Brandy Hunting in Northern Italy
Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful place. Located just north of Bologna, the Villa Zarri estate is set in between rolling hills of green. The property itself dates back to 1578 and has hosted scores of parties, concerts, exhibits, and events over those many centuries, but distillation at the site is a rather recent development in context. Everything Guido Zarri does in the distillery is exactly as is done in the Charentes: the grapes are same varietal, the stills are the same shape and size, the proof of the spirit comes off just over seventy as it does in Cognac. It's in the barrel room, however, that Guido changes direction. Rather than age his brandies in used Limosin oak, he starts each distillate off in new oak casks to impart color and intensity before transferring them into refill barrels over time. He also does not top up the barrels to prevent evaporation, instead choosing to transfer the brandies into fewer and fewer barrels as they begin to lose volume. The result is a richer, darker, and more oak influenced spirit; one that does not require coloring agents or added sugar to soften the mouthfeel. The brandies are impressive and all encompassing from the very first sip. But, if you're a modern spirits fan, wait until you taste that concentrated flavor at 59.7%. That's what ultimately convinced to invest in our own single cask of Villa Zarri brandy.
I'd been waiting a long time for this day; the moment when we could start talking about Italy's potential as a serious source of distilled spirits beyond the ubiquitous vermouth, amaro, and herbal liqueur selections that are sweeping the cocktail culture. Distillation has been practiced in Italy since the early days of grappa and medicinal remedies. Unlike what's happening with the craft distillation scene in America, many of the "new" labels we're seeing from Italy come from companies established in the 1800s. In many cases these producers have not only generations of knowledge as it pertains to spirits, but also plenty of back inventory. Take the case of Guido Zarri as an example, the man behind the Villa Zarri brand. In addition to his fantastic amaro, his delicious nocino, and his dangerously drinkable ciliegia, Guido has mature stocks of Cognac-style brandy (distilled from trebbiano, basically ugni blanc grown in Italy) dating back to the late 1980s. As if his incredibly well-priced ten and twenty-one year old brandies weren't enough to persuade you of his prowess, I decided to dig a little deeper into his cellars.
"I want to do a single barrel and I want to do it at full proof. Is that OK with you?" I asked Guido during a phone conversation earlier this year.
"Yes, I actually think it tastes better that way," he replied, almost as if he was embarrassed by that admission.
I laughed and reassured him: "So do a lot of other people."
Why should you buy this brandy? Simple: rarely has a grape distillate ever come this close in my mind to mimicking the best parts of Scotch, Bourbon, and Cognac all in one tidy, cask strength, single barrel package. You get the richness of of the Brandy on the nose; oodles of caramel and creme brulée. You get the power and oak dominance of a Bourbon on the entry, with big spice and bold strength. You get the nuance and complexity of a Scotch on the finish with candied fruit, hints of earth, and rancio notes for minutes after swallowing. There's a reason we went crazy for this brandy after tasting it: it's a dynamic, delicious, and dangerously drinkable spirit, one that completely changes the conversation not just about brandy, but about Italy's role in the further evolution of top quality distillation.