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Grappa, Grappa, Grappa, Gaja

I picked him up at the airport straight from Italy. He was a young, energetic Italian wine producer. We went from store to restaurant sampling his wines trying to convince buyers to buy. After all it would have cost them just over ten dollars a bottle. Although his English was not good (in those days) his passion won over a more than a few cynical buyers. The young winemaker’s name was Angelo Gaja and the year was 1983. Needless to say, in the last three decades Angelo has gone a long way. As it’s impossible to distill all of Angelo’s creativity into one short post, we’ll let Angelo do the distilling. Actually in this case the Distilleria del Barbaresco did the distilling for Gaja in producing three excellent grappe (plural of grappa) that each represent a distinct style of this most misunderstood of spirits.

Often considered nothing less than an explosive, better suited for a Molotov Cocktail than as the final touch to an fine meal, things have changed for grappa due to the efforts of a few extraordinary distillers. Today elegant bottles of grappa are now on the back bars of the best American restaurants - Italian or not. It’s true that mass produced grappa has more burn than anything else and homemade grappa may cause blindness (figuratively and literally), but when this spirit is crafted by dedicated artisans it is among the most delicate and elegant of digestivi. As with all spirits, the vast majority of labels are rough, industrial products. Only a few producers of whisky, brandy, rum and so on actually try to achieve greatness in their products and the same is true of grappa. In the hands of extraordinary producers like Nonino, Poli, Maschio, Pilzer, Marolo and the Castello di Barbaresco Grappe featured here grappa rivals the worlds greatest spirits - and costs as much too.

While all grappa is produced from what is left after the grapes are pressed for wine (grappa in Italian, or as the French call it marc) all grappa is not one thing as there are three distinct styles. Grappa made from white grapes is quite different from those made from red grapes. While the grappa from the red grapes has already fermented, that from the white grapes has not making the production process and the resulting spirit quite different. Grappa produced from white grapes tends to be more delicate and floral, while that from red grapes is more forceful and herbal. Then there is grappa gialla (yellow), which is aged in wood barrels that add sweet vanilla notes just as they do for Cognac or whisky. These aged grappe are easy to spot due to the golden color imparted by the wood as compared to the grappa bianca or the clear grappa that accounts for most of the grappa produced.

These three Gaja Grappe are offered as a tasting flight by Mustard’s Grill in the Napa Valley. While the tastes are small, they can easily be shared by two or three people looking to learn about grappa. This tasting flight is a great idea and hopefully more restaurants will follow this example.

Castello di Barbaresco Gaja Grappa
Gaia & Rey - Produced from the chardonnay vineyard of the same name, this spirit is elegant and refined with a spicy floral nose and clean, refreshing character. Just a touch of herbal warmth reminds where this spirit came from.
Sperss - From Gaja’s Barolo estate, this golden spirit is produced exclusively from their nebbiolo and then is aged in oak barrels. The oak adds roundness, depth and aromatics to this complex grappa that bridges the gap between clear grappa and aged brandy.
Darmagi - A classic grappa bianca from red grapes, the cabernet sauvignon from the famed Darmagi Vineyards. Meaning “a pity” in Piemontese dialect, this is what Angelo’s father called the vineyard after Angelo planted cabernet sauvignon rather than nebbiolo is this Barbaresco zone vineyard. Spicy, herbal and warming this is old style grappa refined by the art of the master distiller. Clearly my favorite of the three.

The warm glow fine grappa brings to your stomach after eating a bit more than you probably should have is a great pleasure. It truly is a digestive. As a starting place grappa from the moscato grape is the most elegant, fragrant and easy to like of all, but eventually, with experience I think you’ll go over to the red side.