Phi Grappa Crappa

Grappa isn't for wussies

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In a time, in a land far, far away [as read by that movie-trailer guy], a wine was born.

One visionary Italian winemaker spied a massive, fragrant pile of leftover grape seeds, stems and skins, and said, "Hell ... this could be tasty if I distill it." Pomace, as the discarded remains of grape fermentation are called, ranges from 80-120 proof once it's distilled, and many countries around the world (and many U.S. states) produce this clear pomace brandy. But in Italy, one man's pile of crappa is another man's grappa.

Most people have heard of grappa, which hails from a small town called Bassano del Grappa in northern Veneto, but not many have tried it. It's used as a digestive to calm a full belly or to warm the insides (rural areas of Italy still use it for many ailments). Grappa can be made from the pomace of pretty much any grape, but the fragrant varieties like moscato give an enticing floral aroma. Years ago, producers weren't particularly concerned with the blend of pomace that went into the mix, but in the early 1970s a renaissance occurred: the single varietal grappa.

Giannola Nonino, whose family had produced pomace brandy in Percoto, Italy since the late 1800s, singlehandedly upgraded the quality of grappa from crappa to good. She (not a typo) used a single-grape variety and employed an array of new techniques to compete with France's brandy spirits. Her efforts gave direction to a fledgling industry, putting grappa on the mappa.

Most grappas you'll find at the store are young, and it's best to drink it slightly chilled to smooth out the alcoholic edges. The aged ones that have had some time to soften can be consumed at room temperature. Since I can't stomach grappa, I've asked (begged) Eric Snider, my Editor Extraordinaire, to be the less-than-eager taste-test stooge for a selection of grappas. Here is his story:

"I started drinking grappa as a result of a when-in-Rome moment — literally. During a visit to Italy in the spring of '03, I chanced upon a bistro with friendly owners who poured me (liberally) a series of grappas. I was enchanted enough to quote Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Not the most pleasant-tasting stuff, I thought, but a masculine grog, one that I could relate to. I started drinking it at every opportunity throughout the 10-day Italy trip, quickly realizing the disparity in grappa quality. The bottles costing four Euros that I bought at road stops reminded me of gasoline, while the more expensive brands I sampled in restaurants reminded me of ... premium gasoline. Nevertheless, I drank it all.

"I didn't remain a grappa aficionado subsequent to my when-in-Rome moment, but I sip a glass occasionally, and still have a grudging fondness for the beverage. By the way, a few cheap bottles I bought at the duty-free shop and gave to my office mates as a present so repulsed my co-workers that they could barely choke down a thimbleful."


Sampled Grappas

2001 Grappa di Sassicaia by Jacopo Poli My favorite. If you trick your mind enough, and sample the other two enough, you could almost make a case that this one tastes and smells sweet. It has a rich, golden color. Warm going down — comparatively little bite or harshness. $60

Michele Chiarlo Grappa di Barolo This one has the most medicinal flavor, perhaps a touch of raisin mixed with old sweat socks. Stop around the house in '09, and there will probably be quite a bit left. It had me reaching for the Coke mixer. $38

Michele Chiarlo Grappa di Barbera D'Asti This one has the most distinctive smell. A hint of almond, perhaps? Or is it raccoon? It's marginally better than the other Chiarlo, but still on the harsh side. I presume it's not cheapie grappa, which makes me wonder what I was thinking in Italy when I drank the four-Euros-a-bottle stuff. $38

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