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  Corkscrew Issue 28, March 2005   
Matching Grappa and BrandiesMatching Grappa and Brandies  Contents 
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Matching Grappa and Brandies

Distillates and brandies are usually tasted alone and at the end of meals, however with a proper analysis it is possible to try a matching with some foods

 The world of brandies and distillates is an universe rich of emotions, sensations and - in particular - of intense, complex and strong aromas capable of introducing the nose of the wise taster into a new and pleasing experience. The world of brandies and distillates is also rich in production techniques, of accurate and patient aging done in different containers, and raw matters, that after a wise distillation process, are transformed in a crystalline essence in which apparently it is only the alcohol to be seen as the only result. Indeed, in this crystalline liquid, alcohol is abundantly present, and despite this is the main element in terms of quantity, the distillation process also extracts aromas and other substances capable of giving body and shape to a brandy.


Grappa and Chocolate: a classic
matching with distillates
Grappa and Chocolate: a classic matching with distillates

 In theory, a brandy can be obtained by any substance containing sugar capable of fermenting and therefore capable of producing alcohol. The main substances from which distillates are being produced are offered by fruits and their processing byproducts, first of all grape of which it is virtually distilled every part. Distillation also had the meaning of taking the most out from waste byproducts during the processing of raw matters and in order to make other products. This is the case of grape which pomace - after having being used for the production of wine and still rich in aromas and alcohol - is distilled in order to obtain a brandy. In fact, this is the method traditionally used for the production of grappa, the noble and ancient distillate produced since many centuries in Italy and considered as the national brandy. To tell the truth, with the term grappa are also mistakenly called other distillates produced in other countries, not all the times produced with grape pomace and not always having the same quality. It should be good to avoid this confusion while recognizing to Italy the sole paternity of this noble distillate, as it is witnessed since many century by the tradition and history of Italy.

 

Organoleptic Qualities of Distillates

 Just like for wine, before trying a hypothetical matching with food, it is important and fundamental to know the qualities of a distillate - or better to say, of distillates - in order to understand their organoleptic qualities. In this sense it is also appropriate to remember that distillates are never drunk - as it may happen in case of low alcohol beverages, such as wine and beer - and are appreciated in tiny sips and served in limited quantities. Moreover, the real distillates connoisseurs know the evaluation of a brandy - of any origin, quality and production process - is mainly based on the appreciation of its aromas, undoubtedly the most pleasing and gratifying part during the tasting of these beverages. Tasting a brandy with the sole purpose of appreciating alcohol and its burning effect is stupid, useless and - last but not the least - expensive, because high quality brandies have pretty high prices and the same effect can be obtained - however a deprecable and deplorable act - with cheaper beverages, of disputable quality and value.

 Every brandy - with no exception and no distinction - is mainly appreciated for its aromas and it is always and however consumed in tiny sips. This factor must be considered when a distillate is being matched with a food because the served quantity will be very limited as opposed to other beverages. Even the aromas of a distillate will be considered with extreme care because the matching with food will also be formulated according to this quality, a factor that - for example - is considered for the matching with wine as well. Alcohol in distillates - besides representing the main element in terms of quantity - contributes to the development of aromas as, besides having its specific aroma, transports upwards the molecules of other aromas, therefore allowing a better perception. In any alcoholic beverage - including wine - alcohol therefore plays a fundamental role in the perception of aromas and of their exaltation.


 

 Just like for wines, a good distillate is recognized by the lack of faults, a condition which can be obtained by using high quality raw matters - fresh and faultless - the quality of the distillation process, distillation system and the type of the alembic still. It should be remembered the distillation process is critical for the development and the quality of aromas. The aromas of the same raw matter obtained with a discontinuous distillation process are different from the ones obtained with the continuous system. The same consideration is also true for the materials used for the construction of the alembic. In distillates aged in wood containers - typically average sized casks, more frequently barrique - a fundamental role is played by the material used for the construction. The type of wood, as well as the volume of the cask and the aging time, will directly influence the aromatic and gustatory qualities of the distillate. It is also good to remember that during the aging in cask, part of the distillate - alcohol and water - passes through the pores of wood therefore causing a concentration of the distillate. This phenomenon is known in the Charentes and Gascony areas - in which are produced Cognac and Armagnac respectively - as part des anges (part of angels).

 Of course the raw matter and its organoleptic qualities represent a fundamental factor for the formation of a distillate's aromas, in particular for brandies which are not aged in cask. Fruit brandies and grappa - two distillates which are not generally aged in cask - take most of their aromatic richness from the raw matter to be distilled and the mastery of the distiller plays a fundamental and important role. For example, in case of the noble Italian grappa - exclusively produced by distilling grape pomace - the aromas are mainly determined by the ones found in grape's skins. This means in a grappa obtained with the pomace of an aromatic grape - such as Muscat Blanc or Gewürztraminer - it will be possible to appreciate the primary aromas of the grape used for its production. In this sense it can be said that in every grappa - provided it was distilled in respect of the pomace's quality - it is always possible to appreciate the primary aromas of every grape.

