Gary Eisenberg arrived on the wine and spirits writing scene in 1988, when the Associate Editor of L.A. Style magazine suggested that he write a survey article on vodka. He wrote numerous articles
for L.A. Style, covering such topics as vodka, grappa, pinot grigio, Armagnac, and Calvados. He also wrote feature articles for Patterson's Beverage Journal (a trade publication for beverage
retailers and restauranteurs), and for L.A. Restaurant News, (a consumer-oriented publication for discerning diners in Southern California). Eisenberg has traveled extensively in search of
distinctive and flavorful beverages, including as a participant in press trips to Northern Ireland and Poland. He was among the very first U.S. journalists to explore the Polish distilleries at
Lancut and Poznan, following the political changes that took place in 1990. Eisenberg proudly recalls that during his visit to the Lancut distillery, he was the only journalist who was able to
identify and distinguish the potato-based and rye-based vodka samples. During the ensuing decade, he has closely studied the taste characteristics of vodka, with an emphasis upon vodka produced in
How I Stopped Adding Orange Juice to my Vodka - From Poland to Florida
I had always considered vodka to be one of my favorite beverages, since the very beginning of my drinking career. Although I enjoyed its pleasures often, I really never took the time to truly appreciate vodka’s flavor. I would put it on ice, or mix it with sodas and juices, and would rarely pay attention to its unique flavor qualities. This thoughtless approach to vodka was to be changed forever, after one of my drinking companions introduced me to Polish vodka. And now, nearly two decades later, I can find a veritable embarrassment of Polish Vodka riches without having to cross the Atlantic. Back in the 1980’s, there were not that many Polish vodkas available to consumers in the United States. Those that were available were all of very good quality. Some were easier to find than others. I began to develop a deeper appreciation of vodka – particularly Polish vodka. My interest in vodka continued to grow, and at the close of 1988, I wrote a survey article for L.A. Style Magazine, about vodka from various different countries.
As spring approached in 1990, I received an intriguing invitation to join a group of wine and spirits journalists for a trip to Poland. Having become a Polish vodka aficionado, I gleefully accepted the invitation. That memorable journey transformed me from Polish vodka aficionado into Polish vodka devotee. Our first stop was Krakow, where we began our day at Wierzynek, the oldest restaurant in that enchanting city. Over the course of the next five days, we managed to consume copious quantities of Polish vodka, morning, noon, and night. We were, after all, beverage journalists, and we had a job to do. One of the amazing aspects of my experience was that I never woke up with a hangover. I would later learn that Polish vodka distillers employ many techniques and processes, to ensure that their vodka is free from hangover-causing impurities, in addition to having great flavor.
We were lucky enough to be invited to visit the distillery at Lancut, which is one of Poland’s most interesting distillery sites. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only distillery in the world that has its own Vodka Museum. On display are antique distillation devices, books (even a few novels!) written by distillery staff, and various unusual items of distillery memorabilia. We eventually found ourselves standing in front of several enormous wooden vats that are used for the purpose of aging. I began to feel a wave of intoxication coming, just from the aroma that engulfed me. The distillery staff explained to us that a combination of age-old methods and modern technology is utilized in the production of vodka at the Lancut distillery. Some of the distillation techniques are commonly known, while others are closely guarded secrets. I learned that as the incredibly complex distillation process takes place, it is the task of the master distiller to sniff at a special location. He does this at specified intervals, to assess the quality of the vodka-in-progress. I asked the distillery director if there is any special equipment utilized for this purpose, and he responded by telling me, “Yes – the master distiller’s nose!” The vodka experts at Lancut rely upon their sensory expertise - not fancy computerized equipment – to ensure that the highest quality standards are maintained.
Before we could completely recover from our distillery visit (which, naturally enough, included a vodka tasting), we were informed that we were being taken to a salt mine. I began to ponder why a group of beverage journalists would be interested in exploring a salt mine, as we descended the mine in an ancient elevator. After descending deep into the mine in an ancient elevator, for what seemed like hundreds of feet, we found ourselves standing before what appeared to be a bar and adjacent dance hall! And near the bar, we observed a beautifully carved wooden tribute to Bacchus. We learned that these recreational facilities were provided to the hard-working miners – but only, of course, after they had completed their work for the day. It became clear to me that in Poland, vodka is not just a beverage – it is an integral part of Polish life and culture, as it has been for centuries. At the conclusion of my visit to Lancut, I had the opportunity to taste several pairings of vodka with different foods. I discovered that as with fine wine, vodka can be appreciated with certain foods (such as caviar or smoked fish, for example), in a manner that enhances one’s appreciation of both the vodka and one’s meal.
