Grappa

stillsCOLIN ALEVRAS’ STORY

I am the shop foreman at the Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, NY.

Every established wine region in the world has a long tradition of small independent grape skin distillers who take advantage of the rich pomace left over after the winemakers are done with the yearly harvest.  Thanks to some recent, forward-thinking changes in alcohol production laws, New York State begins to join in this tradition. I aspire to exceed expectations of what a local grappaiolo working with New York State viticulture has to offer and bring you grappa made from our local harvest.

The Red Hook Winery brings attention to the unique qualities of New York State viticulture via the winemaking skills of Abe Schoener, Robert Foley and Christopher Nicolson.  The three men bring unique perspectives to making the best wines possible from New York grapes, each expressing their own styles with each harvest, and allowing the grapes and their terroir to shine through.

Mark Snyder, proprietor of the winery, brings attention to local winemaking and growing, and makes it readily accessible to New York City by placing the winery on the Brooklyn waterfront.  As a Brooklyn native, wine lover and distributor of fine wines, Mark promotes the home team with more than just talk. He has very generously allowed me to begin producing grappa at the winery, under my own eponymous label, C. Alevras.

I began cooking professionally in 1992 and opened a restaurant with my wife, Renee in 1999. The Tasting Room was an American restaurant exploring what a locally-based personal cuisine would look like in NYC, at that moment in time.  We had a daily changing menu using ingredients available from local farmers paired with American wines. We closed that business in 2008, just as the Red Hook Winery opened. I went to Red Hook to help out with their first crush and never left.

Prior to cooking, I worked in residential construction and studied film and fine art photography.  I made things and dabbling in chemistry.  Cooking was an excellent combination of these activities – and I went to culinary school.

Integrating wine into meals gave context and necessary limitations to unbridled culinary adventurism. As chef, you make food, but choose wine.  I decided to learn about making wine as well.

 

I was closing down the restaurant in 2008 just as the Red Hook Winery was preparing for its first harvest.  Christopher Nicolson, resident winemaker, needed some help. Assisting Christopher to produce the styles of Abe Schoener and Robert Foley as consulting winemakers is a unique opportunity to study a diverse set of winemaking philosophies applied to the same vintage of grapes.

During that first harvest, an older neighbor named Ray came by to inquire about using our pomace for homemade grappa.  Talking with Ray provided the initial seed crystal for this adventure. I had never spoken with a grappaiolo before.  His stories, spanning from the end of prohibition to the beginning of the twenty-first century, about distilling and winemaking in New York City, inspired me to consider grappa as a means of expressing the values of the winery. I asked the guys at the winery if we should think about making grappa. They were encouraging, but made it clear they had plenty to do already.  The project was mine if I wanted it.  I never saw Ray again after that harvest.

I found it engaging to learn about and experiment in a realm where there is very little guidance. I really wasn’t sure that any of these experiments would be successful.  The chemistry and the physics are constants and reliable, but would this effort produce anything actually worth drinking? Without deep pockets, how could I even get the equipment I needed?

During 2009, I started building my own stills and compiling information. I began distilling small quantities of wine to practice and get a feel for distilling.  I had spent the previous 15 years as a cook and wine buyer, so differentiating liquids by smell and taste was not unfamiliar. Those first few distilling experiments were thrilling and eye opening. I got a sense that this just might be worthwhile.  After grapes give up their wine, they’re not waste.  There are amazing flavors to be focused through the lens of distillation. Grapes can express other flavors and essences that fermentation alone cannot access.  Heat and patience are required.

In every other mature winemaking region, distilling pomace is a common practice. Everywhere wine is made, grappa is there. Post-prohibition, federal law prevented the development of small scale legal distillation of any sort in the United States.  Only recently have these restrictions been eased to the point where artisan scale distillation can begin to flourish.

 

Seven years later, I am ready to offer some grappa to the world. This first release consists of two individual barrels. “Trester John” was distilled from Chardonnay and Riesling. “The Passenger” was distilled from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Both were aged in old French wine barrels and bottled at 50% abv.

I hope you give these a taste; I’m quite fond of them.  They display a quality I’m very proud to have achieved, an example I hope to continue to improve upon for a long time.

MY PROCESS

Principles of distillation rely on the physical laws of the universe. I am mainly concerned with the separation of ethyl alcohol and water. Two solutions with different boiling points can be separated by heating them in a sealed container and condensing the resulting vapor.  The substance with the lower boiling point (ethanol) will evaporate first, leaving the higher boiling substance (water) behind.  This process can be repeated several times to increase the concentration of the lighter substance, up to a point.  With each pass through the distilling apparatus, the alcohol gets stronger and more pure, at the eventual expense of flavor.

Various systems have been developed to increase the efficiency of alcohol stills, fuel consumption always being a concern, but the principles they exploit do not change.  My stills are of the most basic variety, direct fired pot stills.

I have built four stills, based on 55 gallon stainless steel drums.  These stills are constructed to provide a very short path between the pot and the condenser. The still heads contain some fine copper mesh to provide extra copper surface area in the vapor path to react with Sulphur compounds in the distillate.  Perforated stainless steel false bottoms prevent the pomace from burning on the bottom of the boilers.  The condensers are “reverse Graham” style, with the vapor passing over spiraled thin copper tubes circulating cooling water.  The cooling tubes are held in place with friction, with all the connections at the outlet end of the condenser to facilitate removal and cleaning.  Distilling small batches in simple stills allows me to take advantage of the beneficial inefficiencies of the primitive process.  The style is controlled by my taste and commitment to quality.