 Even though the aromas of a distillate represent one of its main pleasures, sooner or later it will be tasted in order to asses its flavors. The main gustatory characteristic of every distillate certainly is represented by the burning sensation of alcohol and despite this sensorial “trauma” inhibits gustatory perception for some seconds, in distillates are also present other flavors. Concerning this aspect it is good to remember the aggressiveness of alcohol - in aromas as well as in taste - is strongly influenced by the serving temperature. The ethereal quality of alcohol will be more evident at high temperatures, whereas it will be drastically reduced at low temperatures. In other words, a distillate served chilled will be perceived as less alcoholic although the actual and real quantity will not be altered at all. Besides the burning sensation, alcohol however has a basically sweet taste. Sweetness in distillates is not determined by alcohol only: it is good to remember in some distillates is allowed the adding of sugar or caramel, ingredients that will reinforce the sweet taste and - in case of caramel - the bitter taste as well.

 Acid and salty tastes are always considered faults in every distillate, however it is necessary to observe that acidity in distillates is always present and generally balanced by alcohol - as well as any possible added sugar - and therefore its apparent sensation is not found in quality distillates. The intensity of bitter taste - generally perceived after some seconds from swallowing the distillate - will be considered with extreme care according to the food to be matched. To this regards it is good to remember distillates aged in wood tend to be more “bitter” than distillates aged in inert containers. Of primary importance is the evaluation of tastes, of their taste-olfactory correspondence, quality, intensity, persistence and elegance.

 

Matching with Food

 Before proceeding with the matching with food, it is good to clear the fact distillates are never served or tasted like the other alcoholic beverages, such as wine, for example. This does mean distillates cannot be served as beverages for a whole meal as it would be very hard for everyone to stand to the intake of strong quantities of alcohol without having any obvious and unwanted effect. The matching with food and distillates is however meant as the service of a single food associated to a distillate, typically served at the end of a meal or in specific “contemplative” moments of the day, hopefully in good company and in front of a fireplace. This premise excludes - as a matter of fact - a long series of foods because it seems more appropriate to serve distillates only in particular cases. It must also be considered that not all foods can stand the strong impact of distillates, as well as not all wines can support the “personality” of every food.

 Let's begin with aromas. An aromatic distillate will always be served with an equally aromatic food. For example, in case a distillate has aromas resembling spices - such as a brandy or a grappa aged in cask - it will be appropriate to match it with a food rich in spices, such as spicy or chocolate desserts. A more delicate fruit brandy or an aromatic grappa, will be appropriate for the matching with a fruit dessert or a semifreddo, whose low temperature will also make alcohol more tolerable. This characteristic will also be useful in the gustatory phase because the taste-aromatic qualities of the distillate and of the food will tend to exalt each other. If we consider, for example, a food in which are present spices, such as Siena's Panforte or Terni's Panpepato, the spicy qualities of the distillate will be in perfect harmony with the spicy and robust character of the food. Concerning this aspect, it is also necessary to evaluate the taste-olfactory persistence of food and of the distillate: a food having a long taste-olfactory persistence will always be matched to a distillate having a long persistence.

 As already mentioned, the main gustatory characteristic of a distillate is represented by alcohol. There are foods that because of their physical and organoleptic qualities tend to cover the oral cavity and therefore diminishing the perception of other gustatory stimuli. This is the case of fatty substances, such as in case of some cold cuts and chocolate. Any possible fatty substance present in the mouth, by covering the oral cavity, will diminish the burning perception of alcohol therefore making it more tolerable. Alcohol also has a high degreasing effect, therefore it will be ideal for balancing and eliminating the covering sensation of fats and leaving the mouth perfectly clean. The association of alcohol and fat substances fully justifies alone the matching of distillates with chocolate and, in come cases, with particularly fatty cold cuts, such as in case of 'nduja, the typical and very good salami produced in Calabria, Italy.

 The most classic and well made matching of distillates certainly is with fondant chocolate, a matching generally suggested with Cognac or with Grappa. Both distillates are fully suited to this type of matching because - as opposed to wine - they are capable of supporting the strong personality and the high complexity of a food like chocolate. This food seems to have all the necessary qualities for the matching with distillates: intense aromas, strong and intense flavors, fats, long taste-olfactory persistence; qualities that usually shadow most of the wines and sometimes certain distillates as well. Just like for enogastronomical matching, even with distillates it is necessary a good dose of curiosity and enterprise: the important - as always - is to carefully evaluate the quality of foods and of distillates. Surprises will be endless and, finally, never forget the pleasure of distillates - as well as of wines - is never represented by quantity, but exclusively by quality and in particular by aromas.

 




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  Corkscrew Issue 28, March 2005   
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