On my last day in Poland, one of the distillery officials told me a funny story. He was in Budapest at a special convention, to present vodka to the various tourists. On the second day, the General Director of an immense tourist firm based in the U.S. came and asked for some orange juice. The distillery official told him, “I sell vodka, not orange juice.” The tourism official responded, “OK, so give me some orange juice with some vodka in it.” The distillery official replied, “Well, I’ll give you some vodka on the rocks, and taste it – do not spoil the taste with orange juice. If you do not like it, I will add orange juice.” Well, the tourism official tasted the vodka and apparently liked it, because he had another one without orange juice. And in the end, he didn’t get any orange juice at all!
I heard another story about how serious the Polish are with regard to their vodka. This one was told to me by a friend who had spent several winters in Warsaw during the early 1980’s. It was back in the days of rationing, and he was standing in a long queue on “Vodka Day” (this is how my friend referred to the designated days on which vodka was offered for sale), waiting for his turn to purchase a bottle. It was freezing cold, and the snow was falling. All of a sudden, right in front of him, this fellow cuts into the line, causing others to protest angrily. One of them asks him, “Who in HELL do you think you are, cutting in line like this? Why don’t you get in line at the end, like you’re supposed to do? Well, the fellow shouted back, “Because I’m THIRSTY!” My friend was shocked, when the reply to the thirsty denizen was, “Well, that’s DIFFERENT. Please be my guest!” And, incredibly, the other people standing in line did not protest further.
After returning home, my vodka research began in earnest. I scoured the shelves of specialty wine and liquor shops for vodkas I had not seen before, focusing my effort on vodkas from Poland. As the years went by, I noticed that with increasing frequency, new Polish vodkas began to appear on the store shelves. As it turns out, the Polish distilleries have been quite busy since my 1990 visit. At the Lancut distillery, they have been working on a fascinating “vintage” vodka project. The distillery master has experimented different wood-aging techniques, using various types of wood barrels, and varying amounts of time in the wood. Vodka is coming of age in America. In addition to the multitude of vodkas being produced in Vodka’s Polish and Russian homelands, we are now seeing many excellent vodkas being produced here in the United States. One of the latest American made vodkas to make its debut is V6, which is distilled and bottled by Empire Winery & Distillery in Florida, from select rye grain that has its source in the Midwest. V6 Vodka is the result of four generations of Old World vodka distillation secrets, created under the skillful watch of the Kasprow family. It all starts with the purest distilled water. Empire Winery & Distillery selects only the finest fresh malted rye from the midwestern United States. After adding their carefully developed yeast and completing the fermentation process, V6 is distilled six times in small copper potstills, keeping only the purest distillate. They have discovered the six is the magic number. Less than six distillations results in a product that lacks purity. More than six distillations robs a vodka of its flavor characteristics. Speaking of flavor, it is the use of small copper potstills that puts V6 in a flavor class of it is own. To complete the process, V6 is mellowed using only the finest select oak and maple, for slow charcoal filtration. V6 is then put through an aging process, which allows the flavors to blend and mellow. After the angels have taken their share, the vodka is filtered a second time, to ensure absolute purity. All this effort really pays off, both in terms of flavor characteristics, as well as the lack of hangover upon awakening the next morning.
Photograph by Neal Brown
CALVADOS: THE AFTERMATH OF A SHIPWRECK
(Originally published by LA Style Magazine - April 1989)
1588 was an historic year for Calvados, for it was in that year that the Calvadór, a ship from the Spanish Armada of Phillip II, smashed into the rocky Normandy coast. Legend has it that the area where this shipwreck occurred took on the name Calvados, which later came to refer to a much larger surrounding area. Normandy is world-renown for its fine foods - its apples enjoy the same cherished reputation. Since the middle of the 16th century, the Calvados region of France has produced brandies made from apples. By the beginning of the 19th century, this apple brandy had become known as Calvados.
The apples are carefully selected and then crushed, to extract the juice. The juice is fermented naturally for at least one month (to a level of at least four percent alcohol), after which it is distilled. The finest Calvados is referred to as A.O.C. (Appelation d’Origine Controlée). It comes from Pays d’Auge (a small area located in the heart of the Calvados region) and is always twice distilled in an “alambic Charentais” (pot still). The distillation process for Calvados is quite involved, requiring the highly developed skills of a master distiller. Other Calvados producing areas may use a continuous still (somewhat less costly and laborious than the pot still). These Calvados are referred to as A.O.R. (Appelation d’Origine Reglementée), and are of a lesser quality. A.O.R. Calvados is rarely exported to the U.S. All A.O.C. Calvados is submitted to the Institute National des Appelations (INAO), an agency of the French Government, for approval. If approved, the Calvados is then aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years, where it develops its own distinguished personality as it matures to perfection. When the age is stated on the bottle, the number of years refers to the youngest spirits in the blend. Calvados producers sometimes offer single vintage unblended Calvados. Vintage Calvados is rarely available, and usually fetches prices which give pause to even the most profligate among us. Several Calvados producers grow their own apples, producing their brandy from start to finish, while others create blends gathered from various carefully chosen sources. Selecting and blending Calvados is a highly developed art which can produce magnificent results. As with fine cognacs, Calvados producers employ several different terms to refer to their highest quality products. V.S.O.P. generally indicates a minimum age of five years, while such terms as Hors d’Age or Age Inconnu usually refer to Calvados with six or more years of aging.
