Grappa, an Italian liquor
Grappa is a uniquely Italian drink. Traditionally, made from pomace, that is, discarded grape seeds, stalks and stems that are a by-product of the winemaking process, grappa has been around since the Middle Ages.
For generations, Italians have sipped this “firewater” after meals and even added a little to their morning espresso, to “correct” it (try to order a “caffè corretto” next time you are in Italy). Once considered an acquired taste, popular only in Italy, grappa, today, is making itself known around the world. Distilleries from Australia to Oregon, as well as Italy, are trying their hand at making grappa, with surprisingly good results.
History of Grappa
Although in Bassano del Grappa there are some important distilleries, the name “grappa” does not derive from this town, but probably from “graspa“, the dialect word for grappa in the North-East of Italy; “graspa” comes from “graspo”, that in dialect is a vine shoot.
Grappa started as a by-product of the Italian winemaking trade, a rough drink made with what was available, potent enough to get the farmers through the cold winter months. It was good at warming you up, but not particularly tasty, similar to the grain alcohols of the Midwestern United States. Grappa, largely, remained a drink of the poor workmen and farmers until the 1960s.
Similar to France’s brandies and cognac, or Portugal’s sherry, grappa is a distilled beverage. That means the mixture of grape pieces and alcohol is heated gently, allowing much of the mixture to evaporate, and leaving a potent concentration. Today’s grappa is about 40 to 45 percent alcohol. That’s 80 to 90 proof. After distillation, Grappa is usually stored in glass bottles for about six months before it is distributed. The flavor profile of grappa depends on the grape varietal used, but generally, grappa is potent and dry. Occasionally, a producer will add a little syrup or herbs to sweeten the lot. This sweeter grappa is particularly popular on the American market.
The character of grappa changed in the 1960s largely thanks to the efforts of one woman – Giannola Nonino. Her Nonino distillery, in Percoto Italy, has been producing grappa since 1897. In the early 1970s, she began making grappa from a single grape, as opposed to the customary mélange of grape leftovers. She sought to make a quality drink, one to rival the great eaux-de-vie of France: it was an uphill battle.
She sold very little of her first, 1973, production. Undaunted, she offered her grappa free to journalists, restaurateurs, and asked that it be served at important commercial and government dinners. She poured the drink herself and told her story as she filled the glasses. Slowly, in this way, the charismatic Ms. Nonino created a following.
The Nonino Distillery’s first single grape Grappa was crafted from the Picolit grape. Today, over a dozen different grapes are used for single grape grappas, called “monovitigno” grappas, a term Ms. Nonino coined herself. In 1984, the same Nonino distillery gained government approval and began producing a higher quality Grappa made from whole fruit. They began with grapes and in the following years, produced products using cherries, pears, apricots, peaches, and raspberries, among other fruits. Seeking a way to show off their new products, Nonino is also responsible for the stylish glass bottles in which grappa today is sold, a dramatic change from the old medicinal-style bottles.
Grappa’s popularity has spread all around the globe. Once unknown outside of Italy, today grappa is being produced all over the world, from Oregon to South Africa. These outposts use the indigenous grapes of their regions, such as Oregon’s Pinot Noir, creating unique and tasty variations on the Italian theme.
The Best Grappe
Every year there’s a competition to find the best grappe in Italy, the Alambicco d’Oro.
In 2018 the Distilleria Bottega won the Special Prize for the highest number of medals won with its grapes (seven, including one gold for the Grappa di Moscato Alexander).
Like wine, grappa comes in all varieties and qualities, with the flavor based on the grape or fruit used. Grappa is available in wine stores and premium liqueur retailers throughout the United States. Expect to pay from $10 for a simple bottle to over $100 per bottle for a single fruit variety. Although you will often see the decorative grappa bottles lined up behind bars and at restaurants, grappas are actually best stored in a cool, dark place. Out of light and heat, they can last several years, though they will lose some of their fragrance as they age.
You can try to make grappa by yourself at home, or you can buy it. The most expensive grappe are those produced from particular grapes (like the Suprema Grappa Refosco, at 65 USD), by famous distilleries (Bocchino Cantina Privata costs around 80 USD), or have been aged for 10 years or longer (Grappa Stravecchia Le Diciotto Lune, around 100 USD).
Traditionally, grappa is served (either at room temperature or chilled) in small glasses and served after the meal, as Italians believe that it aids digestion. Correctly, grappa should be swirled gently in the glass and then brought to your nose, before tasting. It is then tasted in small sips. In Italy, grappa is also added to espresso to make a “Caffè Corretto,” a popular after-dinner concoction. In the United States, you’ll find grappa at higher-end Italian restaurants and retailers. If you’ve never tried Grappa, you’re in for a treat. It’s a fiery, but tasty beverage, just the thing for a cold winter’s night.
By Sandy Mitchell