It goes without saying that Italy is a wine-obsessed country. It makes perfect sense that they are; every area of Italy is a wine-producing region. Every single one. And it’s all, for the most part, really great.
In addition to the culture being centered around wine, there is a “waste not want not” attitude that the country’s winemakers have toward the grapes themselves. Nothing goes to waste in the winemaking process. And that is, more or less, where grappa comes from.
Grappa can start fights. You either love it or hate it. I love it. My wife hates it. Anytime we’re out at a nice Italian restaurant, I make a point of having a glass at the end of the meal, while my wife enjoys a glass of limoncello.
While I love grappa, I certainly understand why some people don’t. It is, most definitely, an acquired taste. But those who drink it don’t merely like it. They obsess over it. Those who are truly fanatical are called tifosi di grappa, which literally means “I have a fever for grappa.”
Grappa was made, originally, out of necessity. After a wine is made, there is a tremendous amount of waste. All of the skins and seeds (and sometimes even stems) are left over in the fermentation tank after the wine has been either bottled or put into barrels. At some point, an ingenious Italian winemaker decided that it was a bad idea to keep throwing all of this stuff out. So he decided to make something out of it.
By pressing the leftovers (the pomace), a liquid is obtained that is then distilled. This results in a very pure, very clear liquid that is much higher in alcohol than any wine. Because it takes so much to make so little, it is also very expensive. That exclusivity and uniqueness is celebrated in the bottles that are made to hold the liquor. Often long, thin, hand-blown glass bottles, the containers are as much a work of art as the stuff inside.
Grappa had a bad rap for a long time, though. Up until the 1990s, most of the grappa imported into the United States was made from a mixture of many different types of grape pomace. This made a liquor that was, at best, often strong and peppery. At its worst, it was a bit like drinking lighter fluid.
Real grappa drinkers knew that the best grappa is made from single varietals, though. Just like the wine made from those grapes, that grappa would vary in flavor and character depending on what it was made from. The fever caught on in the United States, and now it is relatively easy to find great single varietal, or monovitigno, grappa.
My favorite type of grappa is grappa di moscato, made from the pomace of the moscato grape. One of the best available in the states is the Marolo Grappa di Moscato ($8.99 at K&D Wines, 1366 Madison Ave., at 96th St., 212-289-1818). The harshness of the distillation process is balanced by the natural mildness of the moscato grape. You can taste the sweet, floral quality of the varietal and even get a hint of the signature peach and nectarine flavors present in many great moscato wines.
If, however, you are bolder and your tastes run more on the adventurous side (or you just have something to prove), try the Bertagnolli Grappa di Amarone ($36.99 at 67 Wine and Spirits, 179 Columbus Ave., at 68th St., 212-724-6767). Amarone wine is made from grapes that are dried before pressing, so it goes without saying that whatever is left over from those already shriveled grapes is going to be strong, indeed. While the grappa has some of the characteristics of an amarone (dried fruit flavors and hints of coffee and chocolate), the main event is the peppery mouthfeel and the…shall we say…“warming” finish.
Whatever your tastes are, give grappa a try before you dismiss it completely. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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