Grappa's New Day
Italy's tranforming their trademark firewater into a sophisticated sip.
Photo by Jon Van Gorder
"Rustic," "fierce," "savage" and "numbing"—these were among the terms used to describe grappa a mere generation ago. And those were the positive reviews. A typical grappa, northern Italy's traditional, grape pomace-based distilled spirit, was so fiery and feral prior to the 1970s that intrepid drinkers would be relieved if their tongue wasn't scorched to cinders after sipping the clear libation. Many grappas of the period reeked of nail polish and tasted of diesel fuel. Drinking grappa was considered a rite of passage in some social circles.
Grappa was first created in Italy's northern provinces near the Alps around the 14th century A.D. In the late autumn, after the grape harvest, winemakers would collect the partially fermented by-product of wine production—the leftover juicy grape pulp, seeds and skins known as pomace—and sell it to traveling distillers. These distillers boiled the pomace in small, mobile copper alembics (pot stills), creating a potent vapor in the intense heat. When the vapor was cooled in copper coils, it condensed, becoming the crystalline, fragrant and high-alcohol (50 to 60 percent) liquid called grappa.
A Roster of Italy's Foremost Grappas and other Brandies
Classic (96-100)/ Highest Recommendation
Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
This abrasive tipple was touted for a number of applications among the peasant population that farmed Italy's countryside, in addition to its properties as a mood-altering elixir: as a heating fuel; as a vitamin supplement; a restorative for weary pilgrims; a cure for impotence; and even as a medicine. Flavorings, like honey, flowers and herbs, were commonly added to primitive grappas to help mitigate their oily, harsh flavor. Sometimes water was added to lessen the impact of the elevated degrees of alcohol. By the 18th century, grappa was being produced in most provinces on the Italian peninsula.
From rustic to rarefied
For centuries, grappa was considered the lowbrow cousin of more elegant European brandies, most notably France's Cognacs, Armagnacs, fruit brandies called eaux-de-vie, and even Italy's own pomace-based spirit known as marc. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, globalization and the expanding international marketplace demanded that changes be made. And the producers themselves realized that the only way to combat grappa's thuggish image was to modernize production methods. Independent of one another, a handful of Italy's master distillers took steps to alter the international perception of their native distillate.
One of the most critical innovations was the brainchild of Giannola Nonino, the wife of Benito Nonino, the distiller for the family that had been producing grappa in Percoto Udine, Fruili since 1897. Giannola convinced her husband to try distilling the pomace of individual grape types separately rather than mixing those of multiple grape varieties together. Their inaugural single-grape attempt centered on a local grape variety, Picolit, known for its ethereal delicacy and success in dessert wines. Benito distilled a meager 10 gallons for the experiment. The resultant grappa eclipsed Benito's other grappas in terms of freshness, complexity and refinement.
Excited, Benito found small bottles in a chemical supply store and bottled the Picolit grappa. A small and closely knit community, northern Italy's grappa industry was soon abuzz with the Nonino's distinctive, sophisticated grappa. Within a couple of years other distillers started dabbling with their own single-grape grappas. Today, Nonino Grappa Cru Monovitigno Picolit is viewed as the groundbreaking achievement that ushered in a new era of advancements for the entire Italian grappa industry. Nonino now offers an impressive and varied menu of single-grape grappas, including those made from Merlot, Chardonnay, Moscato, Tocai, Prosecco, Sauvignon, Malvasia, Fragolino and Refosco grapes.
But Benito and Giannola were hardly finished. In 1984, they raised the bar further by bringing into the marketplace an entirely new style of grappa called Ue (pronounced, oo-ay). Ue is distilled from whole grape clusters of a single variety from a single vineyard. This new class of grappa brought the grapes' concentrated aromas and flavors to levels never before experienced in grappa. Now, daughters Cristina, Elisabetta and Antonella Nonino operate their own distillery, producing their own intriguing grappas, in particular, two gems made from distilled honey.
Another keen innovator in the 1980s was fourth-generation distiller Antonello Bocchino, whose great-grandfather, Carlo, founded Bocchino in 1898 in Canelli, Piedmont. Antonello saw what revolutionary things were being accomplished in Friuli and decided to experiment with the oils from the petals of flowers, specifically roses, irises, orange blossoms and orchids, as well as fruits other than grapes, especially local berries like the corbezzolo. But learning to deal with such fragile aromas and tastes consumed lots of time. Three years later, Antonella at last arrived at the processes that accentuated the core characteristics of the flowers and berries. The results were magical. While Antonello produces several of the finest mainstream grappas, it is her stunning flower petal (most notably, the A Bocchino Collection Fiore di Rosa) and berry spirits (the A Bocchino Collection Bacche di Corbezzolo) that people rave about.
Distiller Jacopo Poli's family has been making grappa in the Veneto since 1898, but in the 1980s, Jacopo began to emphasize the importance of sourcing only the best remnants from Italy's finest vintners for his pomace. Rather than allowing the pomace to sit around for days, stewing and fermenting on its own, Poli realized that in order to capture the innate freshness of the grapes, he needed to distill the pomace as soon as possible. As a result of his efforts, Jacopo Poli grappas are among the most renowned in the world, known primarily for their mesmerizing ripeness and juiciness.
Where grappa goes from here
No longer the butt of snide remarks and rude monikers ("Italy's moonshine," "rotta-gutta," "Vito's white-lightning"), grappa's new generation is considered by distilled spirits authorities as being one of the finest digestif brandies available. Grappa has become so elegant and trendy that it has even inspired non-Italian distillers, like Northern California's highly esteemed Germain-Robin distillery, to produce their own versions of it.
Sublimely complex yet approachable, contemporary Italian grappas typically range in strength from 40 to 45 percent alcohol. The best are produced from single grapes cultivated on single estates. A growing number are matured in wood barrels, and some are infused with natural flavorings such as camomile, anise, mint, cloves, juniper and caraway seeds.
For years, more than a few Italian bartenders have been using grappa in drinks such as the Grappa Sour, the Livia Collins, the Grappa Fizz and the Grappa Julep. Where grappa really shines is as an ingredient with black coffee or, better, espresso. One of the newest rages in metropolitan Italy in the warm summer months is adding a dash of grappa to iced coffee. While purists may blanch at the thought of employing grappa in cocktails or other drinks, they should consider that there is ample precedent: Pisco, the South American grape brandy that is the spirit base for the Pisco Sour, and other brandies are widely used in mixed drinks. So grappa has every right and reason to be a cocktail ingredient.
Truth is, thanks to the vision of a handful of determined distillers in the 1970s and 1980s grappa has, with justification, gripped Italy…and the cultured culinary world.