Helen Roy on Grappa

For sommelier Helen Roy, food and wine has played an integral part of her life since childhood. Upon graduating high school at the age of fifteen, Roy furthered her education by first earning her Associate's Degree in Hospitality Management at CCA before spending several years in Europe managing restaurants and exploring different wine regions. Returning to New York, she received her Sommelier Certification at the International Sommelier Guild before obtaining her Advanced Level Bordeaux Certification at the Institute of Culinary Education and later went on to earn an Advanced Certificate with Distinction in Wine and Spirits at the International Wine Center in New York. After serving as Manager and Wine Director at Varietal Restaurant & Wine Bar, she returned to San Francisco where she serves at the Wine, Bar & Beverage Manager for the InterContinental San Francisco and continues her studies for the Diploma in Wine and Spirits, and works towards her Master Sommelier certification.

It’s not always easy to get people to try grappa. There are so many preconceived notions and horror stories of grappa tasting gone wrong that it can be difficult to convince someone that grappa can be good, better than good, or even amazing. But with gentle counseling, some free tasting, and a tour of the beautiful bottles, it is possible to get them to understand grappa, even if they aren’t ready to appreciate it.

Most misconceptions begin with how grappa is actually made. Those who have truly dismissed grappa altogether make The Face and say, “It’s made with the stems and all of the leftovers right?” Wrong. True, like most spirit production, grappa had a rough start, with production dating back well into the Middle Ages, but along with the advancements found in vineyard technology, the spirit has evolved, as good grappa only comes from good pommace: the pulp that remains after the grapes have been crushed.

One could write a 500-page dissertation on how grappa is actually made. But, for grappa’s sake, we shall stick to the most important information necessary to select quality grappa. Much like wine, grappa is made from red or white grapes. White grape grappas are made from the beautifully aromatic varietals found in the Northern Italian region near Veneto, where grappa actually comes from with riesling, gewürztraminer, and tocai Friulano/Friulano being the most popular. These grappas are fresh, clean, intensely floral, and full of complex aromas. Red grape grappas, like pinot nero, sangiovese, or the more commonly seen grappa di Brunello, grappa di Barolo, or grappa di Barbaresco are firmer, gripping with heavily defined flavors.

Gone are the days of squashing grapes into a bone-dry pile of nothingness, extracting their harsh green aromas and bitter flavors, and tossing the remains outside to dry out further and decompose in the sun. A true grappa artisan like Poli or Nardini collect the juicy and fresh pommace within hours of the crush, distilling it almost immediately to retain all of the finesse and elegance of beautifully ripened grapes gently pressed by a master.

To simplify, grappa can be divided into the following categories:

Grappa Giovane: referring to “young grappa,” this is grappa aged very briefly in stainless steel, yielding a taste that is fresh and aromatic.

Grappa Affinata in Legno: grappa aged in wood.

Grappa Invecchiata: grappa aged in wood barrels for at least a year.

Grappa Riserva or Stravecchia: grappa aged at least 18 months in a barrel.

Grappa Aromatizzata: a grappa liqueur infused with anything and everything, such as almond wood, chamomile, honey, or lemon verbena. These are usually sweet and are great for cocktails, or as a substitute for dessert wine.

Grappa is becoming very chic, and therefore many popular wine producers are now jumping on the trend. Gaja, Ceretto, Banfi, Macullan, Luce, Ornellaia and the rest are all sending out their highly prized and allocated pommace to be distilled and bottled for export into the American market. These grappas are usually all very good and enjoyable, but keep in mind that most of them are being made by very well-known grappa producers already prized for their craft, and so those original delicacies should not be overlooked.

A few of the most well-respected grappa producers include Poli, Nardini, and Marolo. Poli, widely known for beginning the craze of the beautiful hand-blown glass bottles, has been making quality grappa since the 1200s, and is a solid producer well worth the price.

Nardini boats the “first” real grappa producer title. This, like everything else, is debatable—but the quality of their grappa is not. Nestled in the hills around the picturesque village of Bassano del Grappa on the river Brenta (like Poli), Nardini grappa is bottled in standard liter bottles; most are simply labeled like the Bianca, Riserva and Riserva 15, made from cabernet, merlot, tocai, and pinot bianco. They also boast a wide range of infused aperitivos and delicious liqueurs, including Aqua di Cedro, a sumptuous grappa-based liqueur infused with the well-known thick-skinned lemons native to Italy; it drinks well on its own, and makes an even better cocktail!

Marolo Grappa, a producer found in the Piedmont region, produces extremely elegant and refined grappa in equally elegant packaging. The Grappa di Barolo, aged for varying years in expensive oak, is an amazing experience to taste vertically, while the Grappa & Camomile liqueur is a wonderful find, and seems to have sought out a home for itself in many of San Francisco’s finer restaurants.

Grappa for me (and I think for many who have been enjoying it well before its rise to fame) will always remain a link to the wonderfully relaxed, warm, and rich culture of Italy; it’s a truly beautiful spirit that embodies a sense of history and place.