In winter, a young (or especially a not-so-young) man’s thoughts lightly turn to grappa. Once feared as the diesel fuel of brandies, grappas have now become one of the most fashionable of drinks, shedding their working-class image as the Alpine trucker’s favorite breakfast – and a lot of their character – to become sleek and polished. Most Italian restaurants of any claim to sophistication now boast an array of grappas, though not of the depth and variety of the grappa cart that you will find at, for instance, Cecchino dal 1887 in Rome’s Monte Testaccio district. My own collection once numbered 23 bottles. It has now dwindled to 11, and many of those are perilously low. I’m going to have to do some serious buying soon.
Don’t get me wrong: those numbers are not just for swank, nor am I exclusively grappa-obsessed. I love Armagnac and Cognac and calvados and aged tequila, and they all have their place – but none of those offers the variety and versatility of grappa. There is no better digestivo, and in one of its old-fashioned roles – to tone up a cup of espresso on a raw winter day, such as we’re having an abundance of this winter – nothing comes close to the warmth generated by grappa.
But the main reason I like to keep so many grappas around is simply grappa’s wondrous variety. Cognac or Armagnac is essentially one thing, while grappa is legion. Grappas are as varied as their sources, and their sources are from all over Italy. Furthermore, they differ from each other not just because of where in Italy they originate, but also because of what grapes contribute their essences to their begetting.
Cognac and Armagnac, each named for the almost neighboring regions of their origin, are brandies distilled from wines. In both cases, the most common grape used is Ugni blanc, better known to Italian winelovers as Trebbiano, which rarely yields a wine of distinction but can make some excellent brandy. There are some variations, to be sure – it matters if a Cognac comes from the Fine Champagne or Bons Bois or Borderies areas; and a few really superior Armagnacs are distilled from Colombard or Folle blanche wines.
Grappa on the other hand comes from pomace, the solids left at the bottom of the fermenting tank when the wine is drawn off for aging or blending. These are soaked and refermented, and that liquid is then distilled. Each distillate holds the scent and often a tiny ghost of the flavor of the grape variety from which it is made. So grappas are as numerous as the grape varieties their makers chose to ferment, modified by the soils in which the grapes grew, modified by the choices the grappaiolo made about the number and kind of filtrations, whether to age or not, and if so in what. In the broadest stylistic difference, the grappa maker has to opt for either a forte or a morbida grappa – a grappa stronger and more obviously alcoholic, lightly fiery in a style that tips its cap to grappa traditions, or softer, more obviously fruit-inflected, in the modern style that has become internationally popular. That adds up to a bounty of grappas, an abundance of differently nuanced brandies that readily explains why I never seem to have quite enough of them on hand.
Moreover, grappas vary not only in their origins and basic character, but also with what you’ve eaten. I can’t explain this, but empirically I know it to be true. A classic, clear grappa di Barbera, for instance, such as one gets from the Fratelli Marolo distillery, just by itself gives a clear, sharp aroma of its grapes and a similar, though fainter, palatal impression of the Barbera from which it started. With different foods, however, it can smell – and taste – either of the grape, as just described, or floral, or even like aged parmigiano cheese. (Oddly enough, the more chilled a grappa is, the more forceful its aroma. I don’t pretend to understand that either, but empirically I know it to be true.) That’s why, after dinner, I like to sniff a few grappas and choose the one that’s working well with the meal I’ve just eaten. It’s fun, always instructive, and totally uncomplicated. A simple smell test – just open the bottle and pass it under your nose, inhaling – will tell you whether the grappa in your hand is the one you want in your glass. Brandy professionals buy and sell, blend and isolate, not by tasting (they wouldn’t last long if they did), but by scent alone. It can work the same way with grappa, and it doesn’t take hound-like olfactory abilities to do it: Ordinary human equipment works just fine.
I retain my fondness for the more old-fashioned grappas, unaged and crystal-clear, smelling of their vinaccia, and tasting ever so slightly fiery – though there are many modern-style grappas that I also greatly respect. But you never really get over your first love. Nowadays, that kind of grappa is not always easy to find. Many are being wood-aged, which moves them closer to Cognacs and Armagnacs in style, and to that extent denatures them. Many are blends of different grapes, which makes them stand in the same relation to a monovarietal grappa as blended Scotch stands to single-malt whisky. And many are now distilled from wines or even whole fruit – these are often labeled eau de vie or ue. But the use of either of those terms isn’t consistent: Some (what I consider real) grappas are labeled eau de vie as well.
Despite the fact that grappa-making has now spread through all of Italy, the traditional heartlands of grappa are still the most likely sources for really top-notch distillates: the north – Alto Adige and especially Piedmont, the Veneto, and Friuli – and Tuscany. The Veneto produces some of the most characterful aged grappas, the color of Cognac but still retaining intense grappa scents and character. Piedmont, Friuli, and Tuscany make lovely unaged grappas. Look for single-varietal bottles such as those from Pojer e Sandri (Alto Adige) or Fratelli Marolo (Piedmont) or the Morellino grappa of Jacopo Biondi Santi. Or for estate grappas, such as those from Castellare, Fontodi, or Monte Vertine in the Chianti Classico zone or Banfi in the Brunello di Montalcino zone. Sip and savor them just as you would a fine Cognac, and add a whole new digestive dimension to your life.