I like grappa. I often drink it after a nice meal as a way to relax and to help me to digest. I put a few drops in my espresso, for what Italians call caffè corretto. I drizzle grappa on my lemon granita and other flavored ices and even have it with chocolate. A number of years ago Michele and I wrote and article for Gourmet Magazine called “Cooking with Grappa.” The beautiful grappa chocolate cake appeared on the cover of the magazine.
A friend invited me to a wine tasting. When I arrived, one of the wine reps told me that there was a grappa seminar starting in five minutes, would I like to attend. He knew me well enough to know that I would say yes.
The speaker was Alessandro Marzardo, third generation of the owners of the Marzardo Distillery that was founded in 1949. The distillery is in Bancolino di Nogaredo in the heart of Vallagarina in Trentino. In 2005 they built a new state-of-the-art distillery.
Alessandro said that at one time, grappa was only drunk by farm workers in the cold weather to give them energy before they went into the fields to work. It was a morning drink taken between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM. He made the point that grappa was only made by the farmers in Northern Italy. Southern Italy does not have a tradition of grappa because it is too warm. It is only recently with the popularity and often high prices for grappa that wineries in Southern Italy have their grape pomace (vinaccia in Italian) turned into grappa. He said the grappa was first called acqua vita, water of life, and the people of Trentino have always embraced the art of distillation.
There are 45 distilleries that produce grappa in Italy. An Italian wine producer will send his pomace to one of these distilleries to be made into grappa. Pomace is the grape residue left after the first pressing when making wine. It is against the law for a winery to have a distillery on its property. There are over 4,000 grappa labels on the market today.
Up until about 15 years ago all grappa was what Alessandro referred to as traditional grappa, that is, made without being aged in wood. It was clear in color and the flavor reflected the grapes that it was made from. Now many grappas are aged in new barriques and for the most part they are dark in color and in many cases the wood flavor has taken over.
He said the grappa made from white grapes has more aromas and is easier to drink than grappa made from red grapes, though grappa made from red grapes has more taste. If you are going to introduce grappa to someone for the first time it is better to chose a grappa made from white grapes as it is easier to drink.
The Marzardo distrillery produces many different distilled sprits and Alessandro said that you must start with the best raw material. Trentino makes great wines so this is not a problem. Knowledge and experience are also needed to produce a great product.
Alessandro said that in the distillery there are 100 days of work, 24/7 from September to December. The freshest selected pomace is distilled each day. The distillation takes place in alembics using the traditional discontinuous bain marie system (steam distillation), which is part of the Trentino culture. He said that the first part of the production called the “head” tastes bad because it contains too much methane (he said it tastes like nail polish) and is therefore discarded. The last part is called the “tail” and contains too many impurities and is also discarded. The discontinuous method produces small amounts of high quality grappa.
The alembics are handmade out of copper and are excellent conductors of heat. Therefore the particular fragrances and aromas of the pomace are enhanced to their maximum. In order to keep everything uniform, the whole system is computerized.
Alessandro pointed out that the continuous process of grappa production in giant stills produces large amounts of grappa. He said that this type of production, which he does not use, produces commercial grappa that is not of a very good quality.
After distillation the traditional grappa is left alone. The grappa that is to be aged is placed in barrels of 225 liter barriques to 1,500 liter barrels made from four types of roasted wood, including oak, acacia, cherry and ash, for two years. Alessandro said they use wood from all over the world but do not use any from America. The new barrels are from a barrel maker who makes barrels for producers of balsamic vinegar. We tasted two different lines of grappa, three in each line.
The first grappa was the Le Diciotto Lune Grappa Stravecchio. Italian law requires a minimum of 18 months of aging before a grappa can be labeled stravecchio (old). Alessandro said that this is an aged, high quality Grappa, which is emblematic of the culture, care and art of distilling. It is produced from the best pomace of Trent, from selected vines, and distilled in the typical still. The Grappa is left to refine for 20 months in small cherry, ash, oak and ash casks, each of which lends its characteristic perfume, aroma, color and flavor, to the grappa.
La Trentina “Tradizional” – Grappa Giovane – This is traditional grappa at its best. I really liked this grappa.
La Trentina “Morbida” Grappa Barrique Morbida means soft or smooth in Italian. This grappa reflected the wood having vanilla aromas and flavors.
Giare “Gewûrztraminer” This was the most aromatic of the grappas- there was no mistaking which grape this was made from.
Giare “Chardonnay” This was a grappa with hints of oak and vanilla.
Giare “ Amarone” This grappa had the most taste with just a slight hint of oak.