This grappa has a great concentration of flavor and body. It is a richer, more rustic and masculine grappa, not thinned by more technical distilling.  Cuts are made by smell and taste alone.  Yields are small and full of potential and substance.  Aging happens in used French oak wine barrels delivering color, roundness and tannin.

It takes twenty tons of fresh grapes to provide enough pomace (about six tons after pressing) for one barrel of grappa.

Unfermented white skins are inoculated with yeast, allowed to ferment, and distilled as soon as they finish fermenting.  Red skins, already fermented, are sealed up in half ton bins and distilled as soon as possible, usually within days.

The grappa is distilled twice.  The first distillation results in about 7-8 gallons of spirit at about 30% abv from 50 gallons of grape skins in 7-9 hours. This is repeated until that batch of pomace has been distilled or the first time.

The second distillation of 50 gallons of first run distillate yields about .5 gallons of foreshots (discarded), 4.5 gallons of heads (saved and re-distilled), 8-9 gallons of hearts (now about 65% abv) and 10 gallons of tails (also collected and redistilled.) The second distillation takes about 20 hours.   

The heads and tails, along with some water are used to moisten the next round of pomace.

I use all the grapes we bring into the winery, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  Red and white pomace are distilled separately.  When there is sufficient supply, single varietal barrels are produced.  The pomace from skin-fermented white wines are kept together as a single barrel.

Grappa extracts a deeper layer of oak colors and flavors than wine from the barrels. Higher alcohol concentration and lower surface tension allows for deeper penetration of the spirit through the staves.  This is tempered by the previous uses of the barrel, exhausting the readily available, water soluble superficial oak influences.  The oak tannins and lactone flavors become gentler and less dominant but still provide positive effect.   Evaporation and oxidation continue as ever with wooden barrels.  These two processes allow more volatile, less desirable aromas to escape and oxygen allows deeper mature flavors to develop.  All color of the grappa is naturally extracted from the barrel.  Wine barrels are toasted to a much lesser degree than whisky barrels.  Charring or carbonization is not common in wine barrels.  The resulting color is mostly deep amber with orange highlights and stabilizes after about 6-8 months.  The individual barrels give up colors in different strengths and hues.

I am encouraging vintage variation in these grappas. I want them to be reflections of the conditions and the vineyards from which they come.  I have no interest in making a homogenous, single flavored spirit.  As long as the quality is excellent, individual barrels will be allowed to stand on their own.

 

MY GRAPPA

“Trester John” is distilled from Riesling and Chardonnay pomace.  The name is a combination of the German name for grappa, Tresterbrand, and Prester John, a mythical medieval patriarch who ruled over the mysterious land of the orient filled with wonders and monsters.  This barrel was always pretty and floral, Riesling dominating the mix.  The two varietals were distilled together. Aged in a 10 year-old Damy 59 gallon barrel that formerly held Chardonnay, the color is amber with orange highlights.  Exhibiting pine, raisin and floral aromas, it has corresponding flavors that are long and smooth on the palate. 367  750ml bottles at 50% abv. $100/retail

 

“The Passenger” is made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot pomace.  The name comes from an Iggy Pop song from 1977 which is loosely about wandering around the city seeing where we wind up.  This barrel was exciting to watch develop side by side with Trester John.  The grappa was also aged in a 10 year-old Damy Chardonnay barrel. Much more reserved in the beginning, it now exhibits intense cherry and cocoa aromas with a distinct leather note.  There is a bit of well integrated tannin on the palate.  It is lush and fruity with a significant bass note on the long finish.  410 750ml bottles at 50% abv. $100/retail.

 

“New Model Army” is the upcoming release.  Two barrels of Riesling and Chardonnay were made concurrently.  The cooperage is one each Saury and Damy barrel.  The New Model Army was formed in England around 1645 as the first professional, full time army in Europe.  I was shifting from amateur part-time efforts to thinking about how to turn this into a way to make a living.  This grappa is showing a little gentler than “Trester John,” but has a purity and focus that is readily apparent. It exhibits similar resin and raisin notes but more flowers on the nose.  Taste fresh cut grass and gentle wood on the palate; finish with raisins and caramel.  Approx. 700 bottles will be released.

 

Following the above bottlings, we have other barrels aging and I will be updating their tasting notes as they develop.

The 2017 release consists of 5 barrels:

Quincunx, skin-fermented white wine pomace.

Named after one of my favorite words.

Double Album, 100% Chardonnay

Pyro-Zine, 100% Sauvignon Blanc

Bull in the Heather, Merlot and Cabernet Franc

A Dandy Imp, blend of red pomace.

Named after a character in a Tolstoy play

where the Devil introducing distilling to farmers.

Angel Spit, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot

 

Come by the Red Hook Winery to say hello, taste my grappa and pick up a bottle or two.  The winery is open 7 days from 11-5.  Call ahead to make sure I’m there, if talking to me is important to you (I’m not usually there on weekends, but you never know.)

 

Wholesale inquiries can be directed towards Angels Share Wines.