Grappa…who even drinks the stuff-let alone likes it? If you ask these types of questions to the general public, I bet most responses run a negative angle. This is because most people do not have a better understanding of the spirit. All too often it is compared with vodka, because like vodka it can be credited to having little or no taste and what taste there is, generally comes from the burning sensation that lives on in your throat long after you have ingested the drink. To appreciate a strong spirit such as this, one must understand how it is made and the different types that exist on our market.
Once made as a by-product of dry wine production, we now have a slew of boutique grappa houses that make a fabulous selection of this spirit in many different forms. Originally it was known as the ‘poor man’s drink’, as winemakers sought to use all the leftovers from a harvest and create a little extra income for themselves. Grappa was invented in the middle ages in a town nestled in the northern part of Veneto – Bassano del Grappa.
Who invented it? Who knows? What we do know is that smart distillation techniques travelled from Egypt and North Africa up to Italy, where in the 8th century, Jesuit monks were starting to create alcohol meant for human consumption in the form of brandy and eau de vie. Earlier on, distilled alcohol was used primarily for medicinal purposes. This form, that was created for enjoyment, was entirely new to the general populous.
To be able to qualify as a grappa three major criteria must be met:
- It can only be produced in Italy, San Marino, or the Italian part of Switzerland
- Grappa can only be produced from the must/pomace of grapes and not the actual juice
- Fermentation and distillation must only occur on the pomace – no water addition allowed
To make grappa, one must first co-ferment the stems and seeds of the pomace with the leftover skins and pulp (which are loaded with sugars and juice). Those are then distilled utilizing the Bain Marie technique, or steam distillation. Methanol, a by-product of distillation is removed (that is the harmful substance) and then the distiller has the option whether or not to age the spirit in cask or leave it clean and wood free.
The modern grappa industry is relatively new. Grappa started to lose its image as the “poor man’s drink” in the 70’s and became very fashionable. The grappa industry had changed virtually overnight. Grape varietals were now sought out for their specific flavour profiles, and producers started to experiment with blends. They also started to use new types of oak for their different ageing and flavour distinctions as well as ash, cherry wood, and acacia wood. Modern distillation techniques were introduced, helping to create cleaner spirits.
Grappa is divided in four different categories for tasting: young, cask-aged, aromatic (using aromatic grape varietals) and aromatized (infusion of a vegetal substance after distillation). Within the cask-aged category you have three different ageing sub-categories: Affinata-grappa that has been aged for a maximum of 12 months. Invecchiata/Vecchia – which means the grappa has been aged between 12 and 18 months and Stravecchia/Riserva – in which the spirit has been aged for 18 months minimum. When professionally tasting grappa, you must taste the low alcohol examples first and conclude with the strongest. Because the alcohol can overtake the nose fairly quickly, grappa is usually tasted in tulip shape glasses that help harmonize the strong alcohol effects and bring out the fruit of the spirit.
Professional grappa tasters use the trick of drinking milk after each grappa to refresh the palate and clean the receptors on the tongue. To taste grappa you must drink it unsullied by ice or water additions.
Nor should it be chilled to the bone. Young and aromatized grappa should be served between 9-13 º C and oak-aged grappa should be served at 17 º C. When in doubt, always serve grappa more on the cooler side, not warmer. Or you could just drink it the way Italians do, as a café correcto. When you finish your espresso, pour some grappa into your espresso cup, swirl it around a few times so that the grappa interacts with the leftover coffee and then you down it. Perfetto!
Some labels to look for are Nonino, Jacopo Poli, Berta, Sibona, Nardini, and Bepi Tosolini.
Below are some great introductory grappas to try.
Nonino Grappa di Moscato – This grappa is very fragrant and light in body. A great, fruity, even beginner grappa. Think stone fruits, tropical fruit like banana, and floral notes in the background. $61
Marolo Grappa di Barbera – Rich dark red berry fruit and a medium weight. Plum, spice and fresh currants dominate the palate. Fleshy and pretty. $56
Altesino Grappa di Brunello – This is serious stuff. Earthy, complex, dried herbs and flowers. Dark currant and sweet delicate spice. $58
Erika Tocco is the senior wine director for Vin Room and has taught for WSET, levels 1-3. Follow her on twitter @corkscrewlady.