Now that the ski season is in full swing and we have all given up on our New Year resolution to stay dry, it feels like time to talk about grappa. It’s the sort of drink that is likely to produce grimaces and a resolution never to go near it, but among lovers of fine wine, grappa is gaining popularity as a connoisseur’s after-dinner drink of choice – is it possible they know something you don’t?
Let’s not confuse grappa with schnapps, which is simply alcohol with flavour added. Grappa is quite different – a distillation of what’s left over from pressing grapes to make wine. Historically, grapes would go through two or three pressings – each one making a cruder and cheaper wine. What is left is the grape skins and stalks (known as pomace) which, after fermentation, are distilled into grappa. It’s the same process that is used to make cognac but cognac is matured in oak barrels that round out the flavour, whilst grappa is traditionally held in steel and so retains a sharper edge.
Until the late 1970s, grappa was a coarse drink downed by peasants after supper and a long day in the fields. But as Italian wine started to attract international attention, and money flowed into the vineyards, the quality of grappa improved and wineries started to make single variety grappas which reflected the taste of the underlying grapes. This was a transformational moment because single variety grappas have the same excitement and complexity as tasting the underlying wines. It means that consumers can buy and taste Chardonnay grappa, Moscato grappa, Nebbiolo grappa and so on. These grappas are full of character and panache, a million miles away from the old peasant swigs of 40 and 50 years ago.
In theory, grappa can come from anywhere in the world but EU law recognises grappa only from Italy or Italian-speaking Switzerland and it is the Italians who have done most to market this remarkable drink, with gorgeous glass bottles and beautifully presented wooden cases. Tosolini packages some of his grappa in Murano glass decanters decorated by leading Italian fashion designers.
Prices have risen alongside the ambitions of the wineries and a bottle of Tosolini grappa is now around £400. There are boutique grappas and even wood-aged grappas. Jacopo Poli ages his grappa in barrels that previously held Sassicaia, Italy’s most famous and expensive red wine.
However, don’t simply fall for the quality of the glass-blowing and packaging, you need to get out and taste grappa to begin to appreciate it.
Unfortunately, like most things Italian, grappa is complicated and there is no real agreement on which are the best grappas and which are best value for money. That’s because it depends on which grape varieties you enjoy. Austria’s Falstaff magazine voted Nonino’s grappa Cru Monovitigno Picolit the world’s best – “Scent of honey, flavour of figs, quince apples, very soft, elegant, taste of fresh bread crust, pleasant and persistent”. But most of the top Italian wineries, such as Gaja in Barolo or Antinori in Tuscany produce interesting and worthwhile grappas. Salute!