Calvados has been the drink of choice in Normandy for many generations, and its pleasures are frequently celebrated by a special organization of devotees in the region, the Grand Ordre du Calvados et du Pommeau. This group holds ceremonial dinners in which gargantuan amounts of food are consumed, washed down by copious drafts of fine Calvados. Mark Salter of Wine Warehouse is one of only two American members of this society. He has vivid memories of his induction ceremony, which began with a proclamation, followed by an incredible array of food and drink. Members of the Order consumed a lavish nine course meal, each course introduced by a trou Normand (Norman hole). The trou Normand consists of a glass of Calvados between each course, which is intended to settle the digestive system and make way for the next sumptuous dish. As each course reached its conclusion, one of the members of the Ordre would stand up and call out for a trou Normand, which resulted in an enthusiastic salute and tribute to the magic of Calvados. As Mark puts it, “Those people know how to party”. In the midst of the festivities, Mark was asked to kneel down while the medal of the Ordre (weighing some 15 pounds!) was bestowed upon him. Mr. Salter was inducted into this organization at the same time as Christian Drouhin, one of the leading Calvados producers in the region. Mark also notes that the people of the Normandy region often use Calvados in their cooking, and regularly add it to their morning coffee (it can get rather chilly in Normandy).
We sampled nine different Calvados brandies. Each Calvados offers its own unique aroma and flavor. The older Calvados presents a concentrated bouquet and refined taste (not unlike that of a fine cognac) while younger Calvados is rich in the aroma of fresh apples, with less complex, more fruity flavors. All of the Calvados tasted are highly recommended, with choice dependent upon one’s financial resources and particular mood. Generally speaking, the older Calvados are more costly, usually in the $35-$60 range, while the younger ones can be had for as little as around $20. Vintage Calvados is rarely found for under $80, with the older, rarer vintages costing considerably more. All of the Calvados presented below are A.O.C. from the Pays d’Auge region.
Calvados Bizouard. Bottled at Chateau du Breuil. This Calvados is produced entirely at the estate, from the apple orchard to the finished aged product. Bright, floral nose, rich in apple and somewhat spicy. Apple sensation comes through clearly in the taste; pleasingly dry. Age is not specified. 80 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Bizouard Hors d’Age. Same producer as above, but aged for a longer period of time. Full-bodied aroma, strongly evocative of oak, with a slight hint of smoke. An echo of apple is present, which lingers in an enduring aftertaste. The flavor is dignified, refined. Age not specified. 84 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Boulard. Bottled at Pont l’Eveque. Light, soft aroma, mild whisper of apple. Clean apple flavor, not complex but very satisfying. Age not specified. 80 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Busnel Hors d’Age. Bottled at Cormeilles. Presents a sea spray nose bathed in oak. Somewhat of a carmel-like sweetness on the palate, apple flavor is subtle. Aged 15 years. 86 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Cour de Lion V.S.O.P. Bottled at Distillerie des Fiefs Sainte-Anne, at Gonneville above Honfleur. Like Calvados Bizouard, this Calvados maker maintains his own apple orchards, carrying out the entire production at the estate, from orchard to bottling. Baked apple nose with a suggestion of oak. Rich apple taste invites repetition. Age not specified. 84 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Cour de Lion 1962. Same producer as above. They also offer a 1968, 1963, 1950, and 1948. Deep, complex nose first offers a demure glimpse of apple, followed by a fleeting sense of aged wood. Soft, silky taste, suggestive of cognac; the apple comes through, but quietly. 84 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Dupont. Bottled at Victot-Pontfol. Nose reminiscent of a fine single-malt Islay scotch, though the apple comes through clearly. Tart, spicy taste with a hint of salt. 10 years old. 84 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Jules Duret 1964. Bottled at Jarnac. Subtle nose, faint breath of smoke. Crisp flavors, with mild biting sensation on the tongue. Apple is at first hidden, then begins to come out in the aftertaste. Aged in wood for 20 years. 82 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Pére Magloire V.S.O.P. Bottled at Pont l’Eveque. The nose presents a perfume-like scent of apple, with only a slight touch of wood. Flavor is mildly sweet and quite smooth, with a fresh apple finish. Age not specified. 80 proof. 750 ml. bottle.
Calvados Pomme Prisionniere. Bottled at Distillerie des Fiefs Sainte-Anne, at Gonneville above Honfleur. This is a truly unique Calvados, with an apple inside the bottle! Bottles are tied to the branches of an apple tree, and the apples grow inside each bottle. The apple-in-bottle process is difficult, with a success rate of less than 50%, thus a very small number of bottles is produced. Pronounced nose of Normandy butter and apples. Butterscotch sensation in the taste, followed by rich apple flavors. Age not specified. 80 proof. 1000 ml. bottle.
