LET'S BE FRANK. GRAPPA IS NOT A COOL DRINK IT DOES NOTHING FOR IMAGE.
It's true that grappa has come a long way. Once the crude distillate for poor peasants in life-loving Italy, grappa has leapt beyond mere civility through circles of stereotyping fire, surging forward with nothing less than ironclad elegance. It no longer sets your guts on fire. And yes, it's evolved to a "top-shelf" status alongside the great cognacs. But be warned. Today's grappa is a drink for only the most passionate wine lover. It favors simple, deep appreciation, if not slow-growing understanding, reverence and daring. It's about purity. It's an esoteric product. Not friendly. Not soft. It's fascinating and misunderstood.
So why even try it? Because grappa reveals what wine is all about -- penetrating the innermost layer of a grape. It's dramatic, intimate and intense. It's the true essence of the fruit.
In strict technical language, grappa is a brandy. It's distilled from grape pomace, skins, stems and seeds (all by-products of the winemaking process). Grappa originated in the Veneto and Tuscany regions of Italy. Measuring 40 to 50 percent alcohol by volume, it's as clear as fresh water and seldom aged. Grappa is closely related to French marc, also a pomace product, with the only difference being that marc ages in wooden barrels. The interaction between wood and spirit accounts for a softer, smoother drink. Like all unaged fruit brandies, grappa is an eau-de-vie.
There's no telling how far grappa's origins date back in history. In 15th Century Europe, brandy distillates were the most effective means of preserving wine for seafaring travelers and traders. Around the same time, farmers could no longer afford the wines they helped produce, so they distilled the stale grape pomace. The result turned out to be an effective, quick fix at the end of a long sweaty day, salving wounds, fatigue and aching muscles -- a rambunctious and coarse country drink in need of finesse and bursting with fire. It did the job.
With farm life improving, the challenge came in taming the spirit so it could appeal to a larger market. Pomace no longer sat around for months after harvest time. A little good fruit was added. Distillation techniques improved, and presto! A quality drink fit for anyone with love for a seductive, earthy libation was born, although it was still quite harsh.
The New Grappa
In recent years, a modern grappa has emerged. Winemakers all over the world are distilling high-quality grapes, lush with flesh and wine, alongside the pomace. The result is sweeter and far more appealing. This new and improved grappa travels the world with the name u'e. It's usually packaged in attractive bottles, traditionally of hand-blown glass shaped in cool, sexy curves, reflecting the love for fire and creativity that this beverage represents. But don't let the beauty of the bottles mislead you, collectors items as they might be. Marketing gimmicks don't guarantee quality.
There are as many grappa varietals as there are grapes-- from grappa cabernet to grappa sangiovese, barbera and moscato to grappa chardonnay -- all with that clean clarity. Some of the finest grappas and u'e in the world come from Italy. Among the best are those of Jacopo Poli and Nonino. In the United States, well-crafted, excellent grappas, u'e and eau-de-vies come from Bonny Doon, Mosby, Creekside, St. George Spirits, Domaine Charbay and Germain-Robin. Prices vary as widely as those of wines and can run from a modest $18 to a high-end $80, and up. And, as with wines, it doesn't always mean that more dollars buy more quality.
Like wine, the only way to appreciate grappa is to taste and explore. But tasting grappa follows different rules. In fact, grappa is so intense and rich in its aromatic details that, for some, just inhaling it is a superb experience.
Not surprisingly, grappa glasses exist, but most of them, like the straight-sided cylinder, are great for swigging down a shot, yet terrible when you want to get to the depth of the drink. Grappa should ideally be tasted from small, focused eau-de-vie glasses specifically designed to intensify the aromatics. Enormous brandy snifters, which invite brave gestures of swirling liquid and admiring long legs, only intensify the alcohol. They do nothing to bring out grappa's subtle flavors.
The appreciation of grappa grows slowly, but be prepared to fall in love with this unusual, uncool drink and to toast another gift of the grape!