All About Grappa

Once considered a bitter elixir for what ailed you, this spirited italian favorite can, at its best, make for an extraordinary experience.

"Grappa--it's a jungle," I was warned. All those great-looking glass bottles and stoppers may inspire love at first sight, but probably not at first sip. Most grappas are industrial products without character, and the bad stuff can be downright nasty, with a bouquet offering hints of nail polish remover. Great grappa, which may be delicately perfumed or earthy, gentrified or rustic, isn't easy to find.

Grappa originated in northern Italy, its culture confined to areas within sight, on a clear day, of the Alps. Even now its best producers and most enthusiastic consumers are found in a few Italian regions near the Austrian border: Trentino-Alto Adige, the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Piedmont. Like whiskey and gin, grappa is a distilled spirit, aquavitae in Latin ("water of life"), acquavite in Italian. But while other spirits are made from choice ingredients (brandy from wine, kirsch from cherries), grappa starts out as pomace, the grape seeds and skins that are the detritus of winemaking.

Though more than a thousand wineries throughout Italy sell grappa, fewer than a dozen actually make it. The rest deliver pomace to a distiller and receive bottled grappa in return. The probability that it was made with the winery's own pomace is slim, so a trusted name is no guarantee of quality. Adding to the confusion are bottlers who purchase full-proof grappa and dilute it with demineralized water, which allows them, by law, to claim that they "produced and bottled" it. In short, there is simply no way to tell a good grappa by reading the label.

Grappa is made in one of two ways. The modern method--used by about 60 distillers, who account for some 80 percent of Italy's production--is fast and cheap, resulting in grappa without defects or distinction. The traditional method, practiced by 100 or so distillers, is slower, involving a single-batch process and various kinds of specialized stills. While the styles and abilities of the traditional distillers vary widely, the best make artisanal grappas with marvelous bouquet and personality.

Until recently, grappa was a coarse drink, often made by an itinerant distiller who traveled from farm to farm in late fall, brewed the leftovers into a highly alcoholic beverage, and was paid a percentage of the product. Grappa was used as a mood enhancer, a substitute for central heating, and a vitamin supplement. It was the great killer of pain, mental and physical, said to cure almost everything, especially a toothache. "Strong like grappa," they say in Friuli.

Friuli is true grappa country. Here the spirit has its own vocabulary and lifestyle. Once men ordered it by the bussul (short-stemmed shot glass) or quartino (quarter-liter carafe) in osterias, male hangouts for shooting the breeze, playing cards, smoking, snacking, and especially drinking. Women consumed theirs after grocery shopping or at home, and even children drank thimblefuls on festive occasions. Grappa was "cut" with mint liqueur, and coffee cups were given a grappa "rinse."

It was here in the seventies that grappa's transformation from sow's ear to silk purse, from Alpine white lightning to sophisticated after-dinner cordial, began, thanks to one dynamic woman. Married into a family of local distillers, Giannola Nonino was in love with her husband, Benito, and his magic of transforming debris into nectar. But when she went out to dinner with her friends and brought along a bottle of his grappa, no one ever wanted to drink it--too lowbrow.

Benito had improved his grappa by acquiring the freshest pomace from the area's best wineries. Giannola decided to try a single-varietal grappa--a revolutionary concept, since pomace had always been an imprecise mixture. She chose the native Picolit grape, used to make a rare dessert wine; persuaded farmers to sell her their pomace; and paid them well. In 1973, Benito distilled ten gallons or so of grappa di Picolit, elegant but powerful, with a delicate perfume of honey.

Since there was so little, they sold it in small bottles Benito found in a chemical supply store. Giannola wrote out labels by hand, tied them with yarn to the neck of each bottle, and ordered silver-plated stoppers for a luxurious touch. She sold this precious grappa for the same price as single-malt scotch, not to regional osterias but to restaurants and wine shops all over Italy and beyond, by the same channel through which fine wine was sold. Benito soon followed up with a series of other single-varietal grappas. His fellow distillers took note. So did wineries with pomace on their hands. The modern era of grappa had begun.

Today the Noninos' daughters have their own distillery. In 1998, to celebrate the family's first 100 years of distilling, they released a Picolit acquavite d'uva, made from whole grapes rather than pomace and aged for a decade. Sold in a graceful, limited-edition crystal decanter, the Centennial Reserve is rich, warm, and spicy with a sweet finish, every bit as elegant as Cognac. The future of the family distillery looks bright.

