Grappa – Your New (Very Old) Brandy

When I started learning about wine and spirits, I was told grappa was more or less the garbage of the liquor world. There is a sliver of truth in that bias; after all, it’s distilled from pomace – seeds, stalks, skins and pulp, the parts of the grape most winemakers throw away.

But there the similarity ends. I tasted some fine grappa last week as part of the American delegation touring wineries in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. (I won’t rub it in too much about the Italy thing,  but I’ll share more about it in the coming weeks.)  For my money, discovering grappa was a highlight of the trip.

IMG_0541[Jamie Stewart, brand manager of Cantine Ferrari Trento, with a few of the winery’s 19th-century gadgets.]

Typically a digestivo, or after-dinner drink (because it’s believed to be good for digestion), grappa is today’s spirits trend, made by more than 100 producers and selling about 40 million bottles a year, though it’s been produced since the Middle Ages. Back then it was an easy, cheap way for farmers and vineyard workers to warm up.

Some classify grappa as an eau-de-vie – and in France, brandy distilled from grape pomace is called eau-de-vie de marc (pronounced “mar”). Other sources say eau-de-vie refers to brandy made from raw materials other than grapes.

Some producers distill their grappa in pot stills or column stills, but others use steam distillation, believing a direct flame could burn the pomace. The drink can be produced from one grape variety or a blend; single-variety grappa (at least 85 percent one variety) is sometimes called monovitigno. And it comes with requirements: fermentation and distillation must happen on the pomace with no added water. The stems in pomace can create small quantities of toxic methanol that must be removed, so Italian law prohibits grappa from being produced in a winery – distillation must take place in a separate facility. And in the EU (European Union), it can only be labeled “grappa” if it’s produced in Italy or San Marino, a tiny republic surrounded by the mountains of north-central Italy. But craft distillers in the US, who aren’t restricted by those labeling laws, are starting to produce some fine artisanal pomace brandies and labeling them as grappa.

The grappa I sampled, reviewed below, was produced by the Ferrari group (no relation to the car, though their wines are just as elegant) in Trentodoc, the cartel of sparkling wine producers in Trentino. You’ll notice it’s caramel-colored. When grappa is stored in glass or other “inactive” materials before bottling, it’s a clear spirit like vodka. Aging it in wooden casks gives it color; if it’s called Vecchia or Invecchiata it was aged for at least 12 months in wood. Grappa labeled Riserva or Stravecchia aged in wood for at least 18 months. My grappa underwent a fractional aging/blending process called a solera system.

Sip your grappa slowly, from a small glass – it can be potent stuff. And look at the alcohol content on the label before you buy; mine is a smooth 84 proof but you can find it lighter – or as raw as throat-scarring 120 proof.

IMG_0543Vino ‘View:  Grappa Segnana Solera Selezione (42 percent alc., about $40 US) After I was treated to a taste of this sublime spirit I couldn’t pull out my wallet fast enough; I had to take a bottle home. Made of 60 percent Pinot Nero and 40 percent Chardonnay, it blends five vintages in a solera process: some brandy from the oldest French oak barrels is bottled, then brandy from each vintage’s barrels tops off the next oldest, and the progressive blending continues each year. The barrels impart a roasted, vanilla, smoky flavor mixed with dark fruit and a long, fruity finish. Don’t look for Grappa Segnana on store shelves in the US; you’ll have to order it online. Google for the best price.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Caffé Coretto (“corrected coffee”) = What you’ll drink if you add a shot of grappa to espresso. Or make it Resentin (“little rinser”) – drink your espresso first, then down a shot of grappa from the same cup.

Ciao!

Mary

In Praise of Cheap Blackberry Brandy

My last few weeks were spent on the couch, nursing bronchitis, doing as little as possible and coughing a lot. There’s not much you can do to comfort a sick person – sometimes an illness just has to run its course – but I did find some soothing relief in a drink I remembered from my childhood: blackberry brandy.

We’re not talking Cognac or Armagnac here. Leave the Hennessy for a better day. When your chest is congested and you’re on your fifth box of tissues, reach for the bottom-shelf stuff. It’s the only kind that works.

Brandy

The word “brandy” is a modern version of the Dutch word, “brandewijin,” or “burnt wine.” Dutch traders in the 16th century distilled their wine to help preserve it while it was shipped to Holland. Shipments also were taxed according to volume, and without the water their shipments were smaller. They intended to add water back into the higher-alcohol liquid on arrival, but once their customers sampled the distilled version, more potent and tastier after being stored in wooden casks, they liked it more than the original wine.

