Grappa: The much-maligned digestif has evolved
on 06/12/11 at 5:19 pmBooze News
The bar at CinCin in Vancouver is a shrine to the ascent of grappa, Italy’s often maligned signature after-dinner spirit. Eighty-five bottles glisten from three semi-circular shelves, some of them beautifully hand-blown. Among the treasures is Gaja Sperss, from the famous Barbaresco wine producer. It’s not your father’s grappa, or, at least, not my Italian father’s. It’s much better than that.
“Grappa gets a bit of a bad rap,” said bar manager Colin Turner. “It now is very, very refined.”
Mr. Turner started the collection four years ago to help underscore the restaurant’s upscale Italian focus and showcase the evolution of a beverage that, like now-trendy polenta, was once identified with northern Italian peasants.
As with marc in France and aguardiente in Spain, grappa is distilled from pomace, the discarded skins, seeds and stems of wine production. Usually colourless, it can be as rustic as a cow shed, where, coincidentally, much of the traditional stuff was made, out of sight of tax collectors. I tasted my share of the raw variety in my youth, sourced in gallon jugs by my father from basement operations in Toronto. I recall a painful period when dad’s supply of unlabelled jugs ran dry. “What happened?” I asked. “There was an arrest,” he said mournfully.
Country-style grappa can have a jet-fuel aroma, barnyard flavour and Doberman’s bite, agreeable qualities if you’re trying to ward off the damp chill of a northern Italian winter. Even good commercial examples are not exactly demure. But the rot-gut reputation contrasts with the spirit’s transformation on display at CinCin.
Historically a man’s drink, grappa owes its makeover chiefly to a woman, Giannola Nonino. Now in her 70s, she’s the marketing whiz behind the 114-year-old Nonino firm, which launched the first super-premium grappa in 1973. Like a good chef, she understood that quality starts with fresh ingredients, even if you’re dealing with compost. Tapping top winemakers, she insisted on just-pressed pomace, not the gunk that would sit around for days.