They call it the ‘Italian firewater’ and regard it as their prized possession. Some call it the son of the waste of wine industry while others regard it as a coveted drink that defines the Italian spirit just right. Sharp, pungent, herbaceous, and highly alcoholic, ‘Grappa’ is not everyone’s cup of tea. The spirit has been around for the Italians from the turn of the fourteenth century and but never earned its due respect until a few years ago. But now the world has opened their bars for it and is becoming a connoisseurs’ delight.
Not only is its origin controversial, it’s interesting too. One of the stories suggests that its first citations dated back to 1443 in the custom documents of Piedmont when it was called ‘Branda’ in the local Piedmontese dialect. Because it was not a brandy in true sense but a grape distillate some believe this story to be unreal. The other one states that Grappa was originally made in a town located in Nothern Italy’s Veneto region called Bassano del Grappa and that’s where it gets its name from. This sounds more credulous. But what is a given fact is that the Medieval Latin word ‘grappolus’ owes Grappa its true origin which means bunch of grapes.
So what is Grappa? Simply put, it’s a grape pomace distillate. Pomace , pronounced as ‘pomak’, is simply the moist skins and pips, or grape husk, left over from the pressings of grapes at the winery. In Italy pomace is called vinaccia, pronounced as ‘win-aa-chi-ya’, and the producers believe quicker the vinaccia comes to them the better it is. As the raw material is extremely sensitive prolonged delays can cause not only off-flavours but also lead to producing some harsh alcohol. A bottle of grappa requires 15 kilos of vinaccia for its production which comes from about 100 kilos of grapes. The stems are a complete no-no as they end up releasing methane, the deadly alcohol. Therefore, distillers believe in sourcing vinaccia only from the closest sources. For bigger facilities they store their vinaccia covered in impermeable covering topped up with sand to ensure on air is left behind. From here the vinaccia directly goes in for distillation making it unique in its own way as there is no other spirit made in which solid raw material is fed in to the distillation tanks. The tanks are specially made as they resemble a bain marie with a water bath running between the outer and the inner tanks. This prevents the skins from direct contact with the heat source and restricts sticking and burning of the skins.
Grappas were meant to be clear, i.e. unaged. With the growth of darker spirits like Cognacs, Whiskies, Rums, and the likes, in the international market the demand for aged grappas grew manifolds. As a result distillers started to mature their spirits in oaks for short periods, ideally one year or so. The oak not only provides it a darker hue but also rounds off the spirit by smoothening its sharp alcohol, acidity, and providing an extra element of flavor. Today distillers prefer to not only blend their Grappas but also age them in a variety of oaks ranging from American, French, Portugese, and Sherry casks, and also different toasts levels.
There’s a constant debate amongst the producers about Grappa made from single varietal versus a mixed vinaccia. Black grapes are regarded to produce better distillates as they’re not only more aromatic but also produce lesser methanol than the whites. While blended vinaccia produces complex distillates, aged or unaged, connoisseurs believe that single varietal Grappas are better received by the drinkers. This wasn’t always the case though. It was Madame Giannolo Nonino in the early 1970s that started producing single varietal Grappas. To promote her unique produce she would offer her distillates for free to journalists, restaurateurs, and other clients. She would often come to these restaurants and host informal tastings of her products with the regular diners and showcase what different grape based distillates could do. Since then it became and international phenomenon and Grappa culture changed for good.
During my recent trip to Italy we had a sojourn at the Francoli Distillery in Ghemme, Piedmont. Mr. Luigi Francoli, the founder of the facility was a known personality in area. His son Mr. Alessandro Francoli takes care of the distillery now and talks passionately about Grappa. They produce 22 different styles of Grappas and are amongst the biggest producers in the region. On asking him about how his family has seen Grappa progress all this while he says “the Grappa category as a whole is stagnant in the domestic market and only slightly growing internationally. For our company the Grappa sales are in the positive sign both in Italy and outside”. Not only in Piedmont, Prosecco giant Carpene Malvolti also produces Grappas from their Glera grape husks. Their Grappas are definitely different from those of Francoli’s as the grape is an aromatic one and showcases its potential even after everything is taken away from producing a sparkling gem. Another astonishing product comes from the house of Brancaia in Tuscany where Mr. Martin Kronenberg makes a vintage grappa every year from the vinaccia of their expensive top-end wine only from a mix of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grappa is not distilled in Tuscany but in Piedmonte, as historically intended.
Grappa was considered to be a bi-product of the wine industry. It never earned its due respect amongst the drinking class. Vinaccia was a waste and grappa received a matching stand in the society. Grappas are best served chilled in small glasses straight as an after dinner drink as it aids digestion. Alternatively, Grappa mixed with espresso was also served as ‘Café Corretto’ either in early morning or post-dinner. The working class drank it in a single shot to bring fiery heat during the shivering winters in Northern Italy. It is only recently that it has gained acceptance by the society other than the working class. If you’ve never tried it you’re in for a treat. It is an acquired taste and must be dealt with patience. Once understood, Grappa is like Cognac or single malt whiskies.
First published in Spiritz Magazine in February, 2012