Monday, January 02, 2006

Grasping Grappa

I would have to admit that I am more of a rhum and cognac man, but in the last 8 or 9 years I have become interested in grappa, mostly because of my discovery of the Italian kitchen.

When we were in the Piemonte in October we had the good fortune to visit a grappa distillery called Vieux Moulin which you can’t miss if you drive along the road from Asti to Alba because there are several large signs pointing the way. The place is pretty unassuming, there is a big dog chained-up in the court yard who heralds your arrival with a never-ending series of barks and the whole place has a pretty home-spun air about it. The distillery is a small enclave of buildings, built one-by-one as needed over the last millennium. We entered the show-room and we were greeted by the attractive young “Elena” who didn’t speak English but her German was pretty good (often the case in the Piemonte) so we were able to communicate. The first question I posed was about the origins of the name Vieux Moulin…was her family French? As it turns out, back in the 20’s when the distillery was founded all things French were considered vogue, so it was decided Vieux Moulin would lend an air of sophistication to their product.

Vieux Moulin is a busy distillery, especially in Autumn. They make perhaps 100 different kinds of grappa in at least another 100 different types of bottles. It is all pretty over-whelming really, but it didn’t take long for us to dismiss the hand-blown, gift-bottles and focus on their very special "Reserva" in the squat little bottle with the hand-written label and the big price tag. For 20 years this grappa has waited patiently in the keeping rooms and I have to say, the result is worth waiting for.
The afternoon that we visited Vieux Moulin, Elena was in the show-room and “Papa” was busy distilling. Grappa making is much simpler than I thought it would be. The skins and seeds that are left behind in the fermenting tanks after the wine juice is transferred to casks to age is called “Vinacce” in Italian. Tons of this stuff is left over after the press every Fall and most of it ends up at the distillery.

Basically, to make grappa you need steam… at Vieux Moulin it came from a large boiler located outside that piped-in large quantities of hot steam. Then there were about 5 or 6 large copper containers (see picture) where the “Vinacce” is kept. The valves are opened and the hot steam runs through the “Vinacce” and the "essence" is extracted. From there, the steam is cooled and the resulting liquid yields a mixture of condensed water, alcohol and methanol. Distillation columns separate the water and the methanol (which will blind you), and the result is “grappa” which is then run through a lead-sealed counter box (courtesy of the alcohol board...see picture) so the production can be tallied and the appropriate taxes levied. The whole process takes just minutes. The resulting grappa is something you could drink but it is much wiser to let is sit for a couple of years (preferably 20) and let it mature.
Grappa varies widely from region to region. Even at Vieux Moulin they use lots of different grape pressings like Arneis, Barbera, Brachetto, Corterse, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Moscato, Nebbiolo, Pinot and Chardonnay. There are even fruit and herb infused grappas. Sometimes they are blended and sometimes from a single grape variety. So now you see how quickly the showroom can become overwhelming.
With a little exposure to grappa and you will quickly develop an appreciation for it's complexities.


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