Angelo Pellegrini once wrote that traditional Italian farmers used every part of the pig and would have eaten the squeal if they could have caught it. Similarly, for those who farmed grapes, the great quantities of skins, stems, and other errata left after winemaking still had a large amount of residual alcohol that could be distilled. Farmers gathered and processed the dregs through pot stills and rendered a rustic brandy with a fiery demeanor — an Italian moonshine wrung from the wastes of grape culture.
Over time, the production of grappa became a refined tradition of spirit-making. Bottled in fine Venetian glass and produced from select vineyards, vintages, and grape varieties, modern grappas let you taste the grapes of Italy in a pure, condensed form, their clean fruit and herbal aromas jumping from the glass atop a powerful layer of petrol.
These ultra-premium varieties are far removed from the rustic swill that once helped grizzled farmers brave the alpine snow. Well crafted and smooth, fine grappa still packs a pungent wallop, warming your insides with an incessant heat. With an average alcohol content of 43 percent (most are between 80 and 90 proof), they emit enough fumes to endanger your nose. A large enough whiff could ruin your evening — or at least overpower your senses. For that reason, grappa is properly served in a tall, fluted glass that provides ample clearance for your sniffer.
Despite the heady perfume of alcohol, the aromas of grappa are quite delicate. Just as with wine, various combinations of fruits, florals, herbs, and minerals define the nose and palate. But unlike wine, grappas are cloaked in a dense concentration of the fruit, deepening their distinctive character and providing a very pure expression of the grape from which they are derived. The result is a marvelous digestivo with the power to put you to bed.
Until the recent move to free-pour in South Carolina's bars and restaurants, few quality grappas were available in the required mini-bottles. This is currently being remedied. We visited Al Di La, where chef/owner John Marshall has assembled an admirable array of almost a dozen select offerings. Ranging from $6 to $18 per glass, they represent an excellent cross-section of the world of grappa. Here are some of our favorites:
Piave Cuore ($6)
More rustic than refined, this grappa represents the closest thing to backcountry farm swill that you are likely to encounter in town. But it's refined enough to offer loads of dried fig on the nose while tasting of herbs and rosemary. A great selection for those wanting to experience the true legacy of the traditional spirit.
Castello Banfi ($8)
Widely sold in retail stores, this Tuscan offering has a very strong, almost overpowering, sense of alcohol, but makes up for this slight flaw, layering herbs, raisins, and white pepper. At eight dollars a glass, it is a great buy for those who enjoy the considerable power that it presents.
Po' Moscato di Poli ($12)
The Moscato from Poli is a dream of a grappa. Refined and elegant, it opens the show with a very aromatic bouquet, smelling of pungent herbs with slight floral notes, and overflows with a distinctive flavor that could only be described as fermenting green olives, a slightly effervescent, assertive tang that mixes with the back notes of herbs and magnolia blossoms. A very smooth steal at 12 bucks.
Po' Uva Viva di Poli ($14)
This grappa, more assertive than the Moscato, has a totally different style. A blend of 60 percent white Malavasia and 40 percent white Moscato, it jumps out front with an initial blast of juniper and pine, which diminishes as the alcohol rounds out the glass.
Jacopo Poli Tercolato ($18)
This one will cost you, but if you want the real thing, you will have to pay for it. A world-class effort, the Tercolato, made from raisinated dessert grapes (Vespaiolo and Tocai), represents the best achievements of Italy's distillers. The grapes are dried on mesh screens before production, where botrytis, or "noble rot," (actually a type of fungus) attacks them, bringing sugar contents to 30-40 percent and creating unique flavors. Overall, it is a beautiful grappa and very much worth the splurge after a celebratory meal.