The days before the first frost zaps the life out of summer crops is a pivotal time for winemakers: They have to choose when to harvest their late-ripening grapes. Extra hang time on the vine concentrates sugar and varietal character, but it's a high-stakes guessing game. In the spirits world, this is the time to distill wine and leftover pomace (grapes' solid parts) into eau-de-vie and grappa.
Grappa was an agricultural afterthought until the 1970s, when the Nonino family of Friuli, Italy, released the first single-varietal grappa distilled from Picolit grapes in a handblown, cork-finished glass bottle in 1973. This encouraged local winemakers to replant their vineyards with native varietals, instead of the French grapes that were popular at the time, and helped transform this region of northern Italy into a critical darling in the wine and spirits world.
Elisabetta Nonino recently walked me through her family's distillery, where there are more than 30 stills running continuously and as many stainless steel tanks that store each variety. This ensures the nuances of each is captured before the pomace dries out. Like the leaves of many fruits and vegetables, a grape's skin, seeds and pulp are filled with chemical compounds containing flavors that are magnified through distillation.
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Over in Oregon, distiller Tad Seestedt produces an aromatic grappa from Gewürztraminer pomace with eau-de-vie from the fermented and distilled juice blended in. In his early days, he recalls colleagues delivering bad pomace that was so dry he could blow it off his hands. Unwilling to compromise, he now presses the grapes himself to preserve the delicate aroma of local Gewürztraminer grapes.
Perhaps no one takes the quality of one's raw materials more seriously than Austrian distiller Hans Reisetbauer, who produces eau-de-vie from the grapes of some of the world's most prestigious wine domains including Roulot, Ott and Dönnhoff. On a recent visit, I tasted an eau-de-vie from Chardonnay grapes pressed, fermented and distilled by the master just two days after being picked from their vines in Meursault. It was like tasting the essence of white Burgundy under a microscope.
As you finish your big holiday meals, pour a fine grappa or eau-de-vie. Here are five of my favorites:
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