Grapes and Beans of Italy

One of our fondest memories from our first visit to Rome was a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop that served the best shot of espresso either of us had ever had. We had just gotten off the tram and saw the doors for il Delfino open. We nervously ordered our coffees in broken Italian learned from a phrase book and sat down for the time-old American tradition of staring at the cup until it cools down enough to drink.

When we took our first sips, we were shocked at how incredible the taste and temperature was. It was almost cool, which meant it was served at a drinkable level.

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Thinking this place must serve their coffee lazily like the hum-drum decor suggested, we were wary about the second coffee we ordered on the trip. But we were relieved when we could drink the coffee with no waiting. What a concept!

It turns out, there are technical parameters outlined by the Italian Espresso National Institute for making a “certified Italian espresso.”

Parameter Value
Portion of ground coffee 7 ± 0.5 g (0.25 ± 0.02 oz)
Exit temperature of water from unit 88 ± 2 °C (190 ± 4 °F)
Temperature in cup 67 ± 3 °C (153 ± 5 °F)
Entry water pressure 9 ± 1 bar (131 ± 15 psi)
Percolation time 25 ± 5 seconds
Volume in cup (including crema) 25 ± 2.5 ml (0.85 ± 0.08 US fl oz)




A year and some months later, Jeff and I went back to Italy for an extended holiday. The coffee hasn’t changed and lived up to our expectations from our previous visit.

One of the many traditions with espresso in Italy is to have it with grappa. Served after dinner, “caffe corretto” or “correct coffee” is served as a digestif to aid the digestion of a heavy meal. Grappa is the fermented leftovers of the crushed skins and seeds from wine grapes distilled into a gasoline-like taste of pure alcohol.

Caffe Corretto
makes 1

25ml strong-brewed espresso
20ml Italian grappa

The tradition is to drink your shot of espresso and then pour the grappa in the espresso cup swirling the two flavors together and then drinking it down. It’s a very quick up and then down between the rush of caffeine and then calming effect of the alcohol.

We shared the tradition with our fellow travelers in Manarola, one of the five villages of Cinque Terre. But Jeff and I also enjoyed it back in Rome in a gluten-free restaurant we had discovered on our previous visit, I Sandri. I’m pretty sure we got a nod of respect from our waiter upon this order. More on gluten free eating in Rome here and in next week’s post.

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Grappa is not for the faint of heart. It can have anywhere between 35 and 60% alcohol with varying tastes. Similar to a fruit brandy and prepared similarly, grappa has as many variations as the wine it comes from. But it also has strict regulations to be called “grappa” with three main criteria:

  • It must be produced in Italy, the Italian territory within Switzerland, or San Morino (a microstate surrounded by Italy).
  • It must be produced from pomace, the solid remains of wine grapes.
  • Fermentation and distillation must occur on the solids of the pomace with no added water.

There is actually a law that states winemakers must sell their pomace to grappa producers to stop the production of moonshine, which is now a rarity in Italy. And in the U.S., any “grappa” that is made from wine grapes will actually be classified as a fruit brandy thanks to the strict Italian regulations. Sorry, California.

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Nonetheless, grappa is a classic drink for Italians and should only be served in small glasses after a heavy meal. Italians practice moderation in all things. There is no reason for shot after shot of the stuff.

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Speaking of grapes, the wine of Italy is unparalleled. I am currently reading Vanilla Beans and Brodo by Isabella Dusi. She is an Australian woman who has relocated to Montalcino in the hills of Tuscany. What Montalcino is most known for, besides its medieval walls and rich history, is the famous and extremely expensive Brunello wine. Priced anywhere between £30 to £2,000 per bottle, Brunello is one of the most prized grapes grown on Italian soil.

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With a rocky history, Brunello has become one of top contenders for fine wine as recently as the 1800s. In the 1960s, there were only eleven producers in the region, and by the 1970s, it had increased to twenty-five, doubling again in the 1980s. Now there are over 200 producers of this fine wine, but that does not make it any less rare or precious to the area.

Brunello is made 100% from Sangiovese grapes per regulation and is aged in oak barrels. This is not a “table wine” or ready-to-drink bottle. Per regulation, the wine is aged for 50 months before bottling and then it sits in the glass bottle for four months prior to distribution. If the wine is a riserva, it waits another year for its debut.

