Wines of Italy

GRAPPA – True Appreciation of the Italian Spirit
Like most Italian boys, Vittorio Capovilla adored to his mother. He obediently ate his ration of fruits daily. It was not long till he became so enamoured by the taste of good fruit that he decided to preserve them in bottles – but not in the way you think.

Vittorio proceeded to set up a boutique grappa distillery near Vicenza, in the N-E Veneto region of Italy, to produce distillates of his favourite organic fruits – especially the ones harvested from the wild. That was in the 80’s. Today Vittorio offers grappa enthusiasts more than forty types; junipers, pears, strawberries, cherries, prunes, peaches and more.

What is Grappa?  According to the soft spoken, t-shirted Vittorio, “it is essentially a brandy and in Italy it is obtained from the distillation of grape pomace (a winery’s fermented, pressed skins and seeds that is often discarded) or fruit. The result is a clear tasty fresh spirit.”

I remarked that grappa is fiery alcoholic drink that has the effect of burning one’s gullet to the effect of clearing it of all the cholesterol after fatty meals.

So when Vittorio suggested I dip my finger into a stainless steel canister which contained a colourless fluid, I acquiesced reluctantly. As I brought my finger to my mouth to lick off the liquid, the scent of the ripest sweetest purest perfumed peaches wafted up to my nose. “They are made from Saturno peaches of the Marches,” Vittorio said.  As I sucked off the last drops of the grappa from my finger, he could tell I was hooked.

As Vittorio proceeded to unhinge the covers of a row of canisters, my finger was already poised for further dipping. I tasted a blackberry grappa. I savoured sweet ripe raspberry grappa. I reveled in the scent of grappa made from Mirabelle plums and then I went on to compare the ‘alcoholic essences’ of three types of apples – Fuji, Golden Holz and Annurca. But it was the incredibly perfumed yet natural clean taste of Pear Williams in a grappa that sent me into a fruity rapture.  To my surprise, the thought of a fiery liquid never entered my mind. In taste, Vitorrio’s grappas, were devoid of any aggressivity, despite the alcohol content of around 41%.

Inspired, I began to find out more about Grappa and related drinks.   For that I went to Fratelli Brunello an 1840’s distillery in Montegalda, Vicenza. There I tasted not only a sweet-smooth Grappa but a grape brandy.  I learned that any fermented grape or fruit when distilled becomes grape or fruit brandy. Wine itself can also be distilled into brandy. Often wine brandies are softer and have less alcohol.

My visit to a third Grappa producer took me to Poli. At the Poli Museum of Grappa , I discovered that grappa is a drink that is named after an enchanting village near the foot of the Dolomite Mountains called Bassano del Grappa.

Bassano del Grappa lies at the foot of Monte Grappa (Grappa Mountain), where, according to the legend, many clandestine distillers used to produce Grappa. Traditionally farmers drank grappa to salve their workday aches and also to keep themeselves warm in the evenings as heating was scarce.

The Poli family was among the first to distill grappa in Italy about a century ago. The Polis being straw hat makers had opened an osteria to serve food, wine and also to sell their hats. They later found that the discarded raw material from winemaking could be used to make grappa.

These days, Poli makes not only traditional grappa and aged grappa but also that of Luce and Sassicaia, two renowned wines of Tuscany named respectively after and made using the spent or fermented out grape skins. It was the Luce grappa that came across as smooth as silk that changed my mind forever that grappa is an aggressive unrefined drink.

If you have been turned on by grappa, you will no doubt, like me, discover that grappa can be had from the regions of the Piedmont, the Veneto, Umbria, Trentino, Fruili and Tuscany. Even if not, many grappa bottles are works of art. At VinItaly, the Grappa di Pinot Grigio of Distilleria Schiavo caught my eye. Each unique bottle is mouth blown by the Venetian maestro, Gandini. Miniature glass sculptures of multicoloured fish, jellyfish and more appear to be swimming in the grappa bottle!

•    Poli Museo (museum) Della Grappa at via ganba 6, Bassano del Grappa (tel/fax +39 0424 524 426 or 0444 665 007)
•    Distilleria F.lli Brunello Via Roi, 33– Montegalda; Tel. 0444.737253
•    Vittorio Capovilla at via Giardini 12, Ca Dolfin Rosa (about 30 minutes on the road from Vicenza) but call first for an appointment (+39 0424 581222).

Factsheet : Grappa
The main Grappa-production regions have their own names for the eau-de-vie. In Piedmont it is called branda, in Veneto it is referred to as sgnapa, you ask for cadevida in Trentino and in Friuli and Lombardia it is known as grappa.  Like in wine, each region offers a different style of Grappa, although by law grappa is made from grape pomace (skins, pips and stalks left after the production of wine). Aromatic grappa is distinguished from the original version in that the aromatic ones are those where fruits or herbs macerated directly in the grappa infuse additional flavours to it.

Distillation is the separation of liquids by evaporation extracts alcohol and aromatic substances from the pomace. Some volatile substances (the head) and other impurities (the tail) are discarded and what remains is the ‘heart’ – pure unadulterated eau-de-vie. Various systems (double boiler, bain marie, steam stills, continuous distillation and discontinuous distillation) are used but it is the discontinuous process, time consuming (freshest pomace is used) and expensive (a lot of the pungent and aggressive ‘head’ as well as the fat and oily ‘tail’ is cut out) results in the finest grappa.

Often mono-varietal grappa is made from a specific grape variety such as Moscato, Riesling, Sauvignon, Malvasia, Nebbiolo, Muscat, Aglianico and Cabernet. Some good producers include Alexander, Banfi, Bocchino, Capezzana, Caparzo Ceretto, Chiarlo, Gaja, Lungarotti, Mastroberardino, Masottina, Nonino and Ruffino.

How to savour Grappa
Grapppa is best enjoyed cool at between 9-13 degrees Centigrade in a tiny glass. There is a different approach to tasting grappa when compared to wine. You place your nose at the front, rather than at the back rim of glass. That way you do not sniff in the mucous membrane-burning alcohol but instead you get a good whiff of the aromas. Then you take a bit of grappa in your mouth and let it roll off your tongue. You will be surprised that you never get in the mouth, the ‘fire hot’ sensation that puts most first-time drinkers off the drink.

Grappa Types
Grappa labels usually indicate the geographic appellation, the grape variety, and the type of alembic still used in its production. Grappa varieties can be classified in the following manner:

•    Grappa giovane (young grappa), with aromas of the grape variety and fermentation.
•    Grappa affinata in legno (grappa matured in wooden barrels).
•    Grappa invecchiata (aged grappa), matured for at least 12 months in wooden barrels.
•    Grappa riserva or stravecchia, matured for at least 18 months in wooden barrels.
•    Grappa aromatizzata, or grappa to which vegetable and fruit (apple, pears, blueberry, etc.) have been added or used in the distillation. However aromatic Grappas include those made from aromatic or semi-aromatic grapes such as Moscato, Muller Thurgau, Traminer, Sauvignon, etc.

Grappa Culture
In Italy, grappa is primarily served as a “digestivo” or after-dinner drink – to aid digestion. Yet incorporating grappa into the daily coffee ritual adds a spark to the café. For instance, ‘caffè corretto’ meaning ‘corrected coffee’, features coffee dosed with grappa whilst a variation is ‘ammazza caffè’. Meaning ‘coffee-killer’ it is a term that describes the ritual – espresso is consumed then chased down by a glass of grappa.  In Veneto, a cup of espresso sweetened expresso is downed, then grappa are poured into the cup and swirled with whatever remnants of coffee and then, and tossed down in one go.