Grappa Grows Up
ention the word “grappa” and you’re likely to get the type of polarizing reaction that few other spirits typically evoke. Grappa hasn’t had the most stellar reputation in the U.S. — nor in much of Italy, for that matter. But such negative attitudes toward the spirit correlate directly with the quality of grappas to which the drinking public has been previously exposed. Much of what’s available at the odd Italian-American restaurant is pretty harsh and challenging stuff. But that could be changing as grappa distillers in Northern Italy are making a fresh push to get consumers at home and abroad to (re-) discover their traditional grape pomace brandy. In April I was part of a small group of American journalists invited to tour eight distilleries in and around the Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions — the heart of grappa production in Italy. The tour was part of the Hello Grappa campaign, co-funded by the European Union and promoted by AssoDistil (Associazione Nazionale Industriali Distilatori di Alcoli ed Acquaviti), the local distillers’ association. The common misconception around grappa is that it’s a lesser beverage because it’s made with the refuse from the winemaking process. While that may be technically true — pomace, also known as marc, encompasses skins, stems and seeds left over from the wine-making process — there’s as much pride and craftsmanship in the grappa distilling process as there is in winemaking. In many cases, these are family businesses in their third, fourth, fifth or sixth generation of operation that are as meticulous in their selection of pomace as wineries are in growing and harvesting the grapes themselves. And, in the past couple of decades, new traditions have emerged to adapt to the evolving needs of worldwide spirits drinkers. For one thing, single-varietal grappas have become much more prevalent, with individual bottlings based solely on chardonnay, moscato, Barolo (Nebbiolo), and other signature red and white varieties indigenous to the region. It’s easy to pick up the different flavor and aroma nuances when you taste single-varietal grappas side-by-side. Some exhibit more minerality, while others express more pronounced floral notes. In addition to the rise of single varietals, the demand for barrelaged grappa has surged as well. Two decades ago the concept was virtually nonexistent within the category. “A big change started to happen at the end of the ’90s as we started focusing on aging,” notes Alessandro Marzadro of Distilleria
WRITTEN BY JEFF CIOLETTI
With an eye on tradition, Italy’s grappa distillers adapt their spirits to modern sensibilities.
Marzadro in the town of Nogaredo in the province of Trento. “We were able to introduce grappa to people not used to it. People in central and southern Italy weren’t drinking it, but now they are. If we’re able to get it to central and southern Italy, we can get outside [Italy’s] borders.” The strong market performance of other brown spirits has given consumers a taste for two-year, three-year, seven-year, 10-year-old, and even older grappa expressions. At the distillery Castagner Acquaviti we sampled one that had matured in oak barriques for 20 years. Castagner is actually one of the younger players in the business. Founder and master distiller Roberto Castagner, who remains at the company, bet big on barrel aging two decades ago. His company had been operating as a contract distiller for other companies before he launched the family brand in 1997. “He understood that the grappa market would switch from white to aged and that’s why he decided to invest in the barrique cellar,” says Giulia Castagner, Roberto’s daughter, who, along with her sister Silvia and cousin Carlo, represents the second-generation management team. “He thought the barrique cellar would be the future and he was right.” Castagner’s bread-and-butter products are its three-year-old and seven-year-old. The company also markets a 14-year-old. And there’s absolutely no messing around with such age statements on the boot, as Italian government regulation on spirits production is pretty intense. Think the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 on steroids. Customs officers typically have their own work stations at private distilleries, as they’re usually on the premises a couple of times a week. There’s a large, circular metal seal on the door to each barrel room and the proprietors are only allowed to enter it in the
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