Another famous wine of the region is the Rosso. The only real difference between the Brunello and the Rosso is the aging process. Rosso is also made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, but it is only aged for six months in oak letting it rest in its bottle for another six months allowing its debut one year after harvest. This allows the winemakers a little more cash-flow flexibility on their grapes while waiting for the Brunello to peak.

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On a stop to Montalcino, Jeff and I both enjoyed a respective glass of wine at Osteria di Porta Al Cassero. My glass was from a 2010 vintage and was very dry to the taste, but Jeff’s 2013 Rosso was much lighter in comparison. I do wish we had left the region with a couple bottles under our arm to enjoy at home, but we left our Brunello memories in Montalcino.

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You can’t be in the Tuscany region and not book a wine tour. Prior to the trip, I read Too Much Tuscan Sun by Dario Castagno. In his book, he talks about taking his clients to the Barone Ricasoli vineyard for a tour and tasting of their Chianti Classico wines.

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Like France’s Champagne region, only “Chianti Classico” grapes can be grown in a specific region covering about 100 square miles between Florence and Siena. If the grower is outside the perimeter, they can call their wine just Chianti. But the Ricasoli family sits firmly in the classic region and produces one of the most famed wines in history.

Benito Ricasoli, the head of the family in the 1800s and Prime Minister of Italy on two occasions, is actually credited to mandating the Chianti formula. Chianti wine must be 80% Sangiovese grapes with the other 20% being a blend of other grapes such as Malvasia, Canaiolo, and Trebbiano.

Our wine tour began as a history lesson as we covered the grounds of the Ricasoli domain. Given to the Ricasoli family in the 1100s, the Castello di Brolio is a massive estate with 230 hectares of vineyards and 26 hectares of olive trees. During the war of 1472, the castle was nearly demolished. You can see the darker grey stones at the base of the castle and the lighter stones built on top showing where the destruction left the structure.

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It was rebuilt by the Medici family, but it remained in the Ricasoli name. More about the history of the Ricasoli family in the travel portion of this blog in the coming weeks. The end of the tour came with a wine tasting. We sat down in a banquet style room with red velvet chairs and three glasses in front of us. We were served a white wine, Torricella 2013, Casalferro 2011 red wine, and the Chianti Classico Brolio 2012.

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We swirled the wine in our glasses, hovered the red color over the white placemat to see the differences in the body, and stuck our whole nose inside the deep glass to get the full taste notes. Jeff and I both were partial to the Chianti Classico and bought ourselves a bottle to enjoy at home.

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I whole-heartedly recommend this tour because it was much more than just a lesson on wine tasting. The history of the castle is astounding. Check out the blog in a couple weeks when I reveal more about its history and war scars.

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The last city we discovered on this trip was Venice. I cannot imagine a more different region as Venice to Tuscany, and they are within a couple hour train ride. The grapes of Prosecco are primarily grown in and around Venice having originated in Trieste on the border of Italy and Slovenia. The traditional drink of Venice is the Bellini which is said to have first been mixed at Harry’s Bar at St. Mark’s Square.

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Harry’s Bar is also famous for its patron, Ernest Hemingway. While we tried to get ourselves a cocktail in this infamous bar, we were shooed away due to a wrong dress code. Ah, Venice.

Since the 1960s, Prosecco has grown in popularity outside of Italy because of the sweeter taste to champagne and cheaper price. But with the popularity of the grapes around the world, the Italian Minster of Agriculture has declared Prosecco to be known as a geographical region, not the grapes themselves, which are now referred to as Glera grapes.

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Jeff and I enjoyed a couple bottles of Prosecco on our trip. One in particular was at home with figs, honey and cheese from Gusto Di Vino in San Donato, and another was enjoyed at an osteria in Venice served with stir-fried sardines in onions.

The crispness of the wine cuts the fishy flavor of the sardines making the dish quite pleasant on a hot day. The sardines are served cold, which I was not expecting. Hailed as a delicacy in Venetian cuisine, it was certifiably fresh as we sat watching the fishmongers barter with locals in the Rialto Market.

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There is so much more to say about the Italian wines and coffee, but tell me: what are your favorite wines? Italian or otherwise. Also, what is your favorite way to prepare coffee? If there is a science to making the perfect Italian cup at home, I’d love to know! Leave a comment!


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