We don't get through many spirits at our house. The odd single malt whisky or fine bourbon, the occasional Cognac or Armagnac, or maybe even a nip of well aged Calvados. But just a tiny tipple once a month or so. The average bottle life is probably well over five years. Hopeless really. However, whenever we watch BBC4's Transatlantic Sessions I find myself reaching for the top shelf. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that watching the Irish/American music filmed in an country house somewhere remote reminds me of being at a session in a pub in County Mayo, where my wife is from. This induces an elbow reflex. Anyway, last night we started watching a great session and I immediately found myself eyeing-up the spirits. It just happens. However, this time we eschewed the usual virtues of whisky or brandy in favour of a grappa. Yes, a grappa. Don't knock it, it can be wonderful!
Now before we get onto the grappa itself, let's talk about glasses. As far as I'm concerned most people make a big mistake in drinking Cognac out of those traditional huge bowl-shaped brandy balloons - all this does is let the spirit vapours fill up the glass so the overriding smell is one of alcohol, rather than the complexities of the drink. Now I'm not espousing having twenty different shapes and sizes of Riedel glasses for every different type of wine (I reckon about four to six styles should be more than enough), but getting the dinky Riedel spirit glasses is about the smartest glassware purchase I've made. As you can see from the image to the right, the small bowl at the bottom allows for a modest shot of the sauce and the thin flute section above concentrates the flavours without letting the fumes becoming too spiritous. Not only excellent for grappa, but also perfect for Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados in my opinion. Throw your brandy balloons away and go and get some! Now that's sorted out, what exactly is grappa anyway?
Well, wine brandies (including Cognac and Armagnac) are essentially made by distilling wine and then ageing it in barrels. By contrast pomace brandies (including the Italian grappa and the French marc) are by-products of wine, being distilled from the pressed skins, pips and stalks (the pomace or marc) that is left over after the juice goes off on its own route and is made into wine. Clearly this is going to be a courser product than a brandy made from wine, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's inferior. The quality of the grappa is linked to the quality of the wine that the pomace comes from - a Marc de Bourgogne made from the juicy pomace of a 1er Cru Burgundy where all the grapes had been de-stalked and the wine was only subjected to a gentle pressing is going to be much finer than one from the dry left-overs of a cheap table wine after every ounce of juice has been squeezed out.
The grappa we had last night highlighted just how infrequent our spirit drinking is; it was the final dregs of a pair of bottles of Camerano Grappa di Barolo, which we bought in Alba back in 2001! Most but by no means all quality grappas are aged in wood and therefore take on the same kind of hues as whisky or brandy (it's only wood ageing that colours the clear spirit), but there are some really excellent giovane, or young, grappas that aren't. The one we had last night was one of those. And how was it? Quite fiery for sure, as grappa is and should be, but unctuous, slightly oily, pungent with hints of pine nuts and herbs perhaps. Long and mouth-coating it was lip smacking and delicious. Very subtle flavours, not like the more obvious delights of darker spirits, but extremely fine nevertheless. An excellent digestivo.
I would heartily recommend going to your nearest quality Italian deli or wine merchant and picking up a bottle of fine grappa. I think I'll have to go back to Alba to get another couple of bottles to see me through the next decade.