Friday, April 30, 2004
MY ENTIRE mouth is going numb. I can’t feel my cheeks and my tongue is starting to tingle. I am ready for the drill.
But there is no drill. I have just tasted a grappa. Well it’s not a grappa yet, but something that’s going to become a grappa. I’m getting a lesson in grappa from one of Italy’s finest grappa makers Bruno Pilzer and he has just given me a taste of the pure distillate of pinot nero straight out of the still. At this point it is almost pure alcohol and considering its potency it is round and flavorful — at least until it knocks out all the nerve endings in your mouth for five minutes.
Grappa comes from humble beginnings. Frugal farmers could not waste a thing, not even the grape skins, stems, and seeds (pomace) left over after the grapes were pressed for wine. But making grappa is not easy. Well, making good grappa is not easy. You have to get the leftover solids to ferment and then you have to distill them. The potential to make something that can make you go blind is high and then, even if you can make a grappa that won’t rob you of your eyesight, it’s likely to taste as though you’re drinking rubbing alcohol steeped with old grass cuttings.
While busily typing away at home I begin to feel a little light-headed and I soon begin to notice a strange sweet, warm, floral smell filling the house. Soon there is a knock at the door. There’s my neighbor Franco smiling broadly. “Come, come quickly,” he says excitedly. “The grappa is starting to come.”
He leads me into his garage and the aromas become overwhelming. Scattered around the floor are empty plastic bags that have been full of the fermented red grape skins that he went that morning to buy from nearby wine cooperative that sells them to home grappa makers. In the center of the room is a large stainless steel tank with a gas jet furiously burning underneath, out of the top comes a narrow tube that passes through a pail of cold water. At the end is a small spigot out of which drizzles a small stream of clear liquid that is dripping into an empty four-liter wine jug. It is now 9 a.m. and he started at 6 a.m. and the boiling and dripping will go on until early evening. Franco dips a stick into the liquid and then touches it to the flame and it immediately explodes into a bright blue flame that burns hotly for at least a minute. “Good, good,” he says, obviously pleased with the pyrotechnics. “That means it’s pure,” he explains.
Franco has been making grappa in his garage for five years now. “The first year,” he confides. “I gave it all away as Christmas presents because I was a little afraid to drink it.” However, these days he drinks it and so do his guests. Dinners with them are always followed by the arrival of a huge jug of grappa Bianca (white or un-aged grappa) at the table. It is potent stuff with no water blended in and is not recommended for grappa novices or those who still have taste buds. A portion of his production is blended with wild herbs and sugar to make a grappa morbida (soft), while to another jug he adds pieces of oak beams he got from an old building somewhere to make a grappa gialla (yellow — referring to the color the wood gives the grappa). The wood pieces actually do give the grappa a rich caramel color and a rounder flavor.
I am sure that not a day goes by where Franco does not enjoy just a bit of the production of which he is so proud. Personally, I think it best to avoid homemade grappa on a daily basis — or even on a monthly basis.
There are thousands and thousands of home grappa makers throughout Italy. The coarse, raw spirit they produce is the tradition of grappa and the reason it has such a bad reputation. Years ago the public was accustomed to the uncivilized flavors of homemade grappa and many of the early commercial producers made a product with the same harsh flavors, but at least they had the huge benefit of being safe to drink.
Poorly made distillates are high in methanol, a dangerous poison. Only with careful distillation can you reduce methanol to safe levels — a good reason to avoid homemade grappa. Today the Italian government strictly controls the sales of pomace for home grappa production to protect people from themselves. Theoretically home production is limited to three liters per year — a law frequently and flagrantly ignored in the grand Italian tradition.
The history of grappa makes life complicated for the great grappa producers of Italy. When produced with care, skill, and passion grappa becomes one of the most refined and elegant spirits in the world. Without this care it is the digestivo version of a Molotov cocktail.
The mountains of Trentino are heaven for amateur photographers. You can point your camera in almost any direction and take a breathtaking photo. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows in front of my camera frame a view that stands out even in this area known for mountain views. The room itself is spotless. In one corner stands a complex, brightly sparkling arrangement of shining copper pipes, tanks and gauges. In these gleaming, spectacular surroundings the Pilzer family creates some of Italy’s finest grappe: one drip at a time.
During the harvest brothers Bruno and Ivano Pilzer and their father Vincenzo can barely leave the distillery, one of them is there twenty-four hours a day and they have been known to sleep on cots next to the still: making great grappa has to be a passion.
“Distilling is not a simple craft,” explains Bruno. “It is an art based on knowledge, patience, skill and vision. For us, to distill with care and passion shows respect for all those who came before us. We have the desire to innovate, the experience of having produced excellent results and the ambition to improve. This is the philosophy of our family.”
Contrary to the image of a product made from leftovers, the grappa of Pilzer and other top producers are distilled from carefully harvested selections from specific outstanding vineyards whose growers agree to handle their pomace in precisely prescribed ways. The best vineyards for grappa are in cool climates where the grapes mature slowly and have higher acid levels. That is why the finest grappa producers are located in Trentino/Alto Adige, Friuli, Veneto, Piemonte and Val d’Aosta. All of this means distillers seeking superb quality can pay more for pomace than some wineries pay for grapes.
Once the grapes are pressed the race is on to get the pomace distilled. Exposure to oxygen robs the grape skins of aromas and creates other off-flavors in the grappa. Evaporation is also robbing the pomace of liquids and as no water can be added before distillation this is a critical issue. Top quality producers like Pilzer will have the pomace processing at their distillery within hours of pressing.
