While on a trip to attend Vinitaly (the annual Italian wine trade exposition in Verona) a restaurateur friend of mine and I wandered into one of the innumerable coffee bars to have an espresso. Oddly, the barrista asked if we wanted our espressos “corrected“. We were surprised (it was 9 a m), but not shocked, since we knew that espresso can be “corrected“ with a splash of grappa or other distillates.
Many Italians won’t dream of gulping an espresso not “corrected“ appropriately. Of course, outside of Veneto, where well over 20 percent of all grappa in Italy originate, people are inclined to promote it blatantly. This major wine-producing region now boasts many grappa distilleries the largest of which is Distilleria Bottega that has actually revolutionized the industry. Today it produces some 70 percent of all the grappa sold in Italy.
Grappa used to be, and to a large extent, still is the distillate of vignerons. They enjoy a glass or two of grappa after a meal and blend it into their coffee with fellow professionals. Grappa is simply the un-aged and unrefined distillate of grape pomace.
In France it is called marc and in German speaking countries, i.e Germany, German-speaking Switzerland, Austria trester, in Spain orujo, and eastern Mediterranean countries raki. A few marc bottles from Burgundy or Bordeaux find their way to our shores, but end up in the hands of connoisseurs in search of rare distillates.
Grape skin distillates have been around since the 14th century, a century later than the invention of distillation, but never really gained popularity, mostly because of its rough (rustic) taste and texture.
Over the past two decades, Italian distillers and a few wineries have been able to change the style, status and quality for the better. The key to grappa quality and taste lies in ingredients, equipment and technique.
The best grappa comes from lees that are separated from pips upon arrival at the distillery. It is tedious and time-consuming work but yields the best results. Subsequently the skins are pressed, and then distilled either in alembic style or continuous stills.
While in the past distillers claimed grape variety to be unimportant, today, young, well-educated and ambitious professionals make and market varietal grappas successfully.
Equipment and technique play a very important role. The best use alembic-style small, steam-powered stills and batch distil. Continuous stills are much more efficient and less expensive but neutral grappas.
By law, grappa must be distilled out at maximum of 86 percent alcohol by volume to capture varietal characteristics. The distillate is then diluted to 51 – 55 percent, some times 40, and at least in one case (Distilleria Bottega to 38. Sandro Bottega, the owner of the distillery claims that aromas are appreciated better at this level of alcohol) percent pending on the market. High alcohol concentrations block congeners from remaining in the distillate, hence a high-octane grappa lacks characteristic aromas.
Distillates born from fermented grape juice cannot simply be called grappa; but must be labelled aquavite d’uva.
Climate and geography play an important role. Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, Gewurztraminer and Muscats yield more aromatic grappas than Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even Sangiovese.
Steam- distilled grappas have a much cleaner, smoother and pleasant taste (without scorched flavours), as grape skins are subjected to moist heat.
Another contributing factor is ingenious and artful packaging. Some distillers have even commissioned famous Murano glass blowers to create unique bottle shapes and sizes in an attempt to attract attention.
Outside Italy, grappa was popularised by millions of Italian restaurateurs
(North America, Argentina, Australia and northern Europe) plying their trades.
Many famous wineries, Mastroberardino, Ceretto, Ornellaia, Badia a Coltibuono just to name a few, market grappa but a few distillers specialize like Nonino, Bottega and Jacopo Poli offering an impressive, tastefully packaged varietal products.
The L. C. B. O., ever astute in spotting and satisfying market demand has started offering a large selection of grappas (Grappa Bianca Finissima Carpene Malvolti, Grappa Sandro Bottega, Grappa 1999 Alexander Society, Grappa Chardonnay, Mazzetti d’Altavilla, Grappa Stravecchia Faled, Sarpa di Poli) but agencies in Toronto offer an even larger choice in their consignment portfolios.
Innvechiata (aged), stravecchiata (very old), riserva (reserve) means that the product has been barrel-aged, but since there is no legislation, they can be misleading at worst and confusing at best!
has never been barrel aged and tradition-bound producers just distil and bottle in an attempt to preserve “ freshness “.
When it comes to grappa, it is freshness that counts!
Herb, fruit, and even truffle-flavours grappas are now increasingly common, but not necessarily more interesting.
In the U.S.A. grappatinis, grappa margaritas, and even grappa on the rocks with a little soda are being served in more fashionable bars. Of course neutral-tasting grappas can lend themselves quire well to mixing, but vodka, at much lower cost could do the job more efficiently.
Grappa, to my mind, tastes much better on its own or in an espresso, but you can try it in as many ways as you wish.
Distilleria Bottega produces prosecco (a sparkling wine made using the eponymous grape) and grappa (simple grappa, grappa of Moscato, Grappa from Amarone, and grappa from Prosecco). During a recent tasting with Sandro Bottega the Prosecco and Amarone grappas tasted best with their aromas and smooth texture.
According to Sandro grappa should be enjoyed cool – to cold and in wine glasses or snifter to appreciate it flavour at its best. The ever marketing savvy Sandro produces all the bottles including the very fancy and decorative ones on the premises, and constantly comes up with intriguing designs.
While some of Distilelria Bottega’s grappas are listed at the L.C.B.O others can be ordered through its Ontario agency Noble Estates Wines and Spirits Inc.
Telephone 416 398 6796