My mom used to pour me a little blackberry brandy when I had a bad cold. She said it would make me feel better – and as it turns out, Mom knew what she was talking about. Brandy, blackberry in particular, has healing qualities that have since been documented, I kid you not. A few things medical researchers have learned:

  • Blackberry brandy is packed with antioxidants, especially vitamin C, which helps protect against damage by free radicals. (For that reason, some advocates say it also helps prevent the spread of cancer, but I think that might be stretching it.)
  • In moderate amounts, blackberry brandy boosts heart health and your immune system.
  • Again in moderate amounts, blackberry brandy helps you to relax. Duh.
  • Blackberry brandy can help with sleep issues. That’s why it’s often served after dinner; in olden days people believed it helped them prepare for sleep.
  • A 2009 study in the journal Food Chemistry showed that the longer blackberry brandy ages, the higher its antioxidant levels.
  • The brandy’s antioxidants have anti-aging qualities.
  • Blackberry brandy contains selenium, a cancer-fighting mineral.
  • Finally, the quality most useful to me this summer: blackberry brandy aids with respiratory issues; it helps to loosen phlegm and mucus. To me, it just feels better than other spirits for a chest cold.

It doesn’t take much before you can feel its healing effects. I usually poured a 1- or 2-ounce shot and sipped on it for an hour or two. And if you’re not sick but want to relax with a drink of brandy, serve it in a stemmed “tulip glass” or “balloon glass,” made of the finest crystal you can afford. Don’t swirl brandy in the glass; that mixes and dissipates its subtle aromas. I like my brandy neat, with no ice or mixer, but if you feel like experimenting, you can find plenty of brandy cocktail recipes online.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Brandy = distilled wine or fruit juice. When wine is distilled, in simple terms, the water in the liquid evaporates. Without the water, the more condensed liquid has a much higher alcohol level than the original wine. The Paramount brandy in the photo above is 37.5% alcohol, or 75 proof – almost as high-proof as many whiskies.

Vino ‘Views:  Once I started feeling better, my taste for wine returned (thank goodness!). Since it’s been such a hot summer, I opened what I thought would be a crisp white: 2015 Tariquet Classic (10.5% alcohol, $9.99).

Tariquet small

With its low alcohol level, this Gascony creation is a great summer-evening wine – but we were surprised it’s so young, because it tastes much more “together” than that. It’s a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon and Gros Manseng – dry as August and fruity as the tropics. The first taste in my mouth was bananas, then some melon came through, and finally soft citrus. We drank it with fried chicken and coleslaw – a wonderful value and delicious!

Sip in good health!

Mary

On World Cocktail Day, I’ll Take Mine Neat

Roh-roh–another Friday the 13th is upon us. But this one’s lucky because it’s also World Cocktail Day, when the spirits-lovers the world over celebrate their favorite mixed drinks.

Manhattan

This day marks the anniversary of the first time the word “cocktail” was seen in print, though a rivalry of sorts has developed over who published it first. One school says that historic mention appeared on May 13, 1806, in a publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository. That entry read, “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

But, students of hooch should know, the venerable Oxford Dictionary also claims to have been the first to mention cocktails on that same day, with this definition: “An alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream.”

They might both be wrong. BigSexyReds found two earlier references on another blog (Diffordsguide.com), one in London’s Morning Post and Gazetteer (1798) and another in a US agricultural manual, The Farmer’s Cabinet, in 1803.

The origin of the word itself might have evolved from a description of mixed-breed horses who, unlike thoroughbreds, had tails resembling “cock’s tails.” Since a cocktail is another kind of “mix,” the name stuck. And, spirits-geeks, May 13 also is the day Harry’s Bar in Venice, birthplace of the Bellini cocktail, first opened in 1931.

What isn’t disputed: cocktail-concocting has launched thousands of careers. Mixology is a  more creative endeavor all the time, and some experts credit the recent surge in popularity (and quality) of premium spirits. Bartenders have had to up their game, and we all benefit from their creativity.

My favorite cocktail is the Manhattan. I still get a headache when I remember my first: I was a teenager, my dad had just discovered the fun of mixing drinks, and long story short, I slept through Christmas.

I’ve tempered my cocktail habit since then, but I still love the way bourbon, my favorite spirit, glides over my tongue when it’s blended with the other ingredients. There’s no way to ruin a Manhattan, so go ahead and experiment. Here’s a basic recipe:

Ingredients:   2 oz. bourbon or rye, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, 2 dashes bitters, brandied cherry   garnish.

Combine all ingredients, add ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail or coupe glass and garnish with brandied cherries.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vermouth = created in the Piedmont wine region of northern Italy in the 1700s, vermouth is a red or white fortified wine, infused with about 100 aromatic spices, barks, herbs and flavorings, including ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, rhubarb and chamomile. You can drink vermouth alone or mix it into a cocktail. Red vermouth usually is sweet, while white can be dry or off-dry.

Enjoy your cocktails! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits, just click the “Follow” tab in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and future BigSexyReds.com posts will come to you by email.

Thanks!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of Holly, Flickr.com.]