I haven’t written about grappa for a while, and my previous articles focus a lot on specific distilleries. I thought it might be helpful just to offer an all-rounder on the category, a beginner’s guide to grappa, if you wish.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is grappa?
Grappa is a spirit made using what is left from pressing wine. This is basically a blend of grape skins, seeds, any left-over pulp and stems, known as pomace, or vinaccia as Italians call it. However, when I visited the Nonino family, Antonella stressed that they do not use the stalks in their grappa production, and it seem many distilleries use specific machinery to remove all the unwanted fragments. Traditional grappa is made using vinaccia from both white and red grapes. Today, there is a range of grappas made from a single grape variety. More on that below.
Grappa is legally protected and can only be produced in Italy, San Marino and some parts of Switzerland.
How it is made
Grappa production should take place only a few months a year when the pomace is freshly collected from the winemakers, and ideally within 24 to 48 hours of the wine being drawn off. After that, the skins will begin to ferment and turn. Grappa has a very small window before it will start to pick up the bitterness and overpowering taste. Even if a vineyard produces great wines, it doesn’t always mean the vinaccia from that winery will guarantee a good grappa. The fresher and softer the pomace is, the better the final grappa will be.
Fermentation takes place in stainless-steel tanks, where the vinaccia undergoes a short and controlled-temperature fermentation to maintain its freshness and moistness. Red grapes, however, have already undergone fermentation during winemaking, as the skins are left with the juice to impart the red colour to the wine. It can therefore be distilled immediately when making grappa.
Two types of distillation process can be used: steam batch and bain-marie. Some distilleries use both. Alembic steam stills are often better suited for traditional grappa production and bain-marie for single-variety grappa. Some industrial producers may cut corners and create more affordable grappa by using continuous distillation. The bain-marie process is slower, but it also creates a better-quality spirit with all the delicate flavours and aromas.
The alcoholic content of grappa can vary from 37.5% ABV to up to 60% ABV, most grappa being around 40% to 45% ABV.
For a quick guide to grappa production, see my previous post Grappa Production in Pictures.
Styles of grappa
Grappa can be classified based on the age and the grape variety of the pomace.
Giovane (young) – Grappa bottled directly after it has been rested in vats.
Aromatica (aromatic) – Grappa made from aromatic grapes such as Moscato, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon, Traminer…
Affinata in Legno (refined) – Aged less than 12 months in wooden casks.
Invecchiata/ Vecchia (aged/ old) – Aged for 12 to 18 months in wooden casks.
Stravecchia/ Riserva (very old/ reserve) – Aged for more than 18 months in wooden casks.
Monovitigno (single variety) – Grappa made from vinaccia of one variety of grapes. This is indicated on the label, such as Prosecco, Moscato, Merlot, Chardonnay…
Aromatizzata (flavoured) – Grappa flavoured with herbs or fruit.
Eau de Vie – A spirit made using the whole grape. OK, this is not really a grappa, but as it has become very popular in the grappa market, I thought it worth a mention. Nonino’s, for example, have a product called Grape Distillate UE and Bepi Tosolini’s call it MOST. It can also be aged in wooden barrels. If you are new to grappa, this category is a great starting point as the flavour profile is fruitier and juicier. It will help you to ease into grappa.
On the label you might also see the geographical location of where the vinaccia is from. For example, Grappa del Friuli, Grappa del Veneto and so on.
More confusingly, you can find combinations of these styles. For example, Nonino has a grappa ‘Da Prosecco Riserva in barriques’ which is a grappa produced from Glera grapes used for Prosecco and aged in casks for 24 months. The term ‘Grappa Barrique‘ can also be used, provided the grappa is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 months. Sometimes they even describe the type of wood in the name, such as ‘Bepi Tosolini Grappa di Tocai Castagno Barrique’. Each distillery has its own way of labelling its products.
How to drink it
The most common way to serve grappa is neat, after a meal, as it works well as a digestif. This is where we all have had those bad experiences with grappa, as many (touristy) restaurants tend to offer a free digestif after a meal and, unfortunately, they often serve commercial grappa, which is not the most pleasant in flavour. Luckily, there are many restaurants that serve proper grappa, including barrel-aged expressions.
Next time you are offered a free post-meal sip, ask to see the bottle first or find out more about the grappa in question. Another little tip is to pour a tiny bit of grappa on your hands and rub them together. If the grappa is of good quality, it will have a lovely aroma, but if not, you can smell the impurities.
Ideally, grappa should be served in a stemmed tulip-shaped glass, although you sometimes see it being served in larger shot glasses.
It is recommended to keep younger grappa chilled but never in the freezer. Serve it at around 10 degrees Celsius, and serve aged grappa at room temperature or slightly below at 15 to 18 degrees, as this allows the flavours to present themselves better. Although, colder is always better than too warm.
Mix grappa with premium tonic water, fresh lemon and plenty of ice to create an alternative G&T. Of course, it can also be used in a range of cocktails.
In Italy, grappa is often served with espresso, either on the side or mixed in with the coffee (caffé corretto). Or as an ammazzacaffé (coffee killer/slayer), where the coffee, often with sugar, is finished first, after which the grappa is poured in the coffee cup to rinse it and then taken as a shot. If you struggle with a full stomach or a terrible hangover, you might want to consider ordering one of these.
Various grappas can be used to replace wine in cooking. You can also pair them with foods like you would with sherry, for example. Some of the great classic pairings are usually with desserts such as fresh fruit (peaches, pears, pineapple) and berries, a simple crostata or other cakes. Aromatic grappa goes well with cheese, and older ones with chocolate or poured over gelato.
Have you tried grappa? What did you think of it?
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