The best way to appreciate fine Calvados is at cellar temperature, in a 3-4 ounce brandy glass. Spend some time enjoying the aroma prior to sipping, for this is an essential part of the experience.
Photograph by Neal Brown
(Originally published by LA Style Magazine - November 1989)
I remember my uncontrollable laughter one evening several years ago, upon hearing a fellow bar companion issue a plaintive cry to his "doctor" (the barkeep) for some "medicine". He ordered an Armagnac, to which the "doctor" replied, "What the hell is Armagnac?" Since no Armagnac was available, the "patient" ordered a Cognac instead. He then admonished me to control my mirth, insisting that Armagnac is no laughing matter. Armagnac has been produced and consumed in Gascony (southeast of Bordeaux) for well over 500 years; it is some 200 years older than Cognac and is said to have taken its name from the Latin term Ars Magna (Great Art). For over a century it was used as a divine elixir, a medicine. By the mid-1800's, however, Armagnac had established itself as an enchanting beverage of pleasure.
Dr. Barkeep had meanwhile miraculously unearthed a long-neglected Armagnac bottle. Not to be upstaged by his customer, he brought the bottle forth, and with great ceremony, lit fire to two gigantic snifters. Horrified, my companion quickly doused the flames. He informed us of two reasons not to serve Armagnac a la flambé, the first being that excessive heating ruins aroma and flavor. The second reason is much more compelling: someone could get hurt. Seeking a path to eternal youth, Charles the Bad, 14th century King of Navarre, wrapped himself nightly in Armagnac soaked sheets. His aspirations went up in flames one fateful evening, when a servant knocked over a nearby candle and transformed the king into a human flambé.
Not deterred by this sobering tale, we decided to stay with the Armagnac. Armagnac and cognac share some things in common, but also have distinct differences. , while my companion compared Armagnac and cognac. Although both are made from distilled wine and aged in oak barrels, they are set apart by climate, soil, distillation, and aging. Armagnac's weather is somewhat more rugged than that of Cognac, and its soil is sandy (in contrast with Cognac's chalky terrain). Grape varieties used in Armagnac (and cognac as well) include the Saint-Emilion, Colombard, and Folle Blanche. Cognac producers are required by law to use the pot-still double distillation process while most Armagnacs are single distilled. Armagnac is usually aged in local Monlezun oak, while French law requires the use of Limousin oak for cognac. Armagnac is divided into three regions: Bas Armagnac, Tenareze, and Haut Armagnac. Like Cognac, its production is strictly regulated under French law. Armagnac is permitted to declare and sell vintage bottlings; Cognac is not allowed to do so. Blended Armagnac is usually bottled at 80 proof, but vintage bottlings often have higher alcohol content.
In recent years, a great deal of controversy has emerged in Armagnac over distillation and aging processes. Two major houses, Sempé and Janneau, have broken with tradition in search of the ideal. Sempé ages his brandy in Limousin oak barrels; Janneau has been using a combination of single and double distillation. Henri Abel Sempé, a French senator since 1955, began bottling his own Armagnac while in his teens and founded Sempé in 1936. One of his son-in-laws, Wolfgang Zoller-Sempé, told us that Henri Abel started his business on a bicycle fitted with pouches designed to hold Armagnac bottles. He would stop in at the local bars, have a drink, sell a few bottles, and move on to the next account. To this day, Sempé remembers the time his first customer of the evening slipped a sleeping potion into his drink (as a practical joke). He slept through the laughter, awakening after midnight to discover that he had lost an entire evening's sales! More than half a century after his modest beginnings, Sempé is now one of Armagnac's major producers; he maintains that Limousin oak aging produces a smoother brandy that ages more gracefully.
Founded by Pierre Etienne Janneau in 1851, Janneau is one of the oldest existing Armagnac producers. Pierre, the founder's great grandson, now runs the firm, assisted by two sons. We spoke with one them, Etienne, who maintains that although the use of the pot-still breaks with tradition, the combination of double and single distillation creates a balanced Armagnac that is floral and light, but has not lost any of its earthiness and character. Etienne pointed out that in addition to Armagnac's early use as a medicine, it was also prescribed in the form of a morning facial as a hangover cure. He has not tried this however, as it is not his custom to get soaked on Armagnac - to do so would be a tragic waste of sacred nectar.
Armagnac producers may argue about technique, but they seem to agree that their brandy is at its best at room temperature in 3-4 oz. tulip shaped glasses (which should only be washed in warm water without soap). Fill the bottom 1/3 of the glass, and pause to observe the rich amber color. Then gently swirl the liquid and bring the glass to your nose. Inhale the vapors (not the Armagnac!) while allowing the liquid to breathe. Then, have a sip, keeping the brandy in your mouth for a while before swallowing. When the glass is empty, bring it to your nose once again. The Armagnaçais call this the fond du verre (bottom of the glass), when Armagnac's constantly evolving symphony of scents is most perceptible.