The Noninos, though, are not the only grappa makers in the area with long traditions and dynamic new ideas. The distillery founded by Pietro Domenis in 1898 in the village of Darnazzacco, near Cividale in Friuli, is today run by his grandsons and great-grandchildren. Three of their grappas, rustic and well worth hunting for, are familiar to connoisseurs: Storica, made from white-grape pomace; Storica Nera, from red-grape pomace; and Secolo, which is harsher and for the intrepid only. Cristina Domenis will explain in English the distilling process and the history of this family with grappa in their veins.

Another center of grappa production is the Veneto, particularly Bassano del Grappa, a charming city of arcades, Renaissance buildings, and piazzas. Located at the foot of Mount Grappa on a strategic point of the Brenta River, once an important transportation route to Venice and the sea, Bassano is a major base for Alpini, Alpine soldiers known for their endurance, bravery, and fondness for grappa. The city takes distillates seriously, despite the shops displaying them in bizarre flavors (radicchio, truffle), bottles shaped like Alpine hats or asparagus, and elegant glass vials with dubious contents--tourist souvenirs, not really for drinking.

In the heart of Bassano is the Ponte Vecchio, a covered wooden bridge spanning the Brenta, where Bortolo Nardini opened an osteria in April 1779. He served no food, but that didn't deter a steady stream of customers--raftsmen transporting lumber on the Brenta, carters of goods destined for Venice, Alpine soldiers, and locals--from stopping in for a taste of Nardini's Aquavite di Vinaccia. His son Bortolo Jr. brought the distillery up to date, selling another of their acquavites, Tagliatella--an imprecise blend with a devoted following--on tap. Sixth- and seventh-generation distillers are guiding the company now. The grapparia is thriving and worth a visit.

Another prestigious local distiller is Jacopo Poli, whose great-grandfather was a hat-maker but operated a mobile (and illegal) still in his spare time. His grandfather modified a locomotive's engine to build his still and made things official in 1898, and his father took over in the 1950s. Jacopo joined the company in 1983 with innovative ideas; to avoid conflict, he distilled at night when his father wasn't around. The results were convincing, so Jacopo began turning the company in a new direction with delicately perfumed single-varietal grappas. The distillery also continues to sell its traditional Grappa di Vinaccia, mostly for local consumption. The Polis have a grappa museum, housed in an impeccably restored 15th-century palace.

My favorite Bassano distiller, Vittorio Gianni Capovilla, is south of the city, outside the hamlet of Rosa. A former seller of oenological equipment, Capovilla made grappa as a hobby until it took over his life. His small bain-marie stills, some of the few in Italy, use hot-water baths to slowly heat pomace at a low temperature, creating flavorful grappas with a smooth finish and none of the harshness usually associated with grappa. But he is most proud of his more than 40 distillates made from wild or heirloom fruits like mulberries and Sardinian apricots, which he sells in glass decanters with wooden stoppers dipped in sealing wax.

For those in search of artisanal grappa, the best time to visit the region is during distilling season, which is generally from September to early November. Finding these places may not be easy, but when you do, the reward will be great.

Fax two weeks ahead if you wish to observe the distilling process. Capovilla: 39-0424-581-222; fax 39-0424-588-028 € Domenis: 39-0432-731-023; fax 39-0432-701-153 € Nardini (grapparia only): 39-0424-227-741; fax 39-0424-220-477 € Nonino: 39-0432-676-331; fax 39-0432-676-038 € Poli: 39-0444-665-007; fax 39-0444-665-637 € Poli Museum: 39-0424-524-426; open daily from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Faith Willinger is the author of Eating in Italy (William Morrow) and Red, White & Greens (HarperCollins).

Grappa at Dinner

Three restaurants in the region are favorites of mine for their cucina as well as their excellent selection of grappa. In Friuli, the front room of TRATTORIA BLASUT looks like a classic osteria, with a long dark wooden table and shelves displaying wine, glasses, and grappa bottles. Locals stop by for a tajut (shot of wine); on sunny days they stand outside, resting their glasses on a ledge installed for the purpose.

The two small dining rooms are nicely rustic, the menus seasonal, maximizing regional traditions and ingredients, especially goose. Look for wild mushrooms, homemade pasta, and velvety poultry- liver pâté with pear and red wine purée. Begin with delicately scrambled "roosters' eggs" ("We've got a local source, but they are rare," confided co-owner Dante Bernardis), and save room for cheese from "Dairy Number 8." The wine list is vast and impressive, as is the selection of grappas and other distillates. Via Aquileia 7, Lavariano; tel/fax 39-0432-767-017.

