On my first visit to Italy some 30 odd years ago, I encountered Grappa for the first time. The experience was something akin to drinking spirit through a sweaty sock! This was the Grappa of old, something that was used as a form of internal central heating for those working out in the fields in the cold winter weather, often taken in the form of a caffe corretto in the morning, a coffee laced with Grappa to numb the senses a little. But that same visit revealed that some producers were undergoing change, producing a finer spirit sold in elegant glass bottles to satisfy the demands of the emerging quality restaurant market.
Grappa is a spirit distilled from the pomace or cake left over from wine production. Years ago it would be used, stalks and all to make the spirit but today it is far more usual to de-stem the cake before production. The better the quality of the raw material, the better the Grappa. Speed is also a factor as the fresher the cake, the finer the distillate.
Although some Grappa producers use the continuous distillation method, some of the finest products are made using the original artisan method of batch distillation using small alembic stills, even making spirit from single grape varieties or even single vineyard products.
Once the spirit has been produced, there is then a choice as to the style it will finally become with some Grappa rested in stainless steel tanks for several months prior to bottling while others will undergo ageing in barrel, often for years and generally of oak or acacia wood which will enrich the style. It is important that with single varietal Grappa, the origins can be easily discerned, thus a Grappa made from Moscato will be light and fragrant whilst one made from Nebbiolo or Barolo will be fuller, richer and less aromatic, more so if it has been barrel aged. For the spirit to be called Grappa Vecchia it must have been aged in barrel for a minimum of 12 months and for Grappa Riserva, for a minimum of 18 months.
What was once a drink for the lower classes, Grappa has now become an art form with every strata of society drinking it but not as previously as the central heating of the working classes but as an elegant digestif to help the stomach digest heavy meals. Presentation in elegant, hand blown glass bottles is now seen, often the glass being worth more than the spirit!
Many wine producers will send their cake off to a distillery so they can sell a Grappa under their own name, for it is illegal to produce wine and distill in the same enterprise.
One thing to remember, although the style and quality of Grappa may have changed, the strength hasn’t. At 40º alcohol, it is still a potent drink. An old girlfriend on her first visit to Italy was once served a Grappa after lunch. She sent me a text saying “I’ve just had a Grappa. I think it must be a boy thing!”
One of my favourite Grappa producers (not Piemontese I have to add) is Nonino from the Province of Udine. They have a wonderful website that explains far better than myself about how their Grappa is made. To learn more, simply click the Nonino link here.