Renowned restauranteur Michel Richard has fond memories of unhurried Armagnac afternoons in his native France: "Armagnac is like a postcard from Gascogny. You have the smell of the ground, you have the tradition, and when you taste with a friend, it makes a great postcard." He adds, "Drinking Armagnac isn't drinking alcohol - it's flirting with flavor." Although Armagnac is generally considered too precious for use in cocktails, fruits in Armagnac have been a regional favorite for generations. Rene Aversang, owner of Du Vin (who offer one of the largest Armagnac selections in Los Angeles), smiled as he recalled one aspect of local bar life in his native France. The workers would come in for lunch and order a prunneau en Armagnac. When the Armagnac was gone, they would eat their lunch (the prune) and then amble back to their jobs.
Francis Darroze. 1965 Domain de St. Aubin. Perfume-like nose, hint of roses, prune. Full-bodied oak flavor. Prune fond du verre. Darroze offers many excellent single-vintage, single estate Armagnacs, dating back to the 1940's.
Veuve Goudoulin. 1959 Courrensan (gers). Pepper and maple aroma, glimpse of prunes. Flavor suggestive of cocoa. Also available are an 8-year blend, 15-year blend, and numerous vintages from as early as the mid-1930's.
Janneau. Condom. Mentioned earlier, this house produces a V.S.O.P. blend of 10-year old Armagnac that presents a slightly citrus nose and smooth oak flavor. Their Reserve de la Maison is a complex, yet smooth 20-year old blend; the nose is vanilla and oak, while cocoa figures prominently in its flavors - a perfect introduction to Armagnac. The 1966 vintage is rich in cinnamon, apple, and oak. Cocoa and vanilla flavors are followed by a prune fond du verre. Their 1962 has a hint of apricots and plums on the nose, with oak flavors.
Laberdolive. 1976 Domaine de Jaurrey, La Bastide, Landes. Nose suggests dried leaves and fennel; full oak flavors, prune fond du verre. Several other single-estate, single-vintage Armagnacs are available from as far back as 1911.
Loubére. La Bastide, Landes. The Reserve Speciale is a 25-year old blend presenting a floral nose accompanied by orange and honey; oaky, smoked flavors, and an oak fond du verre. Also available is their Napoleon, a blend that is aged eight to ten years.
De Montal. Auch. Established in 1709, this house offers a V.S.O.P. as well as the following tasted vintages. The 1960 (Eauze) presents perfume-like scents of vanilla and rose. Plum and cocoa flavors, rich texture; prune fond du verre. Their 1939 (Panjas) has a powerful oak nose, as well as deep prune and oak flavors; sherry/tobacco fond du verre. Being one of the oldest and largest Armagnac producers, de Montal is able to offer a 3-pack sampler of rare old vintages in 50 ml. bottles: 1939, 1904, and 1893! The 1904 (Cazaubon) has a breath of pipe tobacco in the nose, and soft cocoa tastes, followed by a fond du verre of violets, while the 1893 (Cazaubon) is pure perfume with a whisper of cocoa.
Sempé. Aignan. Sempé's V.S.O.P. has oak and fennel aromas, with slightly smoky taste. Their 15-year old blend has a smooth citrus and oak nose with balanced flavors, coffee bean among them. (This is another excellent introduction to Armagnac). The Grande Reserve is a blend of older Armagnacs (many of them over 50 years old), presented in a striking triangular "prism" bottle. Aroma is suggestive of vanilla, while the smooth taste is somewhat prune-like. The 1965 has a floral nose with vanilla and cocoa flavors, while the 1960 has a spicier aroma and a flavor reminiscent of butterscotch on the palate. Their 1944 presents a complex plum-like scent and full bodied oak taste. All of Sempé's Armagnacs have a pronounced prune fond du verre. They also offer older vintages dating back to 1900.
