Sitting at the bar of Felidia, an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, I was amiably discussing with one of the bartenders the restaurant’s extensive collection of grappas. The majority of the 47 choices, of course, were from Italy, grappa’s nation of origin, although to Felidia’s credit, domestic grappa producers were also well represented. The intriguing bottles on the backbar proved particularly fetching to the eye. Graceful, hand-blown clear glass and opaque bottles in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes—from teardrops and obelisks to onion-like forms and pyramids; and from little half-bottles to imposing one-liter bottles.
Stylish indeed was this display. However, to anyone who has acquired a taste for fine, modern grappa, it’s the seductive, perfumed, earthy nature of what the bottles hold rather than what the bottles resemble that counts. And in many fine Italian restaurants, retail shops, and chic metro bars across the United States, high-quality grappa is generating some buzz.
But isn’t grappa that “nasty kerosene-tasting stuff that, you know, forces you to get false teeth if you drink too much of it,” you may ask, as did the smartly dressed twentysomething standing next to me at Felidia? To an extent, the answer would be yes. In spite of broadening consumer sophistication with regard to wine and spirits, grappa still routinely gets painted with the “takes-the-varnish-off-your-floor” reputation, a tag which has only in the last decade begun to be amended by the emergence of better-tasting, softer products. To most folks, grappas are the rough-edged serfs toiling in the feudal realm of distilled spirits currently ruled by the likes of premium Cognacs, single malt Scotches, and designer vodkas, gins and tequilas. Yet some exploration into the world of grappa may just turn up something equal in quality and nuance to the finest after-dinner spirits on the market.
FOLLOWING THE FOOTPRINTS
Grappa, or as it is frequently referred to in the dusty villages of Italy, vinaccia, is the crystalline, high-proof (typically anywhere from 40 to 52 percent alcohol by volume) distilled liquid made from the fermented juice of grape pomace, the remnants of winegrape pressings.
Derived from the crushed skins, pulp and seeds of winegrapes, grappa is produced throughout Italy and is generally considered to be one of the most elementary of distilled spirits—an authentic case of Distilling 101, if you will. Regardless of which accounts of the history of distilling you adhere to, it is certain that distillation of some forms of grape juice was occurring in Italy by the 12th century. For centuries, grappa has been the peasant’s drink of choice. Farmers in bucolic districts such as Piedmont, the Veneto, Umbria, Friuli, and Tuscany customarily wanted a drink with some giddyup to help patch up their workday wounds and salve their aches for the night, and apparently high tea—complete with cucumber sandwiches and scones—never quite caught on. It was grappa that became Italy’s national spirit.
In France, a minuscule percentage of the leftovers from grape pressings is also distilled into a limpid, rambunctious spirit called marc. Other wine-producing countries have their versions as well. But for some reason grappa has always been branded with a more disreputable status than marc. For a long time this was understandable. In the past, when I sampled grappas and marcs side by side, the grappas in most instances came off as being less smooth. To their credit, though, they also displayed far more in the way of grip, showing greater staying power and flavor intensity. When you stare into a glass of grappa, its mineral-water appearance is deceiving. Innocuous it may seem, but too quick a gulp of old-fashioned, take-no-prisoners grappa will have your head doing a 360-degree twist that would be the envy of Linda Blair. But you don’t have to burn the mucous membranes with a sip of grappa. The old ways, venerable as they tend to be, sometimes require adjustments to attract contemporary imbibers. And that is what has occurred with grappa. Whereas the traditional style of village grappa was renowned for its prickly demeanor, the newer generation of grappas tends to be less aggressive, with more attention being paid to the fruit than to the spirit. As a result, these are altogether fresher on the tongue.
“The key to making a grappa more approachable, at least to me and to distillers for whom I have respect, is to ferment and distill the pomace as soon as it comes to the distillery, within three to six hours after having separated it from the wine,” Angelo Gaja told me some time ago. Gaja is the internationally revered creator of benchmark Piedmont red wines, most notably the legendary Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn. He is, in addition, a distiller of nine grappas, including his superb Costa Russi Unaged Grappa (made from Nebbiolo pomace) and Vigna Rey Unaged Grappa (Barbera).
“Once the Piedmont harvest finishes, we are distilling the very next day. Old pomace, pomace that’s left sitting for weeks and months, makes rougher grappa. When you store pomace for long periods, as was the custom in the past, some unguided, unwanted fermentation goes on in the pomace. It’s better to be punctual and methodical with fermentation and distillation, to keep them under tight supervision,” said Gaja, whose personal definition of the new breed of grappas is “more flowery in nature, especially in the bouquet. They are cleaner, with more natural sweetness.
Speaking of flowery, Antonella Bocchino of Canelli in Lombardy is a fourth-generation distiller of grappa and other exotic distillates. Her ancestors founded the family business in 1898, and when the baton was passed to Antonella and her older brother Carlo, Antonella embarked upon a personal mission to create a new, more delicate and aromatic style of grappa. In 1985, she started to experiment with distilled fruit from indigenous fruit trees. That dabbling led her to do research on infusing flowers into grappa, a long-forgotten tradition. Soon Antonella was toying with the distillation of the oils from the petals of orange and lime blossoms, roses, violets and irises.
“After three years of trial and error, I finally discovered the formulas which allow the maximum essence to come forth in a way that expresses the very soul of the berries and flowers,” explained Antonella Bocchino on a recent visit to the States. The results—Bocchino’s AB Collection—are what I believe to be some of the most delicious, most individual, most delicate clear spirits I’ve sampled during more than 15 years of spirits evaluation.
The sheer elegance, drinkability, and grape extraction found in these exciting and refined spirits offers consumers a broad new panorama of bouquet and taste. From the whistlestop villages of rural Italy, it’s getting safer to say that grappa’s cool.
For the complete text of this article, see the April issue of Wine Enthusiast, beginning on page 50.