What is Grappa?
Despite it’s many similarities to wine, time has often defined Grappa as the lesser product, but things are changing. Grappa is having a moment and it’s happening outside of Italy. Grappa distillers are popping up all over the USA from New York to Oregon, some even achieving 100% proof results! The general consensus on how enjoyable Grappa can be has been wishy-washy though time, some experiences don’t always leave a fond memory. However, when drank right, Grappa can be life-changing. So how did the step-sibling of wine make its way from Italy?
By definition, Grappa is categorized as a digestif, which as we’ve taught you- means it is meant to be enjoyed after a meal. You might guess from the name that it is made from grapes, but that’s not entirely correct. Grappa is made from the pomace of grapes, AKA the skins, or “leftovers” from winemaking. It has gained a negative reputation since people consider the skins the “scraps” but Italian experts on Thirsty magazine, claim this is a disgrace to their way of life.
Italians waste very little when cooking, they like employing a zero waste policy, and winemaking is no exception. The skin of the grapes should be held in higher regard as it is where the aroma and flavor truly lie. Grappa has been called a “pomace brandy” and based on its ABV, that is no exaggeration. Other items such as the stems and pulp of the grapes are used, as well as the juice left behind from winemaking before fermentation.
Grappa has a higher ABV than the superior wine. The fact they come from the same fruit means nothing in terms of how boozier Grappa is. Wine usually contains ABV of 12%, on the other hand, Grappa must be between 35-60% in order to be sold; on average containing 37.5%. That’s very close to the 40% that other spirits like vodka or rum contain.
Generally drank with an espresso following a very heavy Italian meal, Grappa can be enjoyed in many ways. Some traditions call for mixing the espresso with the Grappa making a cocktail known in Italy as, “caffè coretto, or a "corrected coffee". Some drink it straight, some use it in cocktails, and it even adds certain flavors to cooking. Most people enjoy it at room temperature but for first-timers, we recommend a little chill as the scent at room temp can burn your nose hairs off.
Unlike wine, Grappa isn’t tied to one region or DOC, therefore the quality can never be guaranteed. This also differentiates the taste, according to the Food Republic good Grappa is, “balanced and complex with a flavor profile similar to cognac (only sweeter), while cheaply made grappa — more stems and seeds than grape juice — tastes, for the most part, like kerosene.” Don’t let that turn you off, Grappa can be flavored by adding ingredients to the distillation process, and flavored Grappa does exist on the market. Everything from almonds to figs, blueberries, and lemons can be used to make it go down easier.
There are 9 styles and age designation types of Grappa, specifics depend on the time it was aged, the wood used for the cask, if it has added flavors, and of course it’s grape. The one that’s more commonly used in cocktails is the Grappa di Moscato, due to its sweetness. It has been used in unique cocktails such as the Eighteen ‘97, but also the classics. For example, a Grapparita is a twist on a regular Margarita.
One rule of thumb to follow is, the better the grape the better the Grappa, that being said, red grapes and white grapes are both commonly used in the making. Following the distillation process, Grappa is aged in wooden casks made of oak, cherry, or ash, and the finer ones are aged for years at a time prior to bottling. The aging process tends to give it the golden color most seek for quality. Some Grappa is even aged in a glass, and therefore it comes out clear but oily.
It is a common misconception that it comes from the town of a similar name, Bassano del Grappa, and while there are some important distilleries there the name has nothing to do with it. According to Difford’s Guide, the word is derived from the Latin, “grappapolis” which means “bunch of grapes”. However, the colloquial term “grappa” wasn’t used until 1951 when the drink finally gained denomination. Mostly, it’s been known through history as the “poor man's wine” but that’s all changing now.
A Brief History
When exactly Grappa began being distilled is unknown, thanks to wine casting a pretty large shadow, but we can assume it was around the same time that wine distillers began burning their wine. Which is, essentially, how brandy came to be. Following the origins of distilling, by the 15th century, Grappa was licensed and taxed at the same levels wine was.
The style of producing Grappa wasn’t individualized until the 18th century. Italy’s oldest Grappa producer, Nardini, began distilling their infamous Bassano de Grappa in 1779. It’s founder, Bortolo Nardini, established his first distillery next to his inn which was located on the Bassano bridge near the Brenta river bank. This is what marked them down as the birthplace of Grappa.
It got associated with a lower class because everyone could make it, and while the rich and bourgeois enjoyed their fine wines, others settled for Grappa. This all changed following the post-war economic boom Italy witnessed as it’s cuisine and libations became a luxury.
Representing Grappa in this boom was the Nonino family who, up until then, was common distiller selling their product in a brown bottle and had made little impact on the scene. It was thanks to Benito Nonino’s decision to start making his Grappa using only the Picolit grape pomace and his use of a discontinuous still that revolutionized the market and made their product the first to use a single varietal. They even coined the phrase for it, “monovitigno” grappas.
As winemaking made it’s way around the world from Europe to South Africa, Grappa distillers followed, and while European Union claims Grappa must be made in Italy, they do not stop other countries from using the term.
The popular distiller known as Poli, have opened the Poli Museo della Grappa on Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa.
The Italians are proud people, so does that really surprise you?
So now you know, next time you’re in Italy, or a very authentic restaurant, and you want to try something new- give the Grappa and espresso combo a shot. See what you think and if you like it, branch off and find your Grappa.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about this lesser-known version of wine and brandy, thanks for reading and as always…