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

Green Wine? Nope, Not Even for St. Patrick’s Day

We are, after all, BigSexyReds, not BigSexyGreens.

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Green beer is out of the question, too, because…well…it’s beer. So what else could we drink today? And why green, anyway?

Credit for our green mania goes to St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, born into nobility in about 387 A.D. (Most historians say he was born in “Roman England” or Scotland, but some sources claim he was born in Wales.) He was kidnapped by Irish pirates at 16 and lived as a slave in Gaelic Ireland, tending sheep until he escaped six years later.

St. Patrick later returned to Ireland as a missionary, and he’s said to have used the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, to illustrate the Holy Trinity to pagans interested in Christianity. The green symbolism never quite disappeared, and in the 1640s the Irish Confederation adopted a flag showing a golden harp on a green background. By the 1680s, people began wearing shamrocks and green ribbons to commemorate Irish independence.

The phrase, “the wearing of the green,” comes from a street ballad that honors supporters of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Since then, we’ve associated the color green with Irish nationalism.

Not surprisingly, Irish stout is the most popular drink of the day. Beer lovers worldwide will down about 13 million pints of Guinness today – about 3 million of those pints in the U.S., where we usually drink just 600,000 pints.

But it’s a party, and if you want an alternative to beer, my pick would be green Chartreuse, the only liqueur in the world with a natural green color.

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Now, recommending Chartreuse comes with a caveat. You see, my dad ran a neighborhood pub when I was just out of college, and I worked weekends behind the bar. When friends would stop in, we’d sip green Chartreuse while we talked. And sure, it’s made by monks, so you’d like to think it brings a blessed experience. And it’s made with 130 herbs and flowers, so anything this botanical must be a healthy indulgence, right?

Wrong. The devil is in this stuff. Chartreuse is 110 proof, my friends. There’s a lot of alcohol in that emerald-green nectar, so watch it. And you’re not doing tequila shots here; don’t throw down shot after shot. Sip it icy-cold, in a fine crystal cordial glass if you can, and see how many of those 130 herbs and flowers you can identify.

But you’ll never know how many of them you identify correctly. Only two people in the world know the ingredients in Chartreuse, and they’re not talking.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Pomace = the solids (skins, stems, pulp, seeds) left after grapes are pressed. Pomace often is distilled, transforming it into Grappa (Italy), Marc (France) or Eau-de-Vie (France and the U.S.).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Dustin Gaffke and T Sea, via Flickr/Creative Commons]