What is Grappa?

The word originates from the terms "grapo" or "graspa" which means "grape pomace" in some regions of north-western Italy. The first traces date back to 1451, in the will of a Piedmontese notary bequeathing a still and precious beverage to his descendants. As its name suggests, grappa is made by distilling grape pomace. The ma...

What is Grappa?

The word originates from the terms "grapo" or "graspa" which means "grape pomace" in some regions of north-western Italy. The first traces date back to 1451, in the will of a Piedmontese notary bequeathing a still and precious beverage to his descendants. As its name suggests, grappa is made by distilling grape pomace. The marc is all the residual matter (skins, pips and stalks) resulting from the pressing of the grapes (previously vinified or not). Grappa is therefore a marc brandy, the only brandy made from so-called "dry" raw materials.

In theory, the process of making grappa is relatively simple: the marc is brought to the distillery and then heated in large vats called stills. The resulting vapours are then cooled to be harvested (condensation) before conditioning or refining. The practice, on the other hand, is a little different: grappa is a delicate and subtle brandy. The process, the tools but above all the distiller's know-how are crucial to succeed in delivering a high quality product.

There are different kinds of grappa: from a single grape variety or from several, young or aged grappas, flavoured with herbs or spices or not. In addition, the pomace can come from simple pressing or from the winemaking process. The latter category produces softer grappas with more intense aromas.

Finally, grappa must be distinguished from other types of spirits such as brandy or aquavit. In Italy, aquavit is a generic term that may simply mean "brandy", i.e. a strong alcohol made from the distillate of different raw materials: fruit, cereals, etc... However, in some Scandinavian countries, aquavit refers to a brandy flavoured with various spices: caraway, aniseed, cinnamon, etc... Some traditional brandies have well-known names: whisky (grain brandy); rum (sugar cane brandy); vodka (potato brandy). Brandy, Cognac or Armagnac, depending on its origin, is a brandy made from the distillation of wine, a liquid substance and not from marc (dry matter) and is sometimes confused with grappa.

How is grappa made?

According to the great distillers, the secret of a good grappa is not complicated: "it is enough to have a top quality marc and a hundred years of experience. "This sentence alone sums up the artisanal and exclusive character of great grappas, where know-how is a crucial element. However, the quality of the products as well as the heating and grinding processes (of the vapours) also contribute to the final result.

The experience of the distiller will make the difference during the heating process, but also during the selection of the distillates (from the condensation). Indeed, when the pomace is heated, the distiller will adjust very precisely the parameters (temperature, heating time, liquid) in order to get the best out of each pomace, which turns out to be different according to its origin, grape variety, etc... Moreover, during the distillation, the vapours emitted must be carefully selected according to their order of appearance. In fact, not all the compounds contained in the pomace evaporate at the same time because they have different boiling points and degrees of volatility. The best parts of the distillation process are in the middle of the process (also called the heating core). This is where the most flavourful and subtle aromas and compounds are concentrated, while those produced at the beginning (top) and end (tail) of the cycle are usually discarded or re-distilled. It is the distiller and his experience that, by smelling and tasting the distillate, will identify when to separate the good grain from the chaff.

But not all stills work the same way. In terms of heating processes, two systems can be distinguished: distillers operating continuously (mainly used on an industrial scale) and distillers operating discontinuously (i.e. in cycles). The latter, which is more traditional and mainly used by artisans, involves emptying and cleaning the cauldrons after each heating cycle, which lasts about 3 hours. This allows a more precise control over the heated and harvested materials, but also involves more work and time compared to industrial distillers, which run continuously. In addition, the artisans work with cauldrons that are several decades old. According to them, each still has its own history, its own character, qualities and defects. Legend has it that the older the still, the better the brandy.

Amber grappa: what does the wood bring?

There are several kinds of grappa. They can be white or amber, flavoured or not... Indeed, grappas can be more or less aged, refined in wooden barrels or not, and these actions will influence its colour and especially its taste.

At the exit of the still, the young grappa "Giovane" goes through a vat (stainless steel or glass) before being bottled. It is usually white (transparent) and has purity, important vigour and delicate fruitiness.

However, grappas can also be aged and matured, particularly in barrels. In contact with the air circulating between the pores of the wood (micro-oxygenation), the grappa will slowly oxidize. This slow evolution will allow the alcohol to soften and the fruit aromas to intensify. The grappa then takes on a colour ranging from golden yellow to amber, depending on the type of wood and the length of ageing. The secret of a good ageing process: as the seasons change, the temperature changes, the aromas become concentrated (winter) and the ethers and other strongest alcohols dissipate (summer). Consequently, one of the disadvantages of maturing in wood is that a large part of the alcohol evaporates through the walls of the barrel, which is called "the angels' share". In terms of classification, there are several categories of aged grappas, the main ones being: "Affinata", which refers to a Grappa that has been aged for at least 12 months in the barrel and "Invecchiate" which has spent 12 to 18 months in the barrel. As for the "Stravecchia" or "Riserva" versions, their stay in wood exceeds 18 months.

When and how to taste grappa?

Usually, grappa is tasted after the meal. A Giovane Grappa can be enjoyed at a temperature between 8 and 10 degrees Celsius. Affinata and higher grappas can be enjoyed at around 15 degrees.

In terms of tasting, the "tulip" glasses allow the aromas not to disperse, but also, by creating a little distance between the nose and the liquid, do not let the alcohol cover the most delicate flavours.

Have you ever tasted a Panettone à la Grappa?

You should know that in recent years some producers have started to produce Panettone with a heart of Grappa cream. The Poli distiller produces one of the most sought-after panettone during the festive season, the famous Grappolone.

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