The bar at CinCin in Vancouver is a shrine to the ascent of grappa, Italy's often maligned signature after-dinner spirit. Eighty-five bottles glisten from three semi-circular shelves, some of them beautifully hand-blown. Among the treasures is Gaja Sperss, from the famous Barbaresco wine producer. It's not your father's grappa, or, at least, not my Italian father's. It's much better than that.
"Grappa gets a bit of a bad rap," said bar manager Colin Turner. "It now is very, very refined."
Mr. Turner started the collection four years ago to help underscore the restaurant's upscale Italian focus and showcase the evolution of a beverage that, like now-trendy polenta, was once identified with northern Italian peasants.
As with marc in France and aguardiente in Spain, grappa is distilled from pomace, the discarded skins, seeds and stems of wine production. Usually colourless, it can be as rustic as a cow shed, where, coincidentally, much of the traditional stuff was made, out of sight of tax collectors. I tasted my share of the raw variety in my youth, sourced in gallon jugs by my father from basement operations in Toronto. I recall a painful period when dad's supply of unlabelled jugs ran dry. "What happened?" I asked. "There was an arrest," he said mournfully.
Country-style grappa can have a jet-fuel aroma, barnyard flavour and Doberman's bite, agreeable qualities if you're trying to ward off the damp chill of a northern Italian winter. Even good commercial examples are not exactly demure. But the rot-gut reputation contrasts with the spirit's transformation on display at CinCin.
Historically a man's drink, grappa owes its makeover chiefly to a woman, Giannola Nonino. Now in her 70s, she's the marketing whiz behind the 114-year-old Nonino firm, which launched the first super-premium grappa in 1973. Like a good chef, she understood that quality starts with fresh ingredients, even if you're dealing with compost. Tapping top winemakers, she insisted on just-pressed pomace, not the gunk that would sit around for days.
Ms. Nonino also based that first high-end grappa on a single grape, a prized local variety called picolit, typically used for dessert wine. Until then, grappa was made from an amalgam of discards, like a badly assembled wardrobe from a second-hand store, which yielded unfocused flavours. Picolit produced a fruity, slightly sweet spirit with a delicate aroma that suggested floral cologne.
Some may still dismiss it as a lumberjack on stilettos, and it's certainly not oak-mellowed Cognac or Armagnac. But whereas those fine French brandies are distilled from harshly acidic wines based on lowly grapes, top grappa makers like to boast that they use the pressed fruit of Italy's finest estates.
To telegraph quality, Ms. Nonino packaged her spirits in eye-catching, hand-blown bottles with handwritten labels. Other exacting producers basked in the glow of Nonino's initiative, including Nardini, Sibona and Bepi Tosolini. In Canada, the premium market was partly primed by Sandro Bottega, who exported a good, high-volume grappa in a distinctive bulbous bottle in the early 1990s. "The Italian restaurant boom was taking place in Toronto, and Italian cuisine was suddenly hip," says Philip Mirabelli, president of Noble Estates Wines and Spirits, which represents the brand along with Mr. Bottega's high-end Alexander Society varietal-specific grappas.
The evolving market has spawned sub-categories. Wood-aged grappas, usually amber in colour, tone down the fiery kick with nuances of vanilla and butterscotch. Trophy-wine producers, including Gaja, Frescobaldi and many Brunello di Montalcino estates, now contract with distillers to turn compost into cash. Always expensive, these can be sublime, including Grappa di Sassicaia, made by the excellent distiller Jacopo Poli, and Ornellaia Grappa (the latter available in British Columbia for $69.99).
And there are sweetened liqueurs infused with such ingredients as chamomile and amaro-style bitter herbs, which tend to go best after dinner or mixed on ice with club soda for an aperitif. Poli Amaro ($33.95 in Ontario; $32 in Quebec) is a perfectly tuned purple nectar of cherry and menthol.
The practice of pouring a splash into an espresso to make a caffe corretto – or "corrected coffee" – is one way to ease into grappa. But I suspect the custom grew more out of a need to render harsh spirits palatable than to correct universally fine Italian coffee.
If you're hesitant, a good place to start, preferably after a big meal, is with the style labelled moscato, another common dessert-wine grape. Il Moscato di Nonino (score: 94; $55.95 in Ontario) is my favourite moscato, delicate and fragranced with flowers and hay, with just a hint of sweetness. Po' di Poli Morbida (92; $59.95 in Ontario) delivers a plump core of fruit, smooth texture and slightly more sweetness than Nonino. It's like good vodka infused with the wine-harvest air. Considerably sweeter, ItalCoral Stradivarius Moscato (88; at a dollar off until Jan.1 in Ontario, $28.85) serves up dried apricot and flowers, culminating with a more classic, peppery kick, like ItalCoral's more generic, entry-level Rialto (86; $24.85).
But I believe red grapes yield more nuance and dry elegance. That's why I like the prize-winning Il Merlot di Nonino (95; $55.95), which captures merlot's smooth texture and plum-like flavour beautifully. Close behind is Sarpa di Poli (93; $39.95), made from merlot and cabernet.
Blurring the line with Cognac, Nonino recently produced 25th Anniversary Riserva UE (94; $116.95), distilled from uncrushed grapes (a process it pioneered a quarter-century ago). It was aged five years in barrels that once contained Sherry. Mellow and smooth, it whispers with fresh fruit and a note of caramel-coated raisin. Technically not a grappa, it will have my father calling for Giannola Nonino's arrest, I fear.
For more on grappa, see Grappa with Papa video: tgam.ca/grappavideo