Always Room for Grappa

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my wife and i sat, stuffed to the gills, in our chairs at primavera, the famous upper east side italian restaurant. my belly was distended to the point of almost touching the table and a plate that once carried a slab of veal sat empty in front of me. this was a good birthday.

the waiter arrived, tableside, holding a long, thin bottle with a clear liquid inside.

"for the birthday," he declared, "we pour for both of you a grappa? on the house."

suddenly, i found room in my gullet for something else.

as natali smelled my small glass of grappa, she wrinkled her nose instinctively.

"maybe she'll have a limoncello," i suggested.

the waiter nodded and ran off for a glass of danny devito's favorite.

it was most likely no huge surprise to the waiter that at least one person at the table was not a grappa fan. it is, most definitely, an acquired taste. but those who drink it don't merely like it. they obsess over it. those who are truly fanatical are called tifosi di grappa, which literally means, "i have a fever for grappa."

grappa was made, originally, out of necessity. when wine is made, there is a tremendous amount of waste. all the skins and seeds (and sometimes even stems) are left over from the fermentation tank after the wine has been either bottled or put into barrels. at some point, an ingenious italian winemaker decided that it was a bad idea to keep throwing this stuff out. so he decided to make something out of it.

by pressing the leftovers (the pomace), a liquid is obtained that is then distilled. this results in a very pure, very clear liquid that is much higher in alcohol than any wine. because it takes so much to make so little, it is also very expensive. that exclusivity and uniqueness is celebrated in the bottles that are made to hold the liquor. often bottled in long, thin, hand-blown glass, the containers are as much a work of art as the stuff inside.

grappa had a bad rap for a long time, though. up until the 1990s, most of the grappa imported into the united states was made from a mixture of many different types of grape pomace. this made a liquor that was, at best, often strong and peppery. at its worst, though, it was a bit like drinking lighter fluid.

real grappa drinkers knew that the best grappe were made from single varietals, though. just like the wine made from those grapes, the grappe would vary in flavor and character, depending on what it was made from. the fever caught on in the united states, and now it is relatively easy to find great single varietal, or monovitigno, grappe.

my personal favorite is grappa di moscato, made from the pomace of the moscato grape. one of the best available in the states is the marolo grappa di moscato ($5.99 [50 ml] at k and d liquors, 1366 madison ave. at 96th st., 212-289-1818). the harshness of the distillation process is balanced by the natural mildness of the moscato grape. you can taste the sweet, floral quality of the varietal and even get a hint of the signature peach and nectarine flavors present in many great moscato wines.

if, however, you are bolder and your tastes run more to the adventurous side (or you just have something to prove), try the bertagnolli grappa di amarone ($29.99 [100 ml] at 67 wine and spirits, 179 columbus ave. at 68th st., 212-724-6767). amarone wine is made from grapes that are dried before pressing, so it goes without saying that whatever is left over from those already shriveled grapes is going to be strong, indeed. while the grappa has some of the characteristics of an amarone (dried fruit flavors and hints of coffee and chocolate), the main event is the peppery mouthfeel and the, shall we say, "warming" finish.

whatever your tastes are, give grappa a try before you dismiss it completely. you might be pleasantly surprised.


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