I enjoy grappa all year round. I often drink it after a meal to help me to digest. Sometimes I put a little in my espresso for what the Italians call “caffe corretto.” I like to drizzle grappa on my lemon granita and other fruit ices, and I pour a little in fruit salad. Michele also cooks with grappa, especially in desserts made with chocolate. But when the weather turns cold, as it has done in NYC recently, I just seem to drink more.
Grappa was first called acqua vita, water of life. At one time, it was only a beverage imbibed by farm workers in Northern Italy, especially in the cold months, to give them energy before they went into the fields to work and it was a morning drink taken between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM. Southern Italy does not have a tradition of grappa because the weather is too warm. It is only recently, with the popularity and often-high prices that grappa has achieved, that wineries in Southern Italy have utilized their grape pomace (vinaccia in Italian) to make grappa.
Up until about 25 years ago all grappa was what I call traditional, that is, made without being aged in wood. It was clear in color and the flavor reflected the grapes from which it was made.
Traditional grappa Capo di Stato from Loredan Gasparini made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
Today many grappas are aged in new barriques and for the most part they are dark in color. In many cases the wood flavor has taken over.
Making grappa from a wood carving at Marzadro Distilleria in Trentino
Grappa made from white grapes has more aromas and is easier to drink than grappa made from red grapes, although 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 choose a grappa made from white grapes as it is easier to drink.
Single grape varieties (monovarietal) are produced with pomace from one type of grape. The grape variety can be on the label if at least 85% of the pomace comes from the same grape.
Many grappas are produced using pomace from several varieties of grape. If each variety exceeds 15% they must be listed on the label in ascending order.
At a 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). 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 (a solid raw material-grape skins) are enhanced to their maximum in order to keep everything uniform. Today almost all distilleries are computerized.
The continuous process of grappa production in giant stills produces large amounts of grappa. This type of production produces commercial grappa that is not of a very good quality.
After distillation the traditional (clear) grappa is left alone in steel or glass containers. The grappa that is to be aged is placed in barrels of different sizes ranging from 225 liter barriques to 1,500 liter barrels, and even larger. If aged for 12 months, the grappa is called “aged,” and if aged for 18 months, it is called “reserve.” These aged grappas take on different shades of colors from straw yellow to amber. They are smoother than traditional grappa but are much more expensive.
Grappa aging is subject to strict control by Italian customs authorities. Inspectors regularly visit the distillery and put seals on the grappa that has not been bottled to prevent anything being added to the grappa.
I prefer the taste and natural aromas of traditional grappas.
However there are always exceptions, such as the Segni Grappa Riserva aged for 5 years in barrel made from 6 different woods oak, chestnut, ash, cherry, mulberry and juniper from the Mazzetti Distillery in Piedmont.
Some producers use barrels that were first used to age port and some others age it in terracotta.
Grappa can be infused (steeped) with herbal plants such as ruta (rue), which includes a twig in the bottle, grappa camomilla (chamomile), and fruits, such as grappa di mele (apple), grappa di lamponi (raspberry) to name just a few.
On a “Hello Grappa” press trip, I visited the Bepi Tosolini distillary in FVG and tasted “Grappa Smoked.” Lisa Tosolini, granddaughter of the owner, told us that this grappa is distilled by the traditional method with bain marie pot still. This grappa is made from Friulian red grape skins and then aged in French oak barriques. The oak casks have gone through a toasting process with Kentucky tobacco leaves. This is a dry and intense smoked grappa, which tasted like an aged single malt whiskey. This was a first for me and another new twist to what is being done with grappa.
There are 45 distilleries that produce grappa in Italy. Pomace is the grape residue left after the first pressing when making wine. According to Italian law, an Italian wine producer cannot make grappa, but must send it to a licensed distillery. For example a producer like Banfi will send their pomace to the Bonollo distillery in Siena and tell them what type of grappa they want, traditional (clear), or aged (in barrels) and the alcohol content they want for their grappa.
There are over 4,000 grappa labels on the market today.