The Glory of Grappa
by Stephen Beaumont
Oddly, the man behind the counter was asking me if I wished him to correct my coffee.
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I was in Venice, cultural capital of the Veneto region of Italy, where some 50 percent of all the world's true grappas are born. All about me, tourists were darting from attraction to attraction, carefully checking their lists lest they miss anything important. Me, I was content to settle in at a canal-side cafe and relax Italian style with a grappa and espresso.
But then there was this "correcting" question. I began to doubt my limited Italian, but no, a quick consult of my dictionary revealed that "caffè coretto" definitely meant "corrected coffee." This the guidebooks hadn't mentioned.
Prompted to elaborate on his query, the barman revealed that a "coretto" was a coffee with a small amount of grappa floated on the top. Deciding that the old "When in Rome --" axiom was equally appropriate when in Venice, I told him to correct away. One sip of the seductive combination of rich, intense coffee and faintly sweet, lightly fruity spirit was all it took to make me very happy I had.
So began my journey into the heart of grappa, and my discovery of the many roles grappa can play well beyond its standard guise of after-dinner digestif. "Caffè coretto" may have been my first grappa surprise, but it was certainly not to be my last.
Originally a fairly harsh alcohol distilled from grape skins, seeds and pulp, and thus a way to make maximum use of the leavings of winemaking, grappa has over the past few decades matured into a spirit as distinguished as single malt whisky or fine cognac. While it remains at its core the same basic product -- similar to French marc and German Tresterbrand -- the combination of improved raw materials and better distilling techniques, along with some very impressive packaging, has found grappa popularity among aficionados from Vienna to Vancouver, Tokyo to Toronto.
The key to grappa distillation lies both in ingredients and technique. While experts disagree as to the importance of grape variety in grappa production -- varietal grappas have become particularly popular of late -- everyone agrees on the importance of starting with fresh, quality grape pomace, which is to say the skins, seeds and such. And as steam is the only form in which liquid can legally be added during distillation, it is best if the skins have not been pressed to bone dryness.
In my pursuit of the real meaning of grappa, I made my way to the base of Monte Grappa, a northern Italian mountain in the upper reaches of which distillers once plied their trade in secrecy. In the picturesque valley town of Bassano del Grappa, I sat down for lunch with Jacopo Poli of the Poli Distillery.
An affable, energetic man, Poli quickly added to my appreciation of grappa by introducing me to the rasentin, a kind of "coretto" variation in which the coffee is finished and a splash of grappa is used to wash out the cup. For this to be successful, he explained with unarguable logic, the quality of the coffee is of paramount importance, for otherwise there would be no reason to rinse your cup.
A fourth-generation grappaiolo, Poli is the man behind a line of grappas so refined that in their definitive text on the subject, Grappa: A Guide to the Best, Axel and Bibiana Behrendt declare that "international gastronomy could not manage without [them]." As it turned out, passionate as Poli may be about his creations, he is also a bit of a grappa iconoclast.
While grappa is traditionally served either at cellar temperature or lightly chilled, Poli was enthusiastic in explaining to me how he discovered the merits of grappa on the rocks. Having been served an enormous glass of his own grappa by an unwitting Las Vegas bartender, and acutely aware of how it would look if he were to abandon the drink, Poli requested the addition of a few ice cubes in an attempt to temper the spirit. The result surprised him, he said, and opened his eyes to the different ways grappa could be enjoyed.
Now Poli espouses the virtues of grappa infusions and even goes so far as to endorse grappa cocktails, segueing smartly into a tale of a Brazilian barman he once watched create 20 grappa-based drinks in 20 minutes. As long as the character of the grappa is respected, Poli says, he has no problem with the idea of a "grappatini" or a grappa margarita.
"There are no written rules as to how to drink grappa," Poli said. "Sometimes we are victims of our own preconceptions."
Back in Venice, lazily noshing off a plate of the Venetian tapas-like foods known as cichetti and sipping from a small glass of modest white wine, I was forced to agree with his assessmentĘ-- and not just as it applies to grappa, either. After all, here I stood, once again savouring the inexpensive and delightful flavours of the locals' Venice, while outside the osteria's door the city teemed with tourists whose entire experience would be coloured by the pricey tourist traps surrounding the "go-to" monuments and squares. Victims of their own preconceptions, indeed.
I turned my back to the window and called over the bartender. The past few days had been illuminating, and I decided to celebrate my new knowledge with a glass of fine grappa. On ice.
This article was originally written for Food & Drink.
More on Grappa
In the first paragraph of their authoritative treatise on grappa, Axel and Bibiana Behrendt write: "Not since Scotch whisky conquered the world a century ago has a spirit managed to establish itself so strongly on the international market." And not since Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion has a book so successfully explained a drink often obscured by a cloak of snobbery and exclusivity.
In Grappa: A Guide to the Best, the Behrendts offer overviews of 130 grappa distillers and tasting notes on many more individual grappas. And to facilitate buying, photos of many of the elegant grappa bottles illustrate the entries. For grappa novices and aficionados alike, there is simply no better resource available.
Grappa: A Guide to the Best
by Axel and Bibiana Behrendt
Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2000
CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont is an ardent admirer of flavour in any form. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).
Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!
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