The ancient Italian drink grappa is back – but not as you know it. A smoother and far more sophisticated Australian version is giving the Italians a run for their grape skins, where the once rough drop Nonno might have sipped after a meal is being replaced by a new luxury spirit circling his turf.
Pushing this local revival of grappa is Australian winemakers Pietro Gallo Estate. At last month's World Drink Awards in the UK they took out two top gongs – Grappa Di Prosecco scored Gold for Best Unaged while Grappa al Caffè won Best Australian coffee liqueur, inspired by the Italian classic Caffè Corretto (that's a shot of grappa in an espresso if you're wondering).
From Venice to Victoria
Based in Warrandyte, Pietro Gallo Estate is run by husband and wife team John Di Pietro and Anna Gallo. They have fond memories of grappa on their own family tables (with their fathers also making the drop at home).
A trip to Venice with their distiller Nathan Rigby in 2015 to purchase a $350,000 grappa-still got the ball rolling. Cost and access to this rather pricey machine is possibly the reason why there's not many willing to invest in making grappa in Australia. But the dedicated duo took the plunge, wanting to reignite a passion for it by putting their own spin on the spirit that dates back to WW2.
And Gallo is all about breaking down the stereotype of the traditional grappa drinker, shifting it from Nonno's business to hipsters browsing cocktail lists who'll happily indulge in a grappa sour over a whisky one. While you might imagine grappa to be a little hard to swallow, Gallo has brought a smoother finish to their version by way of floral and botanical to entice even the most skeptical of converts, adding new grappa-based recipes to the drinks list at their restaurant Olivigna.
The old in the new
According to Paul Gurry who works as Cellar Door Manager at Pietro Gallo Estate, winning Gold in the UK is a coup for the family run business that is merging the old-world tradition with the new approach while also challenging the stereotype of who drinks grappa.
"The still we purchased in Venice treats the grapes softly and allows us to capture the essence of the prosecco grapes," says Gurry.
"We love it because it can make a spirit that showcases Australian grapes using traditional Italian equipment. The end result is always a little different because we are using grapes grown in Victoria, but it wooed the judging panel which is a huge win for us," he says.
Pietro Gallo Estate's award-winning grappa is laced with notes of peppermint and pear; giving the strong liqueur a softer repertoire.
Made by distilling grape skins, pulp, seeds and stems (usually known as pomace) leftover from the winemaking process, the main difference between Italian grappa and the Aussie version is the use of local grapes from the Yarra Valley to take us down la dolce vita.
While the booze market is packed with grappa options, the main difference between an average bottle and an artisan luxury version comes down to how the single grape is treated. At Pietro Gallo Estate, it's all about a single grape distillate that isn't bastardised during the process by hanging around the still for too long. They'd rather run smaller batches at a better quality than the other way around.
Typically, you'll find all sorts of grappa flavours on the scene too – from woody to floral and fruit varietals, but the unaged grapes used to make the grappa in Melbourne comes in a slightly peppery texture that's less intense than what you might image grappa to be. They've also got a chocolate infused version for the sweet tooth if you're willing to cross the line but need an added incentive.
Secrets of the grape
The secret to Pietro Gallo's success comes down to perfecting the art of making it. It can take up to four hours to make 65 litres of grappa (on a good day).
"We mix 500 kilos of grapes with 500 litres of water and run that for four hours," says Gurry.
"Sometimes, to get a higher level of alcohol you would put that back in the mix and run it again, but each time you do that you lose the characteristics of the grape skins," he says.
"We would rather have small yields that capture the essence of those grapes and that's important in producing a high quality grappa in the end."
Nature's green is grappa
For now, the focus is wooing a new generation to the delights of a good grappa.
"We have mixologists adding it to cocktail lists and it's got plenty of relevance today," says Gurry. "It's become so much more than a digestive in 2019."