The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Meditation on Grappa

Posted on | June 1, 2011 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Last week, I was out at a local Camogli bar with my friend Lindsay when she had her first grappa.

“Oooh,” she said, “it’s like a fire kitten! In your mouth it’s all soft, but in your belly its claws come out!”  I liked that metaphor for grappa when Lindsay said it, and on further reflection, I like it even more.

The grappa in question came from Il Palazzone; made from Brunello grapes, it was aged in wood and showed a pleasantly warm color of amber. It’s a really nice grappa, actually, crafted by Priscilla Occhipinti who runs the distillery Nannoni Grappe di Paganico. Priscilla also crafts grappas from Sassicaia, Biondi-Santi, Pieve Vecchia and other estates. Oddly, given how much men seem to run the Italian wine world (though that order is changing in Piemonte as it undergoes a gender revolution), grappa has a serious number of women who own and run grappa distilleries; in addition to Priscilla’s Nannoni, the distilleries Nonino and Berta also are helmed by women.

Grappa is, of course, made from the pomace left over from winemaking. Grappa makers distill the whole mess in a bain-marie: the skins, the pulp, the seeds, and even the stems, if the grapes were macerated in whole bunches. The better grappas are then aged in wood, and some have added herbs, honey or other aromatics; grappa is drunk, among other reasons, to help digest food, and Italians believe very strongly in the intestinal importance of herbs. Italian law requires that all winemakers sell their pomace to grappa makers. This law helps to curb moonshining and it increases tax revenue when the grappa is sold. It’s kind of win-win for the government, and given how much the quality of grappa has increased in the past few decades, it’s kind of a win for consumers too.

Grappa, they say, is an acquired taste, and if so, I’ve acquired it. Part of my adoption of grappa has to do with its ubiquity. The former monastery turned bed and breakfast, Badia a Coltibuono, that I stayed at in Chianti had a grappa room; I defy anyone to sink into the shabby chic couches in its living room, thimble of grappa in hand, look at the medieval fireplace, and not decide that, you know, after all, grappa is pretty good. And part of it is that you can’t get decent bourbon, my liquor of choice, in Italy. Scotch can serve as a good stopgap (and, really, there is much to love in scotch), but I don’t always want that peaty, smoky redolence that makes scotch so, well, scotchy. Hence, grappa.

And then there’s the fact that Italians are so very passionate about their grappa. Aside from one winery worker who will remain nameless that confessed how her mother uses the superfluity of Christmas grappa to clean difficult and sticky items, Italians have an attitude of reverence mixed with dismissal over grappa. It’s simultaneously a very big deal (it’s the liquor that, after all, “corrects” coffee), and no big deal at all (it’s the liquor that, after all, “corrects” coffee). It’s everywhere, and like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when it’s good, it’s very, very good and when it’s bad, it reminds you that your innocence is so lost as to never be regained.

All I can say is that I plan on stashing a couple of bottles of really good grappa in my suitcase alongside my many bottles of wine and my even more numerous bottles of olive oil. You never know when it’s the right time for a little nip of the fire kitten.

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