Photograph by Neal Brown
Grappa - Italy's Venerable Flame Lights up Los Angeles
(Originally published by LA Style Magazine - November 1989)
My first flirtation with grappa was several years ago in Verona. We had come there for the opera, and had wandered into a local wine cellar, seeking refuge from the sultry summer heat, and also, perhaps, a drink. A rather strange looking small bottle winked at me, so I purchased it out of curiosity. It turned out to be a very inexpensive grappa, and I must say, my palate was not prepared for the experience. While this first encounter with grappa was basically pleasant, I was not terribly anxious to repeat it. Recently, however, good fortune permitted me the opportunity to try another grappa, this one of very high quality. Suffice it to say that grappa is now an indispensable member of my spirits cabinet. According to Darrell Corti, an acknowledged grappa expert and importer in Sacramento, the word "grappa" is a corruption of "graspa", which means "bunch" (as in bunch of grapes) in English. Grappa boasts a centuries old tradition in Italy, primarily in the northern part of the country. It has traditionally been a regional drink, with its taste owing primarily to the quality of the grape which is used in its production. The locals would often use grappa as a digestif, and sometimes as a medicine or disinfectant. Today's finer grappas, according to Mr. Corti, distinguish themselves from the more ordinary grappas as a result of process, rather than solely because of grape quality. Most of the better grappas are now produced from just drained (but not pressed) pomace. Pomace (vinaccia in Italian) is the grape material which remains after crushing the grapes for wine production. The better grappas can be compared to fine brandies in terms of flavor, while grappas of times past were of a much more basic and fiery nature. It should be noted that the French also have a long tradition with a similar type of drink, called marc. Grappa is made from many different grape varieties, and processing methods vary, depending upon the grape used.
The production of grappa is complex, with a very small yield. As a result, grappas are often in short supply, and the finer ones can be rather costly. Every grappa encounter is a new adventure in taste, offering an infinite spectrum of flavors. To further complicate matters, grappa producers sometimes add herb flavorings, or age the grappas in various different types of wood barrels. Aging in wood imparts a color, in contrast to unaged grappas, which are clear. Italians consider grappa to be an intimate product, to share with good friends and family after a full meal. Many grappas are produced at home, privately, and are not intended for commercial distribution. A visitor to Italy can feel proud, if offered a privately made family grappa. It is brought up from the cellar with great ceremony, and savored as one would enjoy a fine and rare cognac. Mr. Corti recalls a visit to the Nebbiolo producing village of Carema, located to the north of Turin, Italy. During this visit, he and a friend by the name of Luigi Ferrando (who is the major wine producer of Carema), went to visit one of Luigi's growers. The grower, Giusseppi (who goes by the nickname of "Pin"), is the local Carema grappa distiller. He produces his grappa clandestinely, which is said to be a common practice in Italy. Part of the fun of grappa production, it seems, is the mystique of doing it secretly, outside of the law, and this practice enjoys a long and cherished tradition in Italy. Well, Luigi asked "Pin" to display some of his grappas, which resulted in a tasting of some twenty five different bottles and jars. Some bottles contained various added substances within, such as wild strawberries, bark, or herbs. The scene brought to mind an old alchemy laboratory. After three hours of intensive grappa tasting, "Pin" said, "Now I'll show you some of the really good stuff". He then brought out the aged grappas. Needless to say, it became quite an afternoon. Then "Pin" was asked if it were really true that in the neighboring village of Pont Saint Martin, people ate cats (especially aged male cats) to celebrate the New Year. "Pin" replied, "Gee, I don't know, but I can tell you that it is very fine meat". This tale serves as one classic example of the colorful relationship between grappa and Italy's underground folklore. Grappa is best consumed at cellar temperature, approximately 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be poured into small (3 4 oz. capacity) glasses, preferably tulip shaped, such as those used for a fine cognac. Unlike cognac, however, grappa should not be warmed by the hand. Because of this difference, some grappa fanciers are now using champagne flutes, which concentrate the fragrance, but prevent the grappa from warming. I spoke with Mark Salter, an acknowledged grappa expert in the beverage industry, who warned me that grappa is best appreciated in moderate amounts. Mr. Salter remembers only too well what happened after he consumed an entire Italian wine glass of grappa (at one gulp!) on a bet, while in Italy. As Mark puts it, grappa is "very unforgiving". Enjoy grappa by savoring, for it is truly a drink which demands respect. Grappa is usually imbibed as an after dinner reward, but this aficionado finds the experience pleasurable at other times as well. The flavor of espresso goes especially well with a bit of grappa in the cup, a traditional practice in Italy. Grappa can also be used with fruits. Various fruits are infused in a bottle of grappa, and then removed at a later time and consumed as a dessert. Italians are fond of serving grappa saturated fruit to their guests as a morning pick me up. Although hundreds of different grappas are produced in Italy, only a limited number of these can be found on the shelves of finer liquor shops and in restaurants here in Los Angeles. The availability of grappa fluctuates (due to the limited quantities produced), thus some of the grappas listed below may at times be in short supply. Quality grappas vary widely in cost, starting at around $25.00. Prices change frequently (usually upward, naturally), depending upon the value of the dollar, demand, and availability.
Castello di Gabbiano (CHIANTI CLASSICO REGION: MIXED GRAPE VARIETIES). Unaged grappa, no vintage year noted. Alcohol at 84 proof. Presents a pronounced citrus nose, dark and heavy. Complex flavors linger on the palate, echoing the scent. Available in 750 ml. bottles.
