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Ponte Vecchio 2,
Bassano del Grappa,
In an age of globalisation and conglomerates growing steadily bigger, swallowing smaller competitors in their wake, it’s reassuring that family-owned and run businesses continue to thrive and prosper. Established in 1779, by Bortolo Nardini, and still run by his descendants, Nardini is the world’s oldest grappa producer and one of Italy’s oldest companies.
The story of Nardini starts in the town of Segonzano, on the left bank of the River Brenta in the Cembra Valley in the mountainous Trentino wine region. Back in the late mid 1770s, the Nardini family distilled grappa here from pressed grape pomace using double-bottomed copper stills and then sold it from a cart, travelling from town to town. One of these towns was Bassano del Grappa, and it was here that Bortolo Nardini established his grapperia and distillery in 1779 (see ‘location’).
Nardini’s grappa label has remained almost unchanged since it was designed by Remondini in 1779, then a highly regarded family run printing company also based in Bassano. The label features a pleasing early example of subliminal marketing with the word Bassano set boldly and with a slight space between the double ‘s’ and an ‘x’ above, so drawing the eye to the word ‘sano’- meaning healthy in Italian, intended to portray the message that drinking grappa is good for you.
Back in 1779, Bortolo Nardini was ahead of his time with his promotion of responsible drinking. Although much faded over the centuries, you can still see painted on the front of his grapperia bar, “Chi alla vita tiene, beve giusto e beve bene”, which translates as meaning, “He who values life, drinks well and drinks right.”
The distillery and grapperia prospered and in 1860, Bortolo’s grandson became one of the first to introduce steam distillation in grappa production, enabling better quality grappa to be made than was possible by heating the old direct fire heated double-bottomed stills. To this day, Nardini is called ‘B.lo (an abbreviation for Bortolo) Nardini Distilleria a Vapore’, meaning ‘Nardini steam distillery’.
During the First World War the Veneto region was particularly affected by battles, but while times were difficult, the solders developed a taste for the grappa which kept them warm during the long cold nights. After the war, increased demand led the Nardini family to move to just outside the old Bassano city walls in 1929 and expand their distillery. Bottling however remained under the grapperia by the bridge until the 1960s.
Located at No.9 Piazzale Generale Giardino, the distillery has long since moved but Nardini Alto (a nickname meaning upper Nardini) remains, one of Nardini’s three retail outlets in Bassano. This grapperia (bar and coffee shop) used to be the distillery tap and remains a popular spot for locals to stop for a coffee and grappa.
The Second World War saw the Germans destroying Bassano's very strategic, famous adn beautiful Old Bridge but luckily Nardini’s grapperia and attached production centre escaped major damage. After the war, Italian Alpini soldiers (famous for their alpine peaked caps) painstakingly reconstructed the wooden pontoon bridge according to Andrea Palladio’s original 1569 design, which is why the bridge is today called Ponte degli Alpini.
Nardini continued to prosper, helped in part by a move away from sweet liqueurs to grappa in the 1950s and also due to the opening of new export markets. This is also when Nardini introduced oak aging to launch their 'Riserva' Grappa.
In 1964, the Nardini family moved their distillery to its present location, just outside Bassano del Grappa. The move allowed technical advances to be incorporated into the production process, including reduced pressure distillation which allows distillation to take place at lower temperatures, so capturing more flavour from the pomace. The 1964 relocation finally saw bottling move from beneath the grapperia by the bridge. Just 17 years later, bottling moved again, this time just across the street from the new distillery to an ultra-modern, fully automated filling centre, allowing Nardini to satisfy the continuously growing demand for their grappa.
The demand for increased production continued and in the late 1970s, after signing a contact with the distillery’s owners to produce grappa on its behalf, Nardini purchased a continuous distillation column still for installation at the Monastier distillery near Treviso. In 1995 the Nardini family acquired the 1950s built Monastier Distillery and set about a full modernisation of the plant. The majority of Nardini’s distillation and all its recycling has been at Monastier ever since, with the slower, more traditional batch distilling continuing at Bassano. The combined output of the two distilleries is blended to form the signature flavour of Nardini grappa.
A 225th anniversary is worthy of marking in style, so the Nardini family commissioned the famous architect, Massimiliano Fuksas, to design what he calls ‘Bolle’ (bubbles). Fuksas first presented the space-age design, shaped to look like two drops coming off a still, to the Nardini family drawn on a dining plate at the Birraria Ottone restaurant in Bassano.
The very contemporary building took two years to plan and another two years to build, but was inaugurated in time for the 2004 anniversary. It incorporates a research laboratory, impressive auditorium and visitor centre, and is built from materials used in grappa production: glass (bottles), steel (storage silos), water and wood (for the aging process). The very ecological building is heated using water from underground via a specially designed heat exchanger.
Nardini has remained proudly 100% family controlled since it was established by Bortolo Nardini in 1779. Some members of the family work in the business while others pursue unrelated professions, while maintaining their shares and interest in the company. Today Nardini is jointly run by Giuseppe (6th generation), his daughter Cristina and three cousins: Angelo, Antonio and Leonardo, representing the 7th generation of the family. Cristina oversees the financial side of business, Angelo looks after the Italian market, Antonio the international markets, while Leonardo handles Nardini’s three busy retail outlets in Bassano.