Grappa is a fragrant brandy spirit made by distilling grape pomace (the solid remains of grapes after pressing for juice – stalks, skins, seeds, and a small quantity of pulp, must and wine). Grappa, the name given to this Italian pomace brandy, literally means ‘grape stalk’. Once considered merely a by-product of wine making, grappa is now recognised as one of the world’s most distinctive and smooth fine spirits.
The flavour of grappa, like wine, depends on the variety and quality of the grape used combined with the skill involved in the production process. Grappa can be either a colourless spirit or, if aged in oak casks, a golden colour that deepens in tone with longer periods of ageing. The spirit should display distinctive aromas and flavours ranging from fresh floral and citrus to honey, vanilla and almonds or deep red berry fruits. Young grappas should have a light delicate flavour; whereas aged grappa should have lingering complexity to the palate.
Grappa production originated in the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa. It is unknown whether the spirit was named after the town or the town after the spirit. Grappa was originally produced by peasants before the 9th century; wine was only made available to the rich but peasants were granted the ‘privilege’ of having the leftover waste after winemaking. They ingeniously produced a low grade alcohol wine from pomace which could then be distilled to produce a spirit. The spirit may have been rough but it had medicinal properties and helped mild ailments.
Grappa was not globally recognised until the 1960s when Italian gourmet food came into fashion. Grappa at this time came to be known as a brandy that celebrates the flavour characteristics of each variety of wine grape.
Grappa production begins with freshly fermented pomace. The pomace, or ‘vinaccia’ in Italian, at the moment of distillation, has between 4-5% ABV for red grapes and 2-4% ABV for white grapes. After fermentation, some producers remove the grape stalks and stems as it is thought to lead to straw-like flavours in the final product. Some of the larger distillers will use a continuous column still that produces a clearer, more consistent, uniformly flavoured grappa. This method requires a continuous fresh supply of pomace to maintain quality which can be quite difficult.
The majority of medium to small producers opt for a non-continuous pot still method, which produces a fuller flavoured grappa. This method allows distillers to produce a grappa in smaller batches with unique characteristic flavours and greater control of the quality of the final product. The less pure spirit of the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ (beginning and end products of distillation) are removed leaving the high quality heart of the distillation.
There are three kinds of pot still used in grappa production:
Direct flame - the boiler is placed directly over the flame. This is the oldest method but almost abandoned nowadays.
Bain-marie (double boiler) – the still is formed by two boilers, a small one inside a larger external one. The smaller boiler is loaded with pomace with the addition of water in a 1:1 ratio, and the larger one is filled with water or steam which is then heated. The water filled space between boilers prevents heat-strokes which can be a risk when fire is applied directly to the boiler. This is also an old method, but is still widely used as it can give great results.
Steam – the still consists of a series of small boilers with perforated baskets containing the pomace, into which steam is introduced from an independent tank. This is the most modern method that is widely used today because it yields a good-quality product and is very cost-effective. Today in Italy there are around 90 grappa distillers using the non-continuous methods of distillation. As with any non-continuous system, the heart of the run is separated from heads and the tails, which are then redistilled.
The final spirit will be reduced to between 40 and 45% ABV and either bottled straight away or aged in glass for a number of months before bottling, resulting in a fresh piquant spirit; or aged in oak casks, resulting in a smoother rounded grappa that has taken on influences of the cask and its stored environment.
Black grape varieties give a better aroma and are less likely to produce high levels of methanol. White varieties give higher acidity and balance the red element, but can run the risk of higher methanol levels.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether mixed varietal grappas are better or inferior to single variety examples. Some grape varieties, such as Moscato, seem to blossom when on their own, as do the more fragrant black grapes. Chardonnay however is less impressive. Equally a blend of varieties can produce a grappa with greater complexity.
Grappas are mostly clear spirits, but the spirit has often been aged, either in the barrels of a grapperia or, in the modern era, deliberately in different types of wood. Grappa is a delicate spirit and can easily be swamped by wood, especially new wood. For this reason most aged grappas often spend only a short time maturing, usually in large casks.
The grappa revolution has also spawned a new variant: a whole grape distillate made from grape must rather than vinaccia. Black and white grape varieties are used, the most successful being aromatic examples such as Moscato, Moscato Rosa and Fragolino. These distillations do not technically have the right to be called grappa but rather ‘aquavite prima’d’uva’.
Grappa is produced in much the same way as brandy (eau-de-vie), with one exception that makes it unique from all others. Grappa is the only spirit that can be made from solids.
Marc, and other similar eaux-de-vie, are produced through the distillation of the washing waters of the pomace. Grappa, however, is produced through the distillation of pomace itself.
Grappa is produced throughout Italy in many small towns, villages and wineries, each with their own distinctive characteristic expression of the location and produce used. The majority of well known producers of grappa are located the cool northerly climates of the Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia regions in the shadow of the dolomite mountains and Alps.
Italian and EU laws state that grappa distilled in specific geographic areas from specific grape varieties grown and vinified in those same areas may avail itself of a geographic appellation.
The alcohol content of these grapes cannot be less than 40% ABV, and they may not be blended with grappas produced in other areas.
The current appellations are:
• Grappa di Barolo
• Grappa Piemontese or Grappa del Piemonte
• Grappa Lombarda or Grappa della Lombardia
• Grappa Trentina or Grappa del Trentino
• Grappa dell'Alto Adige or Sudtiroler Grappa
• Grappa Friulana or Grappa del Friuli
In Italy, grappa is most commonly served as a digestivo or after-dinner drink. Boutique grappa is best served in a tulip shaped glass to accentuate the aromas and flavours. Grappa is often added to espresso coffee to create a caffè corretto (‘corrected coffee’) and drunk at any time of the day. A stronger variation of this is the ammazza caffè (‘coffee-killer’). The espresso is drunk first, followed by a short serving of grappa in its own glass.