Gaja Costa Russi (PIEMONTE REGION: NEBBIOLO GRAPES). Aged grappa, 90 proof. Neither vintage year nor aging data provided. Sauternes-like color. Strong oak and pepper nose. Oak taste, as well, although grape taste comes through pleasantly. 750 ml. bottle.
Jermann (COLLIO REGION: MIXED GRAPE VARIETIES). Appears aged (light Sauternes color); no vintage or aging dated noted. 80 Proof. Bright, crisp nose. Taste is light and fruity; this one is easy to enjoy at first exposure. 750 ml. bottle.
Marchesi di Gresy Grappa Martinenga (PIEMONTE REGION: NEBBIOLO GRAPES). Unaged, clear grappa, 84 proof. Nose is sharp, somewhat astringent. Full bodied and warm taste, reminiscent of a fine armagnac. Produced in very small quantities (this production run limited to 2543 bottles). 750 ml. bottle.
Nonino. It must be said that Nonino is due the lion's share of credit for elevating grappa's status to its current (and growing) level of esteem as a fine quality spirit. The firm had been producing grappas on a small scale since 1897, until 1973, when Benito Nonino's wife (Giannola) created a grappa sensation with a Monovitigno (single varietal) grappa from Picolit grapes. Nonino products are matured in glass, (not wood aged), thus they are all clear liquids. It should also be pointed out that all Nonino bottlings are limited, with the limitation stated on the label, numbered and signed by Giannola Nonino. The bottles are uniquely shaped, resembling laboratory beakers. The following were tasted:
Nonino Grappa di Verduzzo (FRIULI REGION: VERDUZZO GRAPES). 90 proof. The nose is pleasantly musty, earthy. Strong grape sensation at first taste, smooth finish. 250 ml. and 500 ml. bottles. Nonino Muller Thurgau (FRIULI REGION: MULLER THURGAU GRAPES.
90 proof. This grappa is only available as part of a gift set, in 250 ml. bottles, although a single bottle (from a divided set) can sometimes be had separately. Lilac scent. Faintly herbal taste, balanced by a hint of sweetness. Nonino Grappa di Picolit (FRIULI REGION: PICOLIT
GRAPES). 90 proof. Incomparably fragrant nose, satisfying even before the glass reaches one's lips. The scent recalls memories of fallen leaves on a misty autumn morning. Soft, cognac like taste. Radiating perfume. Forget the poetry, this one's the best. 250 ml. and 500 ml. bottles. Nonino Ue (FRIULI REGION: TRAMINER GRAPES). The newest creation, by Nonino, Ue is really not a grappa, but a varietal brandy. It is included in this grappa tasting, because of its close relationship to the other Nonino grappas, both in terms of taste and quality. 80 proof. A whisper of anise in the nose, which comes through somewhat in the taste as well. Smooth brandy finish. It should be noted that this is one of six available Ue's. Each of the six is made from a different grape variety, and is identified its own uniquely colored glass bead on the bottle. The above grappas can be found in high quality wine and spirits shops throughout greater Los Angeles.
Photograph by Neal Brown
(Originally published by LA Style Magazine - November 1989)
My acquaintance with Pinot Grigio began several years ago on a sweltering July afternoon. I had opened a bottle, hoping to quench my thirst, and was quite pleased with the results. The crisp, fresh style of wine continued to carry me through the long hot summer months without my taking much notice of its personality, until one memorable evening at Chianti Cucina. This Melrose Avenue dining spot had been recommended as a place to enjoy a tasty meal and discover new Pinot Grigios. While savoring their Radicci e Funghi, I tasted several wines which forever changed my relationship with this wine style. When the evening had concluded, Pinot Grigio was no longer just an acquaintance; it had become a friend.The Pinot Grigio grape grows throughout northern Italy, with its most noted wines created in the Northeastern regions of Fruili and Trentino Alto Adige, although other areas also produce this wine style. Dozens of Pinot Grigios are currently available, with new ones anticipated as the demand for Pinot Grigio continues to grow. We sampled wines from Fruili and Trentino Alto Adige. Friuli shares its border with Yugoslavia, offering a variety of Pinot Grigio regional styles, including Collios and Isonzos (from the hilly areas of Gorizia and Eastern Friuli), and Grave wines (from the gravel soil areas of Western Friuli). Trentino Alto Adige is situated northwest of Friuli, and has two distinct sections: Alto Adige (with Austria at its northern neighbor; it is also called Sud Tirol), and Trentino, which is directly to the south, just above the Veneto. Each region has its own special personality, which is reflected in the wine.
