Liqueur production at Francoli
The Francoli family have been making liqueurs since the mid 1950s, producing traditional Italian liqueurs such as amaro, sambuca and limoncello, but over the decades have also been at the forefront of new trends such as cream liqueurs in the early 1980s. Their most recent creations being Fratello hazelnut liqueur and Fiorente elderflower liqueur.
Development of new liqueurs starts in the lab with test infusions and distillations with trial batches made before scaling up to full production. They operate a wide variety of different infusion apparatus to allow the best means of extracting natural flavours. However, Francoli are artisanal liqueur makers and production is very much hands on rather than computer controlled.
Grappa production at Francoli
Yield from Francoli family’s own 40 hectares of vineyard is restricted to 7 tonnes per hectare, a total of 280 tonnes of grapes. After pressing for wine making, this leaves 28 to 33 tonnes (10 to 12%) of pomace (vinaccia in Italian), the pressed skins, seeds and stems of the grapes.
Twenty kilos of grape pomace produces about one litre of grappa at 40% alc./vol. and to make enough grappa to fulfil the growing demand for their grappa the Francoli family need at least 5,000 tons of pomace a year. They buy this from other wine makers in their region and nearby regions. It is paramount that they receive the pomace within 48 hours of it being pressed and this requirement means suitable wineries are limited to within 120km radius of their distillery. They are also exacting on the quality of pomace so tend to buy from winemakers with which they have a long established relationship.
The grape harvest, and with it grappa production, starts around the end of August/early September. The pomace of white grape varietals such as Arneis, Erbaluce, Chardonnay and Moscato are received first, followed by red grape varietals such as Barbera and Brachetto, with the late ripening Nebbiolo last to arrive towards the end of October.
Storing the pomace in a way that prevents oxygenation is essential for the production of quality grappa. Traditionally this is achieved by storing in large silos which are covered with plastic tarpaulins weighted down with a covering of sand. As the pomace naturally starts to ferment carbon dioxide is produced. As the CO2 is heavier than air it produces a protective layer under the tarpaulin. However, as fermentation subsides so does the supply of carbon dioxide, and as the months pass so the pomace’s aromatic properties are lost and the risk of oxygenation increases.
Francoli still use silos for pomace that will be used during the early months of September and October but use a more modern sealed storage system to store pomace that will not be used until towards the end of their distilling season, which typically finishes just before Christmas. (Many other grappa producers continue distilling into March so increasing the risk of oxygenation.)
A specially commissioned machine forces the pomace into sausage-like plastic bags, eliminating air as the pomace is compacted. The bags are sealed at each end so ensuring elimination of air contamination. The pomace may be stored in these bags without risk of oxygenation for months, until they are cut open along their length to access the pomace for distillation.
Grape pomace coming from the production of white wines that has not have been left to soak in the must during winemaking is called ‘virgin’ vinaccia. This is rich in sugars but has little alcohol content so must be left to ferment before it can be distilled. Grape pomace from the production of rosé wines will have had some degree of soaking in the must during winemaking so has some alcohol content and is termed ‘semi-fermented’. Red grape pomace which has been fermented in the must during winemaking will already contain sufficient alcohol for distillation when it arrives at the distillery so is termed ‘fermented’ vinaccia.
The fermented pomace is moved from storage (in either silos or sausage bags) to continuously feed the stills which operate 24/7 from the start of harvest to Christmas. A mechanical digger of the type used on construction sites scoops up the pomace and drops it into what’s termed the landing vat. The bottom of this vat has a screw mechanism which pushes the pomace into disalcolatore (stripping still).
Francoli operate two disalcolatore, one dating from 1970 which is horizontal and a modern vertical disalcolatore installed in 2013 to help cope with growing production. Both operate in a similar manner with stem introduced at the bottom of the still and pomace at the top. In the case of the horizontal still a screw pushes the pomace through the still which pressure forces steam through the pomace in the opposite direction. The steam extracts alcohol as it passes through the pomace. The steam leaves the still via a condenser which cools the vapour to a low-strength spirit known as phlegma at 25 to 28% alc./vol..
The modern vertical disalcolatore operates in a similar manner to its older horizontal counterpart. The pomace is continually fed into the top of the still while steam enters the bottom of the still under pressure. Motors slowly force the pomace down across four floors within the still while the steam rises up through the falling pomace, extracting alcohol as it rises up through the pomace.
The art of operating both disalcolatores is to finely balance of the rate at which the pomace is pushed through the still, the temperature (100-104°C) and the pressure, which must be than one atmosphere. If the pomace moves too slowly the result will be over extraction and conversely, too fast results in under extraction.
The phlegma is stored in stainless steel tanks before a second distillation further rectifies the spirit to produce grappa. Phlegma may be stored for many months without denigration of aroma. At Francoli the phlegma of each grape variety is stored separately. Then, in turn, the phlegma of each grape variety is then separately redistilled in the column still.
The column still consists of a set of four interconnected columns, each column containing distillation plates (or trays) arranged like floors in an apartment block. The plates in particular columns separate various components of the phlegm according to their specific boiling point. Phlegm enters the first column with high pressure steam heating the column from the base. The steam vaporises the phlegma with its more volatile components rising to plates higher up the still where the temperatures are lower. Valves located at various levels in the columns allow the extraction of different components.
The first and main column used is actually column No.3. The No.2 column is only used if woody components in the pomace have led to excessive methanol and this is capable of extracting two to three litres per hour. Moscato grape pomace in particular tends to produce a phlegma with high methanol levels. Column No.1 is used to extra oils and heavier less volatile elements.
The distillation columns are part stainless steel and part copper. This is due to the elements within the phlegma being highly corrosive so necessitating the use of stainless steel. However, the elements in the cooler top section of the columns are not nearly so corrosive so copper is used for the construction as this is beneficial in the extraction of methanol. This reacts with the copper to produce harmless copper sulphate. Once all the unwanted elements have been extracted the vapours are condensed and the grappa distillate collected.
The newly made spirit is then rested for a period in inert stainless steel containers. Some of the production is then bottled as unaged grappa but much of it goes onto the aging cellars. Here the grappa is first matured in large Slovenian oak 11,000 litre vats for up to three to four years. Some of the grappa is then bottled but a proportion is moved to small 225 litre French Limousin oak casks to be aged for ten years, producing 12 to 13 year old grappa.
Over the years, oak aging turns the colour from clear to straw yellow, then golden and finally amber. The oak also imparts flavours into the distillate, most notably vanilla, spice, honey and dried fruit.
Francoli were among the first distillers to age grappa and hold one of the largest stocks of maturing grappa.