Grappa was once rough trade, the uncouth Italian peasant not fit to associate with the aristocratic grape spirit, Cognac. Then, in the fateful 1970s, picked up and taken home by the urbane rich, educated out of its rustic manners and dressed in designer bottles, grappa became chic.
For centuries this had been merely the fiery spirit prepared for workers from the stuff that winemaking left behind – not just in Italy, of course, but throughout Europe (it’s called marc in France, raki in Turkey, orujo in Spain, and the list continues). Distilled from the detritus of grapeskins and sludge left once all drinkable wine has been pressed out, potent and crude grappa gave the poor a shot of warmth in winter – and a bit of befuddling respite, let’s hope.
Now, with an image less staid than Cognac or other fine brandy, grappa is an ineluctable element of Italian culture – especially as a digestivo with espresso after dinner – and has a niche international following. Imitators, too, wherever wine is made. In South Africa it was only once distillation was demonopolised in the 1990s that anyone started making it here (the techniques differ from those for brandy, which is made from wine rather than wine’s solid residue).
In the Cape there’s a tiny handful of distillers of grappa – husk spirit is the official name, as the European Union insists that “grappa” can only be Italian, which is fair enough. German-born Helmut Wilderer was quick, he says, to get the first local private licence to produce grappa and schnapps (he also makes a range of fruit-based eaux-de-vie at his Paarl distillery).
Wilderer’s grappas, made from different grape varieties, are mostly pale-straw-gold in colour. All spirits are more or less water white – like vodka – when they emerge from their final distillation, and this remains generally true of bottled grappas. But a sojourn in oak barrels will not only add smoothness and extract colour (brandy gets its amber richness from years in oak) but also some subtle flavour augmenting grappa’s complexity.
The version Wilderer makes from from Tempranillo grapes is white; the Pinotage, the Moscato (with that distinctive grapey, floral character of muscat grapes), and the Shiraz Barrique Reserve have been matured in wood. The first three cost around R250 for a 500ml bottle, the Shiraz a little more (but worth the premium, I’d say) – and there’s a SIgnature Edition Pinotage, which I haven’t tasted, for double that.
It must be good. Wilderer’s seems to me the best of the few local ranges: refined, smooth and subtle. But possibly better known are those of Giorgio dalla Cia (formerly of Meerlust – as were his grappas). He, with son George, also makes a varietal range. The pricey Pinot Noir is the one that approaches closest to modern, highly sophisticated Italian grappa.
The best Italian stuff remains, however, a model of delicacy, focus, smoothness and finesse that we haven’t quite reached in South Africa – an opinion I hedonistically confirmed recently at Carne in Cape Town, where restaurateur Giorgio Nava offers over 30 first-class grappas, all but a few of them Italian.
Not on Carne’s list, but available elsewhere for the fussy, there is a genuinely organic Cape grappa, from Upland in Worcester, characterful and a little rustic. Which is not a bad thing for a grappa to be, remembering its humble origins.
Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 20-26 September 2013