Annacarla Berta’s first taste of grappa came right around the time that most of us would be learning to form full sentences. While spending time with her father Gianfranco in their family’s Piedmontese distillery, the then-three-year-old stuck her finger in a recently distilled batch of grappa upon her father’s insistence. Her first impression? “I don’t remember loving it!” laughs Annacarla, now in her mid-twenties. “But now I like it much more.”
As the latest generation to carry on the legacy of Distillerie Berta, Annacarla knows that the general idea of grappa among Americans falls a bit closer to the first impression of her three-year-old self. After all, grappa, a spirit distilled from the pomace (leftover skins and seeds) of wine grapes, originated as a way to make use of the natural waste that comes from winemaking. It isn’t exactly known as being a “friendly” spirit, often likened to jet fuel or nail polish remover. And while Italians are proud of their grappa, it is thought of more as a practical beverage than a pleasurable one, favored for its strength, alleged ailment-curing powers, and ability to warm in cold northern Italian winters.
But Annacarla insists that this isn’t all there is to grappa. “I think Americans haven’t liked grappa because in the U.S. market there [previously] wasn’t a good quality grappa,” she says. It’s true; while many wineries sell grappa, few actually distill it themselves, and only a small proportion of Italy’s grappa is made in small-batch, quality-oriented methods. Of this higher-quality grappa, an even smaller proportion actually makes it to the U.S., with many producers choosing instead to keep the best product for the Italian market.
This is not the philosophy of the Berta family, which envisioned grappa not as a cheap byproduct, but as an artisanal spirit with potential. Originally founded as a winery in 1866, Distillerie Berta owes its standard today to Annacarla’s grandfather Paolo, who introduced in the 1980s the idea to distill grappa and treat it as one would a fine Cognac or Armagnac, by aging it in new, expensive oak barrels. At the time, this idea was unheard of, particularly in the Piedmont region, but Paolo persisted, and today, Berta makes some of the finest – and most expensive – grappa in Italy. Called “the Rolls Royce of grappa” by one aficionado, Berta’s top grappas are transferred into new barrels every three to five years, sparing no expense to age the spirit.
So how can newcomers to the spirit tell whether a grappa is worthy of long contemplation or merely cheap, harsh plonk? While the label is typically not of much help, a bit of research into the producer can go a long way. First things first: The quality of the pomace is key. “It’s the first rule,” Annacarla asserts. “If you cook with a bad fish, you cannot have a good meal.” Berta distills grape pomace from such famed wineries as Braida, Vietti, Gaja, and Giacosa; likewise, over in the Veneto, top grappa producer Capovilla distills pomace from the legendary Dal Forno and Gravner. The pomace must be kept fresh, moist, and cool, with only one or two days passing between pressing and distillation, and is inspected upon arrival at the distillery. Top grappa distillers are also taking care to distill the pomace of each grape variety separately, with more and more single-varietal grappas being produced, following in the footsteps of Friuli’s Nonino distillery, the first to bottle grappa in this style.
Despite seeking out a high-quality grappa producer, first-time drinkers may still find the spirit off-putting. To ease into that first sip, look for a single-varietal grappa from an especially aromatic grape, such as Berta’s Moscato-based “Bric del Gaian” or Capovilla’s “Grappa di Traminer.” The lifted fruity and floral aromas are easy to grasp as they jump out of the glass and cut through the alcohol on the palate. Nebbiolo-based Grappas are also good to start with, as they tend to be more elegant. And while they are often more expensive, barrel-aged grappas are excellent choices for grappa newbies. The toast from the barrel and extended oxidative aging softens and sweetens the spirit, transforming it into something more like a brandy without sacrificing that underlying grappa rusticity.
While you should taste the grappa as you would a wine or brandy, here’s a pro tip: Don’t put your nose too close to the glass when smelling! Gently sniffing about an inch above the glass will allow you to experience the aromas of the grappa without the fumes from the alcohol burning your nose. For those who are truly hesitant to dive into the world of grappa, dip a toe in by ordering a caffè corretto, an Italian specialty of espresso spiked with a shot of grappa.
Now you’re ready to seek out an approachable grappa from a high-quality producer and taste it like a pro; what other advice could help Americans truly love grappa like the Italians? “Love Italian lifestyle,” says Annacarla, putting the matter simply. So sip a glass after dinner to relax, act as the millenials do and order grappa while out at the bar with friends, or dip a piece of biscotti straight into the spirit as dessert. Any which way, think as an Italian!