The process for making grappa from white grapes and red grapes varies significantly. When a winemaker makes white wine the grape skins and juice are separated (pressed) before fermentation. Therefore the distiller must let the skins from white grapes ferment before distilling them. Red wines are fermented in contact with the grape skins so the pomace the grappa maker receives has already fermented. In addition, these red grape skins have also picked up flavors from the new wine. The lighter pressings employed by top winemakers today means more juice or wine remains with the pomace and a more elegant, aromatic grappa can be distilled.
These differences mean that grappa from white varietals has different characteristics than those from reds. Grappa from white grape skins is more floral, perfumed and fruity. Red grape skins bring more complex aromatics and firmer, more defined flavors.
The next step is even trickier. It is easy to see how they distill brandy: you put the wine into the still and heat it until it turns into steam that is then condensed. For grappa mostly solids go into the still. The liquids to be turned into grappa are trapped in the skins and must be slowly released. Too much heat means the skins at the bottom of the still will start to burn and your entire batch will be marred by the burned flavors. It is a process that needs great skill and attention.
When the spirit finally starts to come from the still all the skill, art and science available to the distiller must be used to create the haunting aromatics of fine grappa. The first liquid to come out of the still is full of impurities because they vaporize at lower temperatures; this is called the head and contains the methanol among with other unpleasant components. The last liquid out of the still is call the tail and contains water and other impurities. It is only in the “heart” or middle of the distillation where you find the finest alcohol and aromatics. The more of the head and tail you throw away the more refined your grappa will be: it is an expensive choice.
Finally the grappa is aged either in stainless steel for grappa Bianca or in oak barrels of varying sizes and woods for grappa gialla for a minimum of six months. During this period small amounts of pure water are slowly blended in to adjust the alcohol levels.
What makes grappa unique and one of the worlds great spirits is the incredible aromatics that dedicated master distillers can extract. Like wine, with training you can distinguish between grappa made from different varietals — many times by the aromas alone. “What makes grappa unique,” remarks Bruno Pilzer. “Is that the aromatics are so pronounced that you can still sense them even though the grappa is already in your stomach. The aromas rise back up. This makes grappa the perfect digestive.”
Italians treat grappa with the indifference that comes with having something around you all of your life. Most grappa is ordered in restaurants and bars generically, grappa secca or a grappa morbida, without thought to a name brand. Much grappa disappears into steaming cups of espresso called caffé correcto as a midmorning bracer on a cold day. In fact, serious and expensive grappa is something no one would have thought of just a few decades ago.
Benito Nonino changed all that in the 1960s when he took over his family’s grappa business that had been established in 1887, but was in fact older as his great-grandfather, Orazio Nonino, had already be traveling through Veneto with a portable still for years. Benito was the first with almost every innovation in quality grappa production in Italy. He was the first to distill individual vineyards separately, first to bottle vintage grappa (1967), first with single varietal grappa and the first to introduce an acquavite d’uva, which he called Ué, the word for grapes in Friuliano dialect. Although this firm has grown in size they have preserved their quality — an unusual situation.
Acquavite d’uva may look like grappa, but it is not because it is distilled from whole, un-pressed grapes. The high degree of juice creates a spirit more delicate and fruity than grappa, but with similar mouth feel. Most of the top distillers produce both grappa and acquavite d’uva and its creation has added a whole new dimension and style to the category. Today there are even specialists, like Maschio in Veneto, who concentrate on acquavite d’uva. Their Prime Uve, from prosecco and riesling, is a wonderful example of elegance and purity of fruit. Many producers also distill acquavite from various fruits. These will surprise you for the clarity of fruit aroma and flavor the distiller can extract from the fruit. The Maschio Prime Arance, made from the juice and pulp of Italian oranges, is like biting into an orange with a kick.
Another innovator has been Jacopo Poli who, as well as making extraordinary spirits, revolutionized the industry with his beautiful crystal bottles, but beware: beautiful and elaborate bottles are no guarantee of high quality. Poli made their success by putting the highest quality grappa, acquavite d’uva and brandy in their elegant bottles. Their success created an avalanche of bottles that are more expensive than the spirit they contain.
For traditional grappa that is distilled with great care there are few better examples than Nardini in Veneto. Their grappe still have that warm, herbal spiciness that is lost by many of the modern producers in their search for smoothness and elegance. The small touch of rusticity in their grappa makes them an interesting contrast to spirits like Nonino. Nardini is a large firm and their grappa should be easy to find.
Now that grappa has become a bit chic many famous wine producers have their own grappa. Most of the time they do not distill it themselves, but contract with a professional distillery who has the equipment and experience necessary to produce high-quality grappa from their wine pomace. Antinori, Banfi, Badia a Coltibuono, Cerretto, Gaja, Jermann, Masi and Ornellaia are just a few famous wine names who offer their own grappa.
Even with all this effort and dedication the first sip of grappa can be a bit intense for the uninitiated. Like most spirits, grappa can be an acquired taste. The best place to start your grappa experience is with spirits produced from highly aromatic white grapes like traminer and, most of all, moscato giallo. The gentle fruit flavors and sweet fruit aromatics of moscato make it not only the best starting place, but a favorite of experienced grappa lovers.
The beauty of grappa lies in its complex mélange of haunting aromatics. The balance and delicacy of grappa and acquavite d’uva made by companies like Pilzer, Nonino, Poli and Maschio is unique and is unrivaled in the world of spirits.
Oh no, here comes Franco with the jug.