Grappa used to be thought of as your grandfather’s unpalatable after-dinner tipple, something you’d either sip so slowly as to take almost nothing in, or throw back quickly, like a shot.
It’s been around a little longer than your grandfather, though — since the Middle Ages. Grappa traces most of its ancestry to the Veneto region of Italy, where thrifty wine-making Italians started fermenting grape pomace, the glop of seeds, skins and pulp, much like their neighbors in France were doing with grapes and other leftover fruit to make brandy.
But grappa-making methods were sometimes a little simple, the proof a little high and the result a little rustically harsh. Especially in the United States, grappa almost seemed ready to die a slow death while other types of spirits — vodka, rum and gin — evolved and found favor.
But the drink is finally evolving to join the age of fine spirits, with much of the quality innovation in the New World’s wine regions.
California warms up to Grappa
Wineries like Muscardini Cellars in Sonoma and Araujo Estate in Napa are making tuned-up grappas, following in the footsteps of Northern California spirits companies such as Germain-Robin, Spirit of the Harvest and Aqua Perfecta.
Their smoother, better-made, more complex versions of grappa are getting the attention of sommeliers, bartenders and chefs, who are now promoting grappa as a satisfying digestif or an intriguing pairing for the dinner table.
Wine director Brian Casey at Estate Restaurant in Sonoma is at the forefront of this movement in California, having designed grappa flights for his restaurant’s historic bar as well as a gorgeously appointed grappa cart that is brought to tables after a meal.
One of his more inspired recent pairings was the floral, delicately smooth Germain-Robin viognier grappa served alongside yellowtail crudo in a grappa gelée and oysters. Another one-two punch is the pairing of house-cured meats with Muscardini’s barrel-aged grappa di sangiovese.
Bill and Caryn Reading of Spirit of the Harvest, in nearby Petaluma, make a vintage petite sirah grappa (current vintage is 2006) using chardonnay barrels to add peaty, caramel notes after the grappa has been distilled in a copper Armagnac still. Made from free-run juice as well as whole berries that have been drawn off prior to pressing and fortifying their petite sirah port, it is then distilled to 150 proof. After two years of aging and cutting the juice with water, it settles at 80 proof.
Spirit of the Harvest’s Unwooded Grappa, also from petite sirah grape pomace, is aged in stainless steel for two years. The result is brightly crisp and clean, so intensely floral that, if you were blindfolded, you might pleasantly mistake it for tequila. Both grappas retail for $35 (375 ml).
The Readings also make Sonomic Almost Vinegar, made from cabernet sauvignon must, which ends up sweet and tart with a shock of berry flavors and just the right tinge of acidity. Along with the Unwooded Grappa, fresh lime juice and mint, it makes for a deliciously different cocktail that’s a good jumping-off point for making your own grappa-based drinks that are nothing like what Grandpa used to drink.
2 to 3 ounces fresh lime juice
3 or 4 mint leaves
1½ to 2 ounces Spirit of the Harvest Unwooded Grappa
¾ ounce Sonomic Almost Vinegar
4 ounces club soda
1. Muddle fresh lime juice and fresh mint leaves with a couple spoonfuls of crushed ice.
2. Add Spirit of the Harvest grappa and Sonomic Almost Vinegar and stir.
3. Finish with soda and add three to four ice cubes.
4. Stir again and garnish with a wedge of lime and mint leaves.
Photo: Mint Condition cocktail. Credit: Caryn Reading, Spirit of the Harvest