The best grappas are still Italian, but you’ll find an occasional American distiller trying his hand at this grapy spirit, with some very impressive results.
Grappa is made from pomace. That’s the pulp, skins, and seeds left over from the winemaking process. This is not to be confused with pumice, which is a type of crude, porous glass resulting from volcanic eruptions. Nor should it be confused with pomade, which is what rockabilly musicians wear on their hair. (Pomade, interestingly enough, was formerly made from apples, hence its name. But I digress.)

In less enlightened times than ours, grappa was considered an inferior spirit, one associated mainly with the peasant class, something to refresh the soul and relieve the body after a hard day of labor in the vineyards or the fields. Probably much to the surprise of many a paesano, just a few decades ago grappa became a cult after-dinner dram in fashionable Italian restaurants, preferred by the cognoscenti to stuffier (i.e., French) postprandial spirits such as cognac.

Compared to the homemade versions you might still encounter in the Italian countryside — rough-and-tumble spirits that can sometimes double as shellac thinner — today’s more-refined versions are often made from the pomace of specific grape varieties, or even from the pomace resulting from specific wines. Still, grappa is fiery and best taken in small doses. Amid the fire, you’ll find an intensely fresh, grapelike character.
JACOPO POLI AMOROSA DI VESPAIOLO ($65)
The Poli family has been in the grappa business for four generations. Like the alchemists of the Middle Ages, laboring over their retorts, today’s distillers are ceaseless experimenters. Jacopo Poli is no exception. Working from his base in the Veneto, he collaborates with many of Italy’s most celebrated winemakers, turning their leftovers into some of the world’s finest grappas.

The Poli portfolio consists of about a dozen grappas and fruit brandies. Several of the grappas are from specific grape varieties. The elegant Amorosa di Vespaiolo, for example, is made from the Vespaiolo grape, which gets its name from vespa, Italian for “wasp” (and a popular scooter brand). Wasps evidently love to buzz around this particular grape in the vineyard. I can see why. Elegant and smooth, the grappa distills the essence of the fruit, with pure, refined flavors of spice and white flowers. The decanter is hand-blown on the famed Venetian glass-making island of Murano.

GIORI GRAPPA NOVELLA ($25)


Giori is based in the Trentino, in northeastern Italy, where the Adige River flows down dramatically from the snow-covered Alps. Winters are frigid here, and for generations the locals have been making warming spirits to combat the cold. Giori dates back to the post-WWII era, when Ferruccio Giori set out in 1946 to make commercial grappas and other distillates in the traditional fashion, but geared to more modern tastes. These include not just grappa but also other Italian aperitifs and digestifs such as limoncello, amaretto, and sambuca.

I first encountered Giori at the 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, where its Grappa Novella took a Gold Award. Grappas labeled “novella” come from the pomace of novello wines, that is, wines made by the carbonic-maceration process. Giori’s Grappa Novella has a fresh but heady aroma and enough fire to take the chill off an Alpine winter night.

CA’ DEL SOLO GRAPPA DI FRAGOLINO ($35)


Santa Cruz, California-based Randall Grahm, owner of the ever-creative Bonny Doon Vineyard, is the mastermind behind this domestic grappa. Grahm is known for being crazy enough to try anything once, especially if it involves unusual grape varieties. He helped initiate the trend for Rhone grapes in California, and he now bottles obscure varietals such as Uva di Troia and Charbono.

Labeled under Grahm’s Ca’ del Solo brand, this grappa is made from American hybrid grapes. The Italians call these varieties by the collective name fragolino, since they tend to have an aroma of strawberries (fragole). The wines made from fragolino are usually fizzy, overt, and obvious (Grahm himself says they have an “Eddie Haskell-like fruitiness”), but when the pomace from these wines is distilled into grappa, the result is a spicy, forward, and floral spirit with long, mellow tones of grape and vanilla.

buyer’s guide


jacopo poli amorosa di vespaiolo; www.winebow.com
elegant and refined
a wonderful finish to an italian truffle meal

ca’ del solo grappa di fragolino;
www.bonnydoonvineyard.com
floral and mellow
use as a digestif after chocolate desserts

giori grappa novella; www.avimports.com
sultry and heady
perfect for cold winter evenings