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Grappa – the Cinderella Spirit  (June 4, 2008)

There should be a statue erected in Bassano del Grappa to that frugal-minded peasant farmer in the Middle Ages. This unknown benefactor must have hated the idea of throwing out the pressed skins, pits and stalks of the grapes from which he had fermented his wine. Instead of tossing the residue on his vineyard as fertilizer, he fermented this "pomace" and then distilled the resulting low-alcohol wine to make a spirit. What he ended up with would probably be capable of propelling a Sherman tank today. But this medieval farmer had unwittingly stumbled on the Philosopher's Stone – the secret of turning garbage into gold. He had invented grappa, a drink that would provide him and his compatriots with internal central heating through the cold winters of northern Italy.

Now grappa, the spirit that Italians use to beef up their coffee (they call "correcting" the coffee), is not a taste that is universally enjoyed. It does not have the cachet of Cognac, Armagnac or Single Malt Whisky. Yet, at its best it can be a refined and elegant after-dinner drink that helps you to digest a big meal. Up until the 1960s grappa had a plebian image – the drink of the working class who could not afford whisky. The illustrious Italian writer Italo Calvino once referred to grappa in print as "suitable only for defrocked priests, unemployed bookkeepers and husbands that have been cuckolded."

Then a curious thing happened. In 1973 a company called Nonino in the town of Percoto, 75 miles north east of Venice, distilled the pomace of Friuli's most expensive grape, Picolit, by itself, instead of mixing it with the detritus of other grape varieties. (Picolit, incidentally, is the region's most celebrated dessert wine, commanding a hefty price.) Instead of using a continuous still process, the late Benito Nonino employed a series of copper pot stills – the same as they use in Cognac. This enabled him to stop the process and discard the "heads" and "tails" of the distillate and keep only the "heart," thus eliminating the congeners that give off-flavours. The result was a stunning eau-de-vie-like spirit that had a refined perfume bouquet and flavour. Benito and his wife, Giannola, went on the produce grappas for various grapes types, each with the subtle nuances and character of the original variety. They had hand-blown bottles closed with silver tops made especially for them that would not have been out of place on a perfume counter. And it didn't hurt when it came to marketing their products that Giannola, a handsome woman herself, had three lovely daughters.

The Nonino company dates back to 1897. A year later the Poli distillery was founded in Schiavon – not far from the unofficial capital of grappa, Bassano del Grappa at the foot of Mt. Grappa (only the Italians would name a mountain after an alcoholic beverage). The pride of Bassano is the Ponte Vecchio – an exquisite covered wood bridge across the River Brenta, originally constructed in 1569 to a design by Palladio then destroyed in 1748 and rebuilt three years later to the same design. As you cross this bridge you come face-to-face with the entrance to the Poli Grappa Museum.

Sandro Bottega

The convention now, it seems, is for grappa to be bottled in beautifully designed glass containers; and nowhere is this more evident than in the product range of the world's largest grappa producer, Distilleria Bottega. This operation is located in the mellifluously named village of Bibano di Godegna di Sant'Urbano. The distillery is located 25 miles from Venice on a 19th-century farmstead. At the entrance to the property is a stand of two-hundred-year-old mulberry trees that used to support a silkworm operation. Formerly a convent and then occupied by the Germans in World War II, it is now a flourishing business with a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and a separate distilling facility. Sandro Bottega's father, Aldo, bought the property in 2004 and replaced the grain fields with vines. Today the company produces 6 million bottles a year, over half of which are grappa, the rest Prosecco and wines and olive oil from Umbria.

Bottega says his company has 70 per cent of the global grappa market. In total he produces some 45 products. Included in these is an extraordinary collection called Alexander Aqua di Vita, all of whose bottles were designed by Sandro Bottega. The prototype of each bottle is housed in a modern museum on the property.

In order to control the packaging of his products, Bottega bought into a Venetian glass factory where they hand-blow the intricate shapes he designed. When I visited the factory I watched the blowers create flowers, aeroplanes, snails and Viking ships that they fixed inside the grappa bottles. I even had the opportunity to "blow" a bunch of grapes that would be become a champagne-glass-sized grappa bottle with a stem. The raw material – a glass rod – is heated to red hot and placed in a mold, and then you have to blow your lungs out.

Bottega bottles

To make one litre of grappa it takes 10 kilos of grape skins, 8 kilos if it's a sugar-rich pomace like Amarone. Once distilled, the pomace is used as fuel for the furnace to create the steam necessary for the process. Sandro Bottega's research team is currently working on a method of putting resveratrol extracted from the grape pomace into his grappas. Resveratrol is the beneficial compound in the skins of black grapes that acts as a scrubbing agent in your veins and arteries, washing away the low-density lipoproteins (the bad part of cholesterol) that can accumulate, block blood flow and cause heart disease.

When it comes to tasting grappa, unlike wine, you don't swirl the glass. The reason is that the evaporating alcohol as it rises can anaesthetize your nose. Grappa can be as high as 60 per cent alcohol. When Sandro Bottega is tasting grappa seriously he drinks milk between each sample. Together we sampled a range of grappas that included ten single varieties followed by a series of grappas that had been aged in oak barrels and ending with some liqueur grappas.

Grappas from single grape varieties:

  • Falanghina – spicy, white pepper
  • Greco di Tufo – round, touch of chocolate sweetness
  • Prosecco – light and fruity
  • Sauvignon Blanc – floral, clove
  • Nero d'Avola – light, fragrant, perfumed
  • Cabernet – apple
  • Nebbiolo da Barolo – floral
  • Brunello di Montalcino – spicy
  • Amarone – raisiny, sweet tobacco
  • Amarone at 60% – hefty, woody, minty

Wood-aged grappas:

  • Cabernet-Merlot (Hungarian oak) – spicy, oaky
  • Grappa Sandro Bottega Fumé (Prosecco) – spicy, tealeaf
  • Grappa Maestri (Prosecco di Cartizze) – sweet, spicy nutmeg, clove, mellow
  • Grappa Sandra Bottega Fumé 80% alc. Prosecco (unfiltered) – oaky, vanilla, toasty

Liqueur grappas:

  • Limone & Grappa – intense lemon with honey
  • Coco & Grappa – coconut cream with licorice and cinnamon
  • Cannella & Grappa Bottega – intense clove
  • Marron Glacé Bottega – chocolate and roast chestnut
  • Fior di Latte Bottega – vanilla, white chocolate, rich
  • Gianduia Bottega – chocolate, hazel nut

Sandro Bottega has even designed a perfume spray bottle so that you can spritz a Martini, "correct" your espresso or flavour the end of your cigar. There is no end to its uses, it seems. A far cry from the white lightning that used to be grappa.




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