Variety is the Spice of Life

What Is It Like to Attend a Grappa Tasting?

Grappa Marolo at Via Umbria – What a Treat!

About a week ago I had the chance to conduct a Grappa tasting. This is always fun for me (since when is drinking Grappa not fun?) and fun for the tasting group as well. Even better, the tasting was held in Via Umbria, a unique, art-filled Italian café and event space in Washington, DC’s Georgetown, DC neighborhood.

The tasters were an elite group of copywriters and speakers, in town for a rare collaboration event hosted by A-List Copywriter and mentor Kim Krause Schwalm (who also happens to be Mrs. Grappa Guy). Once business was concluded on the last day of the event there was an Aperol Spritz happy hour on Via Umbria’s terrazzo, followed by an authentic Umbrian dinner prepared by Chef Liam LaCivita at his Chef’s Table in restaurant Via Umbria. Paired perfectly with Umbrian wines, we knew this was to be a memorable event, capped off with three of Chef LaCivita’s best desserts. The participants were a broad range of ages, with only one common thread: They were all copywriters (people who write ads for a living, NOT people who get copyrights!). Almost all had no experience with Grappa whatsoever, Virgins, so to speak. Kim wanted me to pair Grappas with the three desserts, so, it was on.

Here was the challenge: Using only 3 expressions, introduce Grappa to a new audience. I wanted them to gain a foundational understanding of the craft that goes into artisanal Grappas, as well as how variations in that craft can affect the taste of the Grappa. And the Grappas had to pair well with desserts.

I started by selecting the distillery, Grappa Marolo (Distilleria Santa Teresa Fratelli Marolo), a relatively new (since 1973) but quality-driven distillery. Paolo and his son Lorenzo Marolo are producing artisanal Grappas using single-grape pomaces in Bain Marie discontinuous stills, and they use special Italian woods for aging. I will be writing on them in more detail in the future.

I selected the following Grappas from Grappa Marolo:

+ Grappa di Moscato – An elegant Grappa, aged only briefly in stainless steel tanks. The essence of the grape is simply and clearly presented, soft and smooth with spice touches.

+ Grappa di Moscato “Dopo” – This is made from the same pomace as Grappa di Moscato, but it is aged for 5 years in oak barrels previously used to age Passito desert wines from Pantelleria.

+ Grappa di “Barolo 12 Years” – This is made from Nebbiolo pomace that was used to create Barolo wines. Aged primarily in small barrels (barriques) previously used to age Marsala wine from Sicily. The tartness of the Nebbiolo grapes comes through, but 12 years in Marsala barrels provides a deeper complexity. This was vaguely reminiscent of French Cognac, yet entirely Italian.

In comparison tasting, these three Grappas illustrate some basic differences in producing artisanal Grappa. From young Grappa untouched by wood, to moderately aged grappa, to long-term aged Grappa. It also illustrated the use of different grape pomace and the art of making Grappa which is the expression of the grape.

I bet you are wondering how the Grappas paired with Chef LaCivita’s desserts. Taste is always a personal thing. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should, or shouldn’t like, it’s up to you (“De gustibus non est disputandum”). That said, I try to use my “taste memory” to pair Grappas with food, for me that’s the real fun, when a grappa and a food just ring the bell together, the whole becoming more than the sum of the parts.

We tasted the Grappa di Moscato with chef’s lemony olive oil cake (he uses olive oil instead of butter for a richer mouthfeel and taste). Although light, it was rich at the same time. The floral, poached-fruit flavors of the Grappa playing nicely off of the citrus notes in the cake.

With Grappa di Moscato “Dopo” we had a Marasca Cherry tart with Ricotta and a drizzle of Balsamic. The “Dopo” really stood up to the tart cherry and rich balsamic flavors, with echoes of the sweetness from the Passito barrels used to age it.

Finally, with the Grappa di “Barolo 12 years” we had a chocolate chip biscotti topped with chocolate gelato. I usually prefer the complexity of “stravecchia” (aged longer than 18 months) Grappas with the richness of high quality chocolate, and this pairing did not disappoint, the two performed a nice duet in my mouth.

While I had my suggested pairings, the group did their own experimentation, trying the Cherry Tart with the “Barolo 12 years” and so on. This is one of the most fun things about a tasting, having different varieties of food with several Grappas, finding out what resonates with your palate, and relaxing with friends, old and new.

So that was the tasting. I had so much fun, I can’t wait to do it again! I could tell the tasters enjoyed it too – “I had no idea you can mix spirits with deserts for special flavors” was one comment.

Much gratitude to Via Umbria for providing an enchanting space, delicious food, and perfect service.

And of course, much, much gratitude and love to Mrs. Grappa Guy (Kim) for asking me to do the tasting, and putting up with someone who’s tagline is “I drink and I know things”.


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