Chianti Cucina served us three superb wines which exemplify three distinct Pinot Grigio styles: MASUT G. Stelio (D.O.C. from Isonzo in Mariano del Friuli, 1987; floral, transparent, light), Pra di Pradis (D.O.C. from Collio del Friuli, 1987; richer, more body), and Castelcosa Grigio (by Franco Furlan, from Fruili Venezia Giulia, 1987; traditional "ramato" style, very full, complex). All three are estate bottled in limited quantity. Rodolfo Costella, Chianti's General Manager, notes the popularity of Pinot Grigio among his clientele, as it is extremely versatile and mates well with a wide variety of dishes. I later spoke with Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino's and Primi. Both restaurants serve a wide selection of Pinot Grigios, including. Primi offers Collavini (D.O.C. from Grave del Friuli, 1987; crisp, lighter style) as a house wine. Quality Pinot Grigios can also be found such dining spots as Locanda Veneta, Rex, Peppone, Celestino, Il Giardano, Prego, Madeo, Osteria Nonni, Angeli, Pane Caldo, and numerous other fine restaurants and trattorias around town.
Tony Poli, a Los Angeles area specialist in the import of elite Italian wines, notes that some of the finest Pinot Grigios are produced by very small estates, in extremely limited quantity. These wines are rarely (if ever) advertised, and stocks are quickly depleted, as fine restaurants around the world compete to acquire them. We talked about the new young generation of Italian winemakers, and it became apparent that they share several things in common with winemakers in California, most notably an emphasis upon state of the art technology and plenty of youthful energy. These young lions are bursting with bold new ideas, which hold the promise of a great future for Italy's wines. The story behind Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is a case in point. Until 1960, Pinto Grigio was produced in the full, big bodied ramato style. Ramato refers to the copper color of the older style, which is the result of contact with the skins. Then in that year, Rino Russolo, the oenologist at Santa Margherita, made an unusual discovery. While wandering through the vast cellars, he happened upon a cask of Pinot Grigio that for some unknown reason had no skin contact. The result was a lighter wine with a fresh, crisp flavor. Russolo was pleasantly surprised, and went on to develop what is now perhaps the most well known Pinot Grigio: Santa Margherita (D.O.C. from Alto Adige, 1987). According to Tony, the producers of MASUT and Pra di Pradis are both young men in their twenties. Bubbling with enthusiasm, Tony began to tell me about Masut. Masut is a viticulturalist, who went to observe winemaking at Romanee Conti and then returned to his native Fruili to produce estate bottled wines in extremely limited quantity. Central to his winemaking philosophy is the belief that the best wines are those which successfully bring out the inherent quality in the grape. His estate is comprised of only a few acres, thus he is able to personally control the entire production. No pesticides are used, close attention is paid to sun and shade factors, and vine density is carefully monitored. This is a very serious winemaker. Tony remembers a late evening visit to MASUT, when he found the owner in a worried, agitated state. A group of clouds was passing through the region, and he was concerned about possible deleterious effects of rain on his vines. The nightwatch continued into the early morning hours, when it became evident that the danger had passed. Masut then went out to the fields and spoke to his vines. Tony noted that Masut is of sound mind and body, but nonetheless regularly talks to his vines, to express his care and concern, and to perhaps stay in touch with their needs.
Most Pinot Grigio producers strive to achieve a consistent house style. Since the success of Santa Margherita in the 1960's, winemakers tend to aim for a light, crisp flavor, and achieve this by utilizing ultra modern methods. The grapes are crushed with a very gentle pressing (to avoid any mixture with the dark peels), and fermented at low temperatures (often in stainless steel vats), to ensure freshness. The lightest ones are usually aged in glass, while the full bodied, darker ones have prolonged skin contact maceration and are frequently aged in wood. Careful attention is paid to maintaining sanitary conditions, to ensure a fresh, clean taste. Not all winemakers are enthusiastic about the new lighter style, however, as many Pinot Grigio fanciers still prefer the traditional, more complex "ramato" style. Faced with a multitude of wines and a world market demand for a uniform standard of quality, the Italians have established regulations in a manner which somewhat resembles the appellation controllée laws of the French. Denominazione di Origine Controllata (D.O.C.) is the Italian assurance of origin and quality. Unfortunately, the situation is far from clear cut, as some of the best wines are not labeled D.O.C. (the producers often wish to avoid dealing with that bureaucracy), and conversely, not every D.O.C. wine is worth remembering.
The Pinot Grigios we tasted illustrate this situation. Two of these wines were not labeled D.O.C., yet these were among our favorites (Castelcosa Grigio; mentioned earlier, and Jermann; estate bottled Grave del Friuli, 1987). The solution to this problem? Taste them, and make a note of those found to be most satisfying. Pinot Grigio's personality is at its best when served at 46 to 50 degrees F. It is the perfect companion to seafood, antipasto, in fact almost any light dish. Experts and novices alike seem to be in agreement on at least one point: Pinot Grigio is a wine of many personalities, with a wide range of scents and flavors. The finest ones are (contrary to my earlier belief) well worth meditating over, while the simpler Pinot Grigios are a refreshing complement to the first course of a meal, or a Sunday afternoon picnic. Regardless of which wine you select, drink it as soon as possible, while it is young, fresh, and at its prime.