I have been a grappa drinker since the first time I went to Italy in 1970. I generally enjoy grappa after meals, but I also like it in espresso (caffé corretto), drizzled on Italian ices, in a fruit salad, with chocolate, and in orange juice on cold winter mornings. Michele often cooks with grappa.
Two years ago I was invited to Rome to visit three wineries in Lazio. The organizer of the trip was Sylvia Anna Annavini and I had a great time. Sylvia contacted me when she came to NYC and Michele and I went to dinner with her. At one point she asked if we liked grappa and I said yes and so much so that we had written an article for Gourmet magazine on Cooking with Grappa. The grappa chocolate cake appeared on the cover of the magazine. Silva was doing a promotion for Grappa both in NYC and in Italy, called “Hello Grappa” and asked if we would like to take part.A few months later Silvia invited us to Italy for Hello Grappa to visit distilleries which produce Grappa.
We visited two distilleries: the Bonollo Distillery in Torrita di Siena in Tuscany and the Mazzetti Distillery in Altavilla, Piedmont.
At Bonollo we were greeted by Maria Carla Bonollo and her daughter Giulia Di Cosimo.
Bonollo is a very large operation and the Bonollo family own distilleries in other parts of Italy. It Italy it is against the law to produce distilled spirits and wine on the same property. So Bonollo not only makes grappa under its own label but also for some of the best producers in Tuscany such as Castello Banfi.
The producers will send their pomace to Bonollo and tell them what type of Grappa they want, traditional (clear), or aged (in barrels) and the alcohol content they want for their grappa.
In the past grappa was enjoyed mostly by farm workers in the cold weather to give them energy before they went into the fields to work. It was looked upon as something only the peasants drank because it was made from the discarded grape skins after the grapes were pressed. It was a morning drink taken between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM. Back then grappa was only made in Northern Italy. Over the years the popularity of grappa grew and it became more expensive. 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. Grappa was first called acqua vita, water of life,
There are 45 distilleries that produce grappa in Italy and wine producers send their pomace to one of these distilleries to be made into grappa. Pomace is the grape residue left after the first pressing when making wine. There are over 4,000 grappa labels on the market today.
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). Grappa is very difficult to produce because pomace is a solid ingredient.
The first part of the production called the “head” tastes bad because it contains too much methane (tastes like nail polish) and is 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.
There is also the continuous process of grappa production in giant stills, which produces large amounts of grappa. This grappa is more commercial and does not cost as such as the grappa produced by the discontinuous method.
At Bonollo they mostly use the discontinuous method but do make some grappa using the continuous method.
Grappa made from white grapes (especially aromatic grapes like Moscato) have 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.
Until about 20 years ago all grappa was made without being aged in wood and this is now referred to as traditional grappa. This grappa was clear in color and the aroma and the flavor reflected the pomace that it was made from.
Today many grappa’s are aged in barriques, mostly new and are dark in color and in many cases the wood flavors dominate. Grappa aged in wood is considered good as an entry-level grappa because the wood mellows the grappa. Both at Bonollo and Mazzetti the aged grappa we tasted was light in color, retained the aroma and flavor of the pomace because they used large barrels to age the grappa.
In Italy the government comes in and puts “locks” on the grappa that is still in the distillery and has not been bottled so that nothing can be added to the grappa.
At Bonollo we tasted three grappas:
Grappa Moscato–tasting this, one can understand why this would be a good entry-level grappa. It is distinctly Moscato, with floral aromas and a hint of honey.
Con senso–Grappa Chianti Classico is a typical traditional grappa and I really liked it.
Consenso Grappa riserva aged in legno di rovere(oak), acacia, frassino(ash and ciliego(cherry). The grappa was light in color for one aged in wood. It had a certain smoothness to it but was still grappa.
The Mazzetti Distillery founded in 1846 is in the town of Altavilla in Piedmont. We were welcomed by Elisa Belvedere Mazzetti and we went with her to the their grappa store and tasting room. You can visit here and have a cafe, perhaps a cafe corretto and purchase many different types of grappa.
After she took us on a tour of the distillery and explained how they make grappa,
They only use the discontinuous method for making grappa because, she said, this produces the best grappa. Then she said they also distill the tail again, getting rid of all the impurities and making a different line of grappa.
Claudio Galletto of Mazzetti led us in a grappa tasting and discussed the idea of entry-level grappa. Both here and at Bonollo they believe in the idea of entry-level grappa to introduce the younger generation to grappa.
Collezione line Grappa di Moscato — it is easy to identify grappa di Moscato by its distinctive aroma.
Grappa IN Incontro — Barbaresco and Barolo — an aged grappa light in color made from pomace of the Nebbiolo grape
7.0 Grappa Di Ruche 100% Cru– this is produced as an “entry level grappa” and it is aged in barriques. The 7 stands for the 7 generations of distillers at Mazzetti and the 0 for the zero kilometers it takes for the pomace to reach the distillery. It is a very soft grappa.
Riserva Gaia Mazzetti Grappa Cuvée Extra Aged Moscato and Cortese. This was a little darker in color and had much less of the Moscato characteristics.
At Mazzetti they used different style classes for the traditional and aged grappa.
Segni Grappa Riserva– aged for 5 years in barrels made from 6 different woods. oak, chestnut, ash, cherry, mulberry and juniper.
It is aged the shortest period of time in the juniper barrel because it has the strongest flavor. The juniper barrel is the last and smallest barrel in size since some of the grappa has evaporated over the years. This is one of the best-aged grappas that I have ever tasted. I liked it so much that I purchased a bottle because it in not available in the United States. The bottle is being held for me in Rome and I will pick to up next month,
All were traditional grappas and very good. We drank wine with lunch and just has a small taste of the grappa
Grappa di Arneis, Grappa di Barbera, Grappa di Barolo, Grappa di Ruche
At Bonollo we tasted the grappa after lunch with dessert. At Mazzetti we tasted grappa alone, and accompanied by dark chocolate and hazelnuts, which was sensational. Then we had lunch, with each of several courses paired with a different grappa. It was a unique experience.