writes to ask for a case of grappa, since “Messier Mastroianni” is afraid that he won’t be able to find Grappa da Ponte, which he loves drinking with Catherine Deneuve. So from that era on, Da Ponte grappa was a must-drink in all of the best drawing rooms of Italy, sought-after because it was so clean and fragrant, which means that it didn’t smell of grape-stems, like so many of the traditional white-grape grappas. It’s a very smooth grappa that even women can enjoy.


That’s quite a lot of tradition in your history. Where’s the innovation?

The procedures laid down in Matteo Da Ponte’s Manual have been considerably helped by technology. In the past, the grape pomace arrived two, even three days after the wine had been drawn off. Today, we can know ahead of time when the wine will be drained off the pomace and obtain the pomace before 6 hours have passed, before oxidation starts in on what is a very delicate ingredient. So, applying this principle and monitoring all of our systems, we can preserve the fundamental protocols. Da Ponte used to say, “immediately upon arrival of the pomace,” but for him, “immediately” was the arrival of the ox-drawn wagon. Now we have closed tanks, high as a 3-story house, and covered against the rain. Today, Da Ponte uses steel tanks, where the pomace, in the dark and cool, ferments slowly with special yeasts tested over the years, which ensure the capture of all of the gape aromas. This is what makes us stand out.


What is your annual production?

I can’t give you an exact number, since every year there is a lot of variation, mainly the result of the special selection grappas, which carry the Da Ponte image across the globe. I can say that the production of the Vecchia Grappa di Prosecco averages some 350 thousand bottles. But since we are a true distillery, we supply non-aged grappa di Prosecco to others; the grappa aged in oak barrels, which impart the scent of vanilla to the grappa, is exclusively for Da Ponte. So, a selection of the best lots of white grappa, ageing in oak barrels, and bottling and marketing the result is exclusive to Da Ponte. I’m afraid I can’t tell you the names of the companies that buy our grappa, since they too distil, with the difference that I previously explained.


Do you consider yourselves more Venetian or more Italian?

The answer is I-tal-ian. And I say that because I have another good anecdote that’s apropos. In the 1860s, a Da Ponte took off from home and went to Genoa to sail with Garibaldi on his military expedition to conquer Sicily for Italy. His mother followed him and found him in Genoa; since he was already enrolled as a soldier, she had to pay a fine to cover the recruitment and leave expenses. It’s an interesting story, very appropriate, involving an Italian Da Ponte, so much so that today we make a grappa called Fine Grappa Italiana.


So, the very Italian character of Da Ponte. And what are you abroad?

The Da Ponte brand is loved from Sicily clear to London. And you know very well how rigorous and hyper-critical Londoners are about their grappa! Da Ponte brought home the Gold Best In Class in the aged grappa category. In Germany we are sector leader in aged grappas, where about 45% of the sector is the Da Ponte brand; the Vecchia Grappa di Prosecco is sold in Germany, and the Germans visit us in droves when they find out who we are, they are so enthusiastic over the origins of Prosecco! They come to us for that personal connection to Vecchia Grappa di Prosecco. We’re also in France, a bit in Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, even in Australia, and that with a few thousand bottles. Not a lot, perhaps, but we’re there, and above all we’re doing well in markets with a grappa culture.


Distilleria Andrea Da Ponte: www.daponte.it


Paola PERFETTI
www.italynewsweek.com


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