Fire On The Mountain

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In Italy grappa is as common as mopeds and Fiats. We know from dining in Italy that grappa has an unparalleled ability to come to the rescue after many plates of pasta.  Italians are known to lace espresso, or even cake, with a healthy pour of the stuff.  The appreciation has not quite crossed over the Atlantic – maybe people are confused about what grappa is (a distillate of the left over seeds, juice, and skins from winemaking,) or perhaps it’s the spirit’s fiery reputation.  The reality is that most grappa is not worth seeking out, but there are some that inspire cult-like frenzy. 

We’d like to introduce the fantastic grappas of Chambers Street favorite: Frank Cornelissen.  Frank’s respect for the extreme terroir and ancient vines of Sicily’s Mount Etna inspired him to make fairly unorthodox wines with zero added sulfur or other chemicals.  These practices have certainly made him a controversial figure, but count us as fans of his ever-evolving and always memorable wines (on a side note, the 2013s that will be released in the fall are his best yet.)  In order to avoid using chemicals in the cellar, Frank has always used a distillate of his production to clean tanks and other vessels, and at some point he decided to make a more potable spirit. Enter master distiller Giovanni La Fauci and his pot still. Instead of the traditional method of direct flame-to-still heating, Giovanni employs a bain marie which uses a layer of water to create steam to warm the pot.  As with sauces or chocolates, this method produces a gentler, although slower, heating process and allows the distiller more control.  A spirit of about 67% alcohol emerges after two passes through the still.  As per Frank’s wine, the grappas are minimally manipulated, unfiltered and diluted to a bold 60% alcohol.  These are for the thrill-seekers of the spirit world, and will convince any taster of what the Italians already know, namely that grappa is more than a convenient way to make use of wine’s leftovers.  JR

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Cornelissen, Frank Grappa Rosso Del Contadino 375ml

Grappa distilled from the 2009 vintage of Frank’s Contadino blend. The star here is Nerello Mascalese (80%,) but history has left lots of rare plantings on Etna’s volcanic hills, such as: Alicante Bouschet, Nerello Capuccio, Uva Francese, Minella Nera, Minella Bianco, and Inzolia—Whew! Although a fiery 60% alcohol, I found this grappa high-toned, a bit floral, and surprisingly drinkable.  Like the un-distilled wine, Contadino is lighter and brighter in flavor to the Munjebel.  JR

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Cornelissen, Frank Grappa Munjebel Rosso 375ml

For Frank, Munjebel is a showcase of Etna’s noble grape: Nerello Mascalese. In contrast to the grappa of Contadino, the flavors are bolder, richer, and more unctuous. I found lots of red fruit and smoke tones, and, once again, although left at a hearty 60% alcohol, no burn!  Highly recommended as an example of a single producer, single variety, single vintage and all from Etna’s north slope—very unusual in the world of grappa!  JR

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