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Must & Grappa
Every autumn, full of the ‘waste-not-want-not’ spirit, I would scavenge the vineyard behind my house in the Napa Valley for grapes the pickers had left behind. It was amazing how many clusters of seemingly perfectly fine bunches were left hanging on the vine each harvest. To the grape-pickers trained eye there must have been a noticeable defect but to my under-trained eye, they were juicy, purple gems, just a little beyond ideal ripeness, that I could press myself.
This mini-harvest was manually crushed in my kitchen -- a fairly messy process. The end result was must, or fresh grape juice, in this case of Cabernet Sauvignon, and pomace -- the skins, seeds and stems.
The must, which is extremely sweet, ended up as an ingredient in cocktails or was reduced down to a syrupy fluid the southern Italians call saba, in Rome it sometimes goes by its older name defructum or sapa. Saba is great on fruit or as a component of a salad dressing. In Modena, the must is called mosto cotto. It is allowed to ferment and is used in their famous balsamic vinegar.
As for the pomace … unfortunately I did not have the equipment needed to make use of the pomace but if I did I would have made grappa.
For those unfamiliar with grappa, it is a distillate made from pomace. In the days of old Italy (as in serf times), land owners rewarded the laborers who broke their backs bringing in the harvest with the leftover pressings the duke had used to make nice wine for himself. As peasant life was one of never letting anything go to waste, stills -- brought by the Burgundians in the fifth century – were built to heat the pomace. The condensation would gather at the top of the still, then drip out. The liquid was bottled in common glass or rustic earthen jugs and eventually served after that three-hour Italian banquet the rest of the world calls lunch.
The unpolished grappas of old took their name from rapus, the Middle Latin word for grape, and were harsh drams that singed palates and burnt gullets. This changed in the 1960s and ’70s, when Italian cuisine, cooking, and winemaking came into vogue, resulting in a radical improvement in quality. Just as the mass-produced plonk that came in raffia-wrapped bottles improved or was outclassed by wines that called themselves “Super Tuscans,” so did grappa.
Today’s grappas are elegant elixirs that come in pretty bottles and teem with nuanced flavors – that is, if something nuanced can teem. But they are not for everyone. Most are quite hot on the palate, and some still possess an abrasiveness or grittiness many find difficult to enjoy.
A good entry-level grappa might be one made from a single varietal like moscato, picolit, gewurtztraminer, or Riesling grapes. These tend to maintain the sweetness of the grape and possess pleasant floral aromas. As one develops a taste for the drink, they may wish to graduate to the firmer, hotter grappas made from the big red grapes. In these grappas, the flavors are subtle and the aromas delicate, yet the impact on the palate is, shall we say, pronounced. It is this contradiction that causes many first-time grappa drinkers to think that all they have tasted is pure alcohol. The good news, they have not.
Grappa converts, called tifosi di grappa, which literally means “feverish” (as in typhoid fever) for grappa, rave about the drink. One enthusiast, Bergamo-born chef Donato Scotti, jokes that he was “baptized with the stuff.” Scotti is so passionate about the drink that when he travels home to Italy, the only thing he brings back is grappa. (On his latest junket, he was given a 1992 Jacopo Poli Barrique Grappa, an extremely rare distillate – uniquely blended and aged. Another was a grappa of Sangiovese made by a friend. Unfortunately, the friend has no bottling facility; the liquid is transported in reused, plastic water bottles.)
The norm in Italy is to have a grappa following a meal to aid in ridding the stomach of that I-can’t-believe-I-ate-the-whole-thing feeling. Commonly, people order a cafe coretto, an espresso with a side of grappa. Old-timers winkingly ask for a cafe fredo, literally a chilled coffee, which is espresso and grappa mixed. Or they’ll ask for a resentin, which means they slug back their coffee, then rinse their demitasse with a shot of grappa.