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

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What Will Frank and Claire Drink This Weekend?

Stock the liquor cabinet, order some Freddy’s BBQ and put on your best Carolina drawl: it’s time to binge-watch House of Cards, our annual visit with Frank and Claire Underwood. They’re the coldest, most immoral, power-wielding, sexually-all-over-the-place President and First Lady in U.S. history, and I’ve missed them like crazy.

Cuddly they are not – but they do drink with class. Besides, what’s a dead body or two (or three) when the country’s future is at stake? It’s an election year for President Underwood and after a long day of campaigning, he reaches for his favorite 93-proof hooch: Blanton’s Single-Barrel Bourbon.

Whiskey neat

Produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, Blanton’s is a star in the $2.7-billion U.S. wholesale market, thanks in part to President Underwood. (Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the country, but in reality, 95 percent is produced in Kentucky – a state that boasts more barrels of aging bourbon than people.)

Underwood takes his bourbon neat – no mix, no ice to cool it down, not even a twist of lemon. By law, bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, and that’s the taste he likes, with the characteristic Blanton’s undertone of rye. Occasionally, we’ve also seen him sipping Bushmills Irish Whiskey, but bourbon is his first choice.

Put another drink in front of him, though, and of course he’ll accept. We watched him and Claire knocking back shots of $750,000 vodka, a gift from Russian President Viktor Petrov, in Season 3’s third episode. That gold-encased bottle was fake, but it was inspired by the very real Russo Baltique Vodka, which you can add to your cart for a mere 750,000 Euros – about $825,000 U.S.

Claire hasn’t made any drink famous yet. We’ve noticed her (and Frank) sipping Champagne, white wine, red wine – whatever she’s served. Since Viognier is Virginia’s signature grape, she may request it for political reasons, and because it makes a fine wine. This season, we’ll try to notice what’s in her glass when she gets cozy in her cashmere bathrobe.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mash bill = actually liquor lingo, mash bill describes the grain mixture for a distilled beverage. For bourbon, the mash bill would be at least 51 percent corn; the remainder would be rye, wheat or malted barley in any combination.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]