The husky Italian
Originally published in Livingspace magazine
When nosing a glass of grappa for the first time, you don’t want to be overenthusiastic on the inhalation: it’s potent stuff, this fiery, clear spirit. But if you give it a chance, you’ll find it as subtly nuanced and flavourful as any premium brandy or whisky you choose to sip on, and delightfully aromatic too.
Nuts and bolts
‘Grappa is made by distilling fermented grape skins,’ explains Giorgio Dalla Cia, whom many consider to be the father of grappa in SA (wine aficionados will know him as the man behind Meerlust’s iconic red blend, Rubicon). ‘After you have drawn off the wine, the leftover grape skins – or doppies, in Afrikaans – still have about five percent alcohol in them. Distil wine, you’ll get brandy. Distil the grape skins, you get grappa.’
Though not always, we have to point out. Like the terms ‘Champagne’ and ‘Port’, ‘Grappa’ is carefully regulated by the EU and may be used only to refer to a spirit made in Italy, using Italian grapes. In France, the result of the same process is termed ‘marc’, in Germany ‘tresterbrand’ and in many other parts of the world, SA included, ‘husk spirit’.
Not that there’s a surplus of South African producers. And that’s a crying shame, when you consider the volume of our wine industry.
‘Pressed grape skins are basically a by-product of wine production,’ says Robert Rosenbach of wine farm and grappa distillery Tanagra. ‘At best, wineries use them as compost – often they simply throw them away. It’s a terrible waste.’
‘In a single-variety grappa, the character of a grape is captured on the spirit level,’ says Robert. ‘So you may enjoy a Cabernet Sauvignon wine with dinner, and a Cabernet Sauvignon grappa (Tanagra Marc de Cabernet Sauvignon, R210) after your meal. It’s quite fascinating to taste the character of the grapes in both the wine and in the grappa.’
According to Giorgio, until around 60 years ago and the introduction of new distilling technologies, grappa was still a very rough spirit resembling the way it was first made by North Italian peasants in the 1600s.
‘Since only the wealthy could afford to distil wine for brandy, the peasants tried using the skins and ended up with something rather like South Africa’s mampoer or witblits. You had to be macho to drink it – it could knock you out,’ he says.
‘A proper grappa glass is bulbous at the bottom, narrows in the middle and opens at the top, which is the perfect shape to release the flavours,’ Robert says. ‘But they are hard to come by in South Africa, so a Port or sherry glass will do.’
Regardless of the glass you choose, grappa is often taken as a digestif, a drink sipped after food to aid digestion. Giorgio says: ‘The aroma and alcohol supposedly stimulate the production of gastric juice – it’s a very good excuse.’
The Italians usually order it with an espresso, alternating sips, but they are also known to add the alcohol to coffee, which is called a caffè corretto, or corrected coffee.