When one is travelling to a place like Italy, with good friends and better food, the opportunity of sampling great wines, makes the trip truly unforgettable! If I thought I was lucky to have rediscovered Prosecco, nothing had prepared me for the wonder that was Grappa. A pomace brandy fondly called “firewater” by Italians, Grappa is again a gift from the Veneto region of Italy. A brilliant culinary example of recycling leftovers, Grappa is made with from the pomace (pressed skins and seeds of grapes) collected after the wine-making process. When all the juice has been squeezed out from the grapes to make wine, the resultant pomace is distilled either in a baine marie (double boiler) or using steam distillation to get Grappa. Known to be around since the Middle Ages, this beverage has come a long way from being a pheasants’ or poor man’s drink to the present day refined classy version.
I went to the Distilleria Bottega and met up with Alessandro Bottega a third generation Grappa producer. Alessandro explained that the pheasants’ drink was known so due to it’s crude flavour resulting from the use of a mixed grape pomace. In the 1920s, Alessandro’s grandfather Domenico, then an apprentice, got together with the master distillers of Conegliano and developed the first single grape Grappa. Soon after, he set up his own distillery. However, like any other great discovery, there are many takers to the claim of developing the first single grape Grappa.
Though not all of them lie. In the 1970s, the first premier quality single varietal Grappa was produced at the Nonino Distillery (which has been functional since 1897) using Picolit grapes. Soon other estates like Poli, Francoli, Bruneli and Barolo followed suit and single vintage Grappas made from Barolo, amarone, moscato and chardonnay varieties made an entry into the market. This development brought about a drastic increase in the price of Grappa, taking it up by almost ten times. In the 1980s, the Bottega family, took Grappa several notches higher by promoting it from being a connoisseurs’ favourite in the gastronomic sense to a collectors’ item in the artistic sense. In 1985, a bottle made of Murano blown glass was used to bottle Grappa. This Grappa was also double distilled and was christened Grappa Alexander.
The journey of the beverage is definitely interesting but so is the beverage itself. Christened firewater due to it’s alcohol content (40 – 65%) it provides tremendous warmth to the body, explaining why pheasants preferred it despite the rough flavour. Grappa is traditionally drunk young, however, aged versions are also now available. The flavour is quite strong owing to its heavy fruity fragrance, which in the case of aged Grappa is further enhanced as the liquid takes on the colour and flavour of the barrels. I happened to sample a Grappa aged in a cherry barrel in Milan and loved it! Perhaps another reason for the term firewater may be that Grappa originates in the town of Bassano del Grappa (hence the name) which has volcanic soil. And for me, it was even more interesting because it was yet another proof that Italians treat their wines like their own children.
Just like Prosecco, Grappa also enjoys certain distinctions to protect the reputation of the beverage. For one, it must be produced in Italy to be called Grappa at all (this probably stems from the fact that North America also started producing Grappa resulting in a sharp fall of demand of the original). Secondly, to keep the quality intact, the European Union has decreed that the distillation must only be done on solid pomace – without any addition of water or even grape juice which will dilute flavour. Traditionally, Grappa is enjoyed with coffee, either as a digestive (after dinner drink) or combined with espresso as caffe corretto (“corrected coffee”). However, it lends itself very well to several foods and in cooking too. Pairing Grappa with food is a tad tricky owing to the fact that one can’t really generalize its flavour – it all depends on the grape varietal and the cask (if aged). Nevertheless, one can safely say that other than the obvious coffee, cheese and chocolate, Grappa goes well with nut-based sauces and soups, pates, sausages, a variety of fish and roast poultry as well as fruit-based desserts.
When cooked with vegetables like fennel bulb and white asparagus (which also comes from Bassano del Grappa!) it creates a surprising refreshing flavour. As a lifestyle drink Grappa is upmarket all the way. And after having heard it’s history and journey, what more can one ask, but to drink sensibly.