At DA ROMEA, also in Friuli, meat dishes are grilled in a fireplace at the center of the room. Leda della Rovere cooks a local version of soul food she learned from her mother, Romea: first-rate prosciutto, winter-squash gnocchi, homemade pasta sauced with beans and sausage, and barley cooked risotto-style. Try the thyme-stuffed boned rabbit or the perfectly grilled local sausage. The apple-spice cake is irresistible. Both wine and grappa selections are well chosen and priced. Via Divisione Julia 15, Manzano; 39-0432-754-251; fax 39-0432-746-283.

In the village of Solagna, just north of Bassano on the Brenta River, the Scapin family has been running DA DORO for 50 years. The menu features regional seasonal ingredients and changes almost daily. Begin with antipasti such as sweet-and-sour radicchio, barley-and-vegetable "meatballs," or herring salad; continue with extruded pasta called bigoli, sauced with snails or cured pork jowl, and onion soup with gorgonzola; then deep-fried trout, baccalà, or poultry. Finish with the Ferdinandi, a comforting bread pudding, paired, of course, with a glass of grappa. Via Ferracina 38; 39-0424-816-026.

Tasting Fine Grappa in America

Seduced partly by the exquisite handblown bottles, Americans started developing an interest in grappa about a decade ago. "What was available back then was quite limited," says Michael Yurch, president of Sherry-Lehmann in New York, which carries over two dozen grappas. "But the quality and diversity available today in the United States is enormous. People who know grappa enjoy tasting a wide range--they don't stick to one thing."

Higher-end grappas are wonderful spirits, full of spicy, earthy, and floral aromas one doesn't often find in other brandies (grappa is usually defined as an unaged brandy). The best way to drink them is in a small, tulip-shaped stemmed glass at room temperature or slightly chilled. While some of those featured in the main story are not available in America, plenty of excellent grappas are. Here are a few noteworthy choices:
CERETTO ZONCHERA ($89) from Piedmont is made from the pomace of grapes used in Barolo wines. The aroma of ripe apricots with a grassy edge wafts from the glass; a mangolike flavor follows. Made from the pomace of Arneis grapes, Ceretto's barrel-aged GRAPPA DI BLANGE ($98) is smooth, with an edge of herbs and spice.
POJER & SANDRI MULLER-THURGAU ($39) from Trentino has spectacular orange- and peach-blossom scents that go well beyond the flavors of most wines made from the Müller-Thurgau grape. Also from Pojer & Sandri, TRAMINER ($39) savors of dried orange peel and sweet spices.
Muscat (or Moscato) grapes are among the most aromatic in the world, and the grappa made from them by Trentino's BERTAGNOLLI distillery carries rose, honeysuckle, and pear-blossom flavors to their limits ($42). Also from the Veneto is the PO' DI POLI MOSCATO grappa ($45) from Jacopo Poli. Poli is perhaps Italy's most famous distiller, as much for his bottles as for the ethereal spirits within them. He is a master of the light touch, and his Moscato grappa has a chiffonlike smoothness and the flavor of pears. Other Poli spirits worth seeking out include the light and flowery AMOROSA DI TORCOLATO ($65-$70), made from the pomace of one of Italy's finest dessert wines, and SASSICAIA ($60), from the pomace of one of the most coveted "super Tuscan" wines. Sassicaia grappa is aged in oak barrels, creating an elixir redolent of sweet spice, almond, and dried-fruit flavors. Poli's earthy CHIARA DI TOCAI ROSSO is made from whole grapes instead of pomace, making it an acquavite d'uva rather than a grappa.
Acquavite d'uva is frequently a touch sweeter than grappa (though still not sweet). Maschio's PRIME UVE from the Veneto and Bertagnolli's UVA (both $50) are fine examples. So is Nonino's UE VITIGNI BIANCHI ($40), which explodes with pear and floral flavors. Nonino is in the top rank of Italian distillers; its grappas from rare Friulian grape varieties grown in its Monovitigno vineyard are exceptional, especially the PICOLIT ($156) and FRAGOLINO ($90).


The following are particularly recommended for their selection of high-end grappas.
BOSTON V. Cirace & Sons; 617-227-3193. CHICAGO Sam's Wines & Spirits; 800-777-9137. DALLAS Pogo's Wine; 214-350-8989. LOS ANGELES Wally's Liquor; 310-475-0606. Valentino, a restaurant in Santa Monica, has an excellent selection; 3115 Pico Boulevard; 310-829-4313. MIAMI Sunset Corners Fine Wines & Spirits; 305-271-8492. NEW YORK Sherry-Lehmann; 212-838-7500. Felidia, a Manhattan restaurant, has terrific grappa; 243 East 58th Street; 212-758-1479. So does San Domenico NY; 240 Central Park South; 212-265-5959.