In the grip of Grappa

© Cape Times Friday 16th August 2013

“Waste not, want not” was my grandmother’s mantra. She was a child of austerity, living through two world wars and bringing up her family in a time of rationing. Like most Brits of her age, she was no great drinker, but I reckon if any drink was going to appeal to her, it would be grappa. Why do I say that? Well, because of the way that it is made, basically taking something most people throw away and using it to create a whole new product. Grappa (aka marc in France) is made from the skins of grapes that have been turned into wine. After the skins have been pressed out of the wine, there is always a small amount of alcohol left in them and this is then used by grappa-makers to be distilled into their favourite spirit.

According to George Dalla Cia, of Dalla Cia Wines, you need 500 litres of grape skins plus 500 litres of water to produce a mere 30 litres of grappa, a rate of recovery only attempted by those for whom it is a labour of love, not profit. George’s grandfather started making grappa in Italy in the 1920’s and when his father Giorgio moved to SA to make wine at Meerlust, he brought with him a strong family tradition of distilling as well. Pre-1994, it was illegal for most wineries to distil spirits (although whether everyone obeyed the law is another conversation altogether!) but as soon as the law changed, the Dalla Cias imported a shiny new still from Italy and the third generation of grappa-production began.

But not everything is brand-new and hi-tech at the distillery – all the bottling and labelling is done by hand, they still use their original filter, now more than 60 years young and still going strong, and scattered around the converted brandy storage shed at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch are George’s collection of vintage Vespas adding a flamboyant touch to proceedings. Have a quick look round if you can because it’s pretty interesting, but then hurry next door to Pane e Vino and get down to the real fun task of tasting and enjoying the grappa. George’s wife Elena runs this osteria-cum-tasting room for the Dalla Cia wines and grappas, and it is a rare day when you don’t find at least one member of the family spending an Italian afternoon in the company of customers who’ve become friends.

Grappa is a delicate spirit so “don’t go too close because all you’ll get is the alcohol” George advises, and explains that they take enormous care not to ‘burn’ the skins during production, nor do they add any additional flavours such as sugar or botanicals as do many Italian producers. Tasting it first neat and then with a dash of water changes the spirit completely, softening the alcohol and smoothing out the flavours into more earthy, complex tones. A grappa made from the skins of iconic Vin de Constance shows plenty of delicate rose petals and Turkish Delight whilst the Dalla Cia Premium Grappa spends around 6-9 months in oak which adds a spicy vanilla bean note. The family also makes a range of grappa ice creams and chocolates, but the best way to try it is poured over broken sbrisolona biscuits, made by Elena from polenta, ground almonds and other secret ingredients! The biscuits soak up the spirit and become deliciously soggy with just the right amount of bite – the perfect end to a very long lunch. Go to for all the details, opening times and directions.

Side Bar – Calling all wine lovers!
If you get the chance, I highly recommend you get yourself tickets to the fabulous Cape Winemakers Guild Auction Showcase on Thursday 22nd August at the CTICC. Tickets cost R170 and you can try all these exclusive wines before the Auction in October. I tasted them all yesterday and believe me – there are some winners in there!