At 12 noon in Manhattan, journalists at tasting events become vultures, swirling glasses of wine, stabbing toothpicks at fresh mozzarella and olives, sinking teeth into mini sandwiches and dirtying fingers in pasta (“More forks please, Oh heck! Give me your toothpick!”).
As eyes tore away from the sandwich swarm, they refocused on the nearby Marzadro table – the only one at the Vinitaly event to highlight spirits instead of wines. Marzadro was offering tastes of their Le Giare line of barrel-aged grappas. Bottles of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Amarone puffed their little chests forth, squat with nectar of caramel, gold and toffee.
Unlike brandy, which is made from fermented wine, grappa is made by distilling pomace – the skins, stems and seeds left over from pressed grapes. The result is potent and dry; a raw, white firewater.
However, Marzadro’s three grappas are much more refined. Aging their product for three years in small oak casks, the spirit not only picks up an attractive color, but also vanilla and spice-like characteristics. “Those who enjoy whiskey usually love the Chardonnay grappa. Those that love brandy and cognac go for the Amarone and the Gewürztraminer,” said the spokesman.
On my tongue, the Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer grappas stood out, so I brought samples to Carmen Picard, Mixologist at Bar Savona and Restaurant outside Philadelphia. The week before, Picard and I sat over glasses of Absinthe, discussing home bars. He brought a picture up on his cell phone, pointing out the modern glass on the counter. “I like that glass. It’s chipped but I still keep it. It’s like me, nearly perfect, but just a little bit off,” he winked.
He was reading Pride and Prejudice when I stepped into the bar. “I liken myself to Mr. Bennet,” he commented, as I slid the bottles across the bar. Picard twisted off the cap and waved the Gewürztraminer beneath his nose. “Oh! This screams Gewürzt; all that floral…” he gushed. Examining the two bottles, “Why are they different colors?” he inquired. “Are they aged differently?”
When tasting the two, Carmen zeroed in on the Gewürztraminer grappa. “The characteristics of the grape really shine through,” he exclaimed. Swirling the honey-gold liquid in a snifter he plunged his nose in the glass, “Oh yea man! …Smell!”
Poured into snifters, our coupled noses detected violet and lavender but also oak’s slight woodiness; sophisticated smoothness cut by bright and bitter citrus peel. In the mouth, grapefruit burst forth and a delicate menthol-like cloud, aroused by oxygen, wrapped my tongue. The following breath hit like sunshine, evaporating mist on a windowpane; realization at dawn.
“Anything can be mixed with anything. It’s just a question of proportion,” Picard stated, adding Amarena Fabbri and coriander simple syrup to the Gewürzt. Juicy sugars soothed grappa’s nascent burn while a bit more coriander, crushed and married with clove, heightened aromas without cloy.
“What is beautiful here is that we are able to respect grappa and not lose sight of it,” he said. “We are using other things to act as a pedestal and bring it to another level. Definitely a sipping cocktail…it’s impressive,” mused Picard.
Recipe by Carmen Picard, Bar Savona
1½ oz. Gewürztraminer grappa (Marzadro Le Giare)
¼ oz. Amarena Fabbri
¼ oz Coriander simple syrup
3 drops Absinthe (Vieux Carre)
Crushed clove and coriander
Combine grappa, Amarena, crushed aromatics and simple syrup over the rocks. Stir vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass. Anoint with Absinthe; adorn with orange peel, twisted to release aroma and studded with clove.
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