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

Italian Wine – Splendido Vino!

Ah, primavera – finally it’s spring, the most joyful season. Grapes are starting to emerge from their long slumber and ease into their growing cycle. Here in the Great Lakes region, we get a hint of the Mediterranean with warming sunshine and breezy, cool nights – and to me, nothing says Mediterranean like a BigSexyRed from Italy.

I had a chance to taste plenty of wonderful Italian wines recently at Vinitaly2017, the giant wine expo in New York City staged by Vinitaly, the “strategic arm of Italian wine abroad.” That means they exist to promote Italian wines – an easy job in the US, I think, since we’re consistently one of the top importers worldwide.

Such expos are trade shows: you take a few hundred winemakers; add a swarm of wine writers, buyers, distributors and geeks; put them in a gymnasium and start pouring. Between pours, you visit seminars such as this one on Barolo and Barbaresco, two hearty reds produced in Italy’s Piedmont region, pictured below.

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Trying to cover Italian wines in one blog post would be ridiculous; almost 400 indigenous grapes grow in 20 wine regions throughout the boot. (Yes, I memorized all 20 regions for my CSW certification exam. No, I couldn’t recite them now.) Those grapes, and scores of other varieties that aren’t native to Italy, are blended in thousands of formulas. It’s said that if you sampled one Italian wine each week, it would take you 20 years to taste all Italian wines. You do the math while I sip.

But we can try, right? For a country that’s less than 70 miles wide at its narrowest point, the mélange of grapes, soils and weather conditions of the Italian Peninsula is vast. It’s a rugged, mountainous country: the Apennines run down its spine, while the Alps dominate the northern boundaries, blocking Arctic air that gives most of Europe its cold winters. At the same time, Italy is almost completely surrounded by seas – the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian, with the Mediterranean Sea and its hot, dry summers just to the west.

Each wine region celebrates its own specialties. Chianti is the headliner in romantic Tuscany, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape. In the northeast corner, tucked under the Alps, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for its crisp whites: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Riesling. On the island of Sicily, Nero d’Avola, the “little black grape,” dominates the hilly vineyards. Abruzzo on the Adriatic Sea presents two stars –  Trebbiano, the white grape known in France as Ugni Blanc, and the delicious red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. And Piedmont produces Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, the biggest, sexiest reds of all, along with the peachy Moscato, sometimes called Asti.

Every year, Italy competes with France as the world’s biggest wine producer – the ranking depends on whom you ask – but it’s responsible for about one-third of global wine production. Italian wine grapes are typically high in acidity, yet medium-bodied, making them ideal for pairing with – you guessed it – Italian foods.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Super-Tuscans = These wines are born of rebellion (which makes me like them even more!). Back in the 1960s, a small number of winemakers in Tuscany decided the Chianti DOC rules, which regulated the kinds of grapes permitted in quality wines, were too restrictive and limited their potential. Until then, Italian wines that didn’t comply with those rules were viewed as vino da tavola – ordinary table wine. The defiant winemakers fiddled with their blends, many adding “forbidden,” non-indigenous grapes such as Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the 1970s, the wines were tagged “Super-Tuscans” and demand – and prices – quickly skyrocketed. Fortunately, Super-Tuscans are no longer a novelty and have become more affordable.

Montefalco Rosso

 

Vino ‘View:  You may have noticed, this bottle of Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC 2013 (14% alc., $21) is empty. That’s because I shared it with a neighbor who loves Italian reds and we drank every drop. This wine benefits from decanting; although our first glass smelled strongly of dark berries, we tasted only chocolate and dried tobacco. (Nothing wrong with that; I love a smoky BigSexyRed.) The fruit emerged in our aerated second glass: blackberry jam, some black pepper and fewer tannins. Notice the thick tears staining your glass as you swirl; you’ll feel heat in your throat from all of that alcohol. And in the long finish, a tart surprise – a hint of lemon rind toward the back of my tongue. Bring on the lasagna!

Arrivederci for now,

Mary

[The Montefalco Rosso was sent to BigSexyReds for reviewing purposes.]