by Al Bassano
Conceived in those Italian regions characterized by colder winters, grappa, Italy’s best known spirit, began life as a rough, strong liquor for the poor. But times have changed for the distilled drink.
“Grappa has graduated from Alpine ski lifts to the boardroom” is how restaurateur/wine retailer Joe Bastianich characterizes grappa’s transformation from a “hard liquor for strong, poor, earthbound people to an elegant, fruity and pricey spirit of considerable appeal to the affluent, urbane international consumer.” As co-owner with chef Mario Batali in several of New York’s popular Italian eateries (Babbo, Esca and Lupa) as well as partner in the Italian Wine Merchants retail store on Manhattan’s Union Square, he ought to know. “Over the past few years, the consumer’s preferences for quality artisan products are also reflected in distilled spirits as well as their dining choices and grappa is no exception to this less-but-better phenomenon.”
David Weitzenhoffer, wine director at Felidia, an Italian restaurant owned by Joseph’s mom Lidia, concurs. “Trends distinctly favor the elite, finer wood-finished, often infused grappas; it’s shedding its image as ‘fulmine bianco’ (Italian ‘white lightning’).”
Yet however evolved in refinement and elegance, present-day grappas are still unlikely to be confused with any other spirit, including their close French cousin, marc. “It’s uniquely recognizable as Italian as pasta and polenta,” observes Charles Scicolone, who, like Bastianich, is active in both on-premise and off-premise specialty marketing as wine director at I Trulli restaurant and manager of the Enoteca.
“Grappa is ubiquitous, but it remains essentially Alpine in its tradition and character,” says Burton Anderson, an American living in Tuscany, and author of several best- selling books on Italian wines and foods. His reference on grappa’s origin is to Italy’s northern most regions, from Friuli in the east to the Piedmont abutting the French border.
Grappa is made from the pomace, seeds and skins of wine grapes after pressing. Artisanal grappa, usually comprised of distinct varietal origins, is supplanting the large-scale generic product of vinifera grape byproducts of indeterminate origins. In particular are the delicate, refined grappas made from the Moscato grape. In many ways, the improvement in grappa quality parallels an analogous trend in Italy’s wines over the past two decades. Ever conscious of new ways to increase their exports and receivables, Italy’s vintners took a fresh look at the pomace in their recyclable waste bins, and saw money. Rather than plow it under as fertilizer or turn it into the traditional, inexpensive, rustic spirit, winemakers began to make fine grappa.
No longer is the phenomenon confined to the extreme north-northeastern districts; winemakers all over the peninsula took notice. Leading the emerging trend away from the north-northeastern provinces and toward national recognition were the celebrated wine-producing regions of Piedmont and Tuscany–home to world class Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello wines. Traditional standard bearers of the acknowledged greatest in Italian wine, their leading vintners began to confer the prestige of their labels to proprietary, small-lot “boutique” bottlings of elite grappa.
As Italian winemakers strove to extract the maximum quality from their indigenous grapes, their investment in technology in the vineyard and cellar also paid dividends. The application of such disciplines in the vineyard as site selection, careful pruning and “green harvest” techniques wrought miracles of quality upgrades in their raw materials, as did the installation of costly modern equipment in their cantinas. One particular innovation, the use of modern membrane presses, is designed to gently extract the unfermented juices from the pulp by emulating the type of soft yet firm pressure once applied by human feet. Such gentle pressing eliminates the presence of the harsher elements and tannins present in the “vinacce” or pomace and yields a finished product of considerable elegance, freshness and purity of flavor extracts on both palate and nose.
Anderson and others credit innovators Nonino and Poli, small family operated firms, as pioneers in the movement toward quality in the field. One prominent traditionalist whose bottlings have become cult classics and prized collectibles, thanks as much to their whimsical hand drawn and colored labels as for their contents, are the grappas of Romano and Serafino Levi in Piemonte.
Producers recognize the value of packaging in arresting the consumer’s aesthetic sense. If it isn’t Levi’s labels beckoning to the collectors of art-on-the-bottle, then it’s the graceful, if pricey Baccarat-type limited edition bottlings of Poli, Nonino, et al that do the trick. These, and drinks made from them, now grace the bars of fashionable Italian restaurants from New York to California.
Two grappa recipes from Felidia’s Lidia Bastianich:
1 cup Prosecco di Conigliano
2 ounces grappa or vodka
1 pint lemon sorbet
6 mint sprigs
Currants or Champagne grapes
Put the Prosecco, grappa, and lemon sorbet in a blender and blend until it looks like a smoothie. Pour into Champagne flutes and top each with a sprig of mint and currants or a cluster of Champagne grapes. Serves 8.
Earl Grey “Corretto”
In bars across Italy, an order to the barista for a ``corretto” will produce a frothy cup of espresso laced with a bracing dollop of grappa. Lidia’s sommelier at Felidia, tells of how he and visiting grappa producer Jacopo Poli came up with the felicitous pairing of a jigger of Poli’s acclaimed Grappa di Moscato and a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. ``It’s a bracing cold-weather `toddy’ sort of a brew; trust me, it really works and works well!”
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