What Is Grappa?
Grappa is an Italian pomace brandy, which means that it’s an alcoholic spirit produced from the leftover grapes used for making wine. Since 2008, grappa has been legally defined by the European Union and the alcoholic spirit must now fulfil specific criteria to use its name.
For instance, authentic grappa can only be produced in Italy, Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland, and the Republic of San Marino.
Historically, grappa was produced to reduce waste by recycling leftovers from winemaking. Although there are legends that it was first invented by a Roman soldier who stole equipment for distilling from Egypt, the process wasn’t possible until at least the 14th century.
Furthermore, it was arguably Jesuits in southern Europe who perfected the technique in the 17th century after finding ways to use water as a coolant for distillation.
A surprisingly large portion of grappa was illegally home-made throughout most of its history. In some regions, grappa even became known as Filu è Ferru, which means “iron wire”. Moonshiners would wrap the necks of their bottles with iron wire and bury them in the garden.
Although they didn’t leave a trace to the untrained eye, the distiller could recognise where their bottles were buried thanks to a reddish stain in the soil left by the wire.
Eventually, the Italian government responded to illegal production by introducing a law that requires winemakers to only sell pomace to registered distillers.
Up until the mid-20th century, most producers continued to use the direct flame distillation techniques outlined by the Jesuits in the 17th century. However, the industry significantly modernised in the late 1970s when it began to use steam and bain-marie distillation instead.
How To Make Grappa
Unlike brandy, which is produced by directly fermenting pure grape juice, grappa is made by using the skins, seeds, leftover pulp, and even the stems after pressing grapes for wine. However, the remaining juice, which is known as moût or must isn’t used as is the case with either Ratafia or acquavite d’uva.
Additionally, the pomace or “vinaccia” is moist and still fresh so it can be fermented before distillation. Similarly, grappa producers tend to prefer grapes that have been lightly pressed for better results.
Furthermore, some of the distinct grappa regions listed below will have their own specific requirements to fulfil in order to use the proper nomenclature. For instance, Grappa del Piemonte can use up to 25 kg of liquid wine lees for 100 kg of grape marc.
Usually, red grapes will require little fermentation before distillation as their alcohol content is quite high. Meanwhile, white grapes may be fermented for longer to ensure that they are strong enough. During this time, the pomace is stored in covered silos that reduce oxidization while preserving the moisture.
Bain-Marie or Steam Distillation
As water may not be added to the pomace, the distillation is undertaken using either steam or a bain-marie to avoid burning the solid matter.
Typically, premium grappa is produced using a batch distillation process with steam-injected alembics. Meanwhile, more affordable grappa will use continuous distillation by combing a disalcolatore to produce raw alcohol called flemma from the pomace, which is then sent to a column still.
On some occasions, distilleries will use a combination of the two techniques and then blend the distillates in a similar way to producing Single Malt Scotch whisky. Additionally, like the production of whisky, the heads and tails, which contain impurities like methanol, are discarded.
Afterwards, the distillate is then kept in vats to mature for sixth months, which allows the flavours to marry. Once ready for bottling, it is then cut with distilled water to the desired strength.
Grappa Alcohol Volume Percentage
Legally, grappa can widely vary in strength, which is why it is sometimes albeit affectionately referred to as firewater. For instance, it’s alcohol by volume can range from 35% to 60%. Generally, most grappa is around 40% to 45% ABV.
Different Types of Grappa
As mentioned above, grappa is typically bottled shortly after its production. Consequently, it’s either a clear liquid or may have a slight tint from the variety of grape pomace that was used to produce it.
However, grappa can also be aged oak barrels, which results in a much darker colour that’s reminiscent of whisky or cognac.
- Giovane / Bianca: Young, unaged grappa
- Affinata in Legno: Grappa “refined” in wood for a very short period of time.
- Vecchia / Invecchiata: Grappa aged for at least 12 months.
- Riserva / Stravecchia: Grappa aged for at least 18 months.
However, there is no limit to how long grappa can be aged in wooden barrels yet there is no legal term for older varieties. Although oak is the most common variety of wood used, barrels may also be made out of cherry, ash, or even acacia.
Furthermore, grappa can sometimes be categorised by the region in which it was produced:
- dell’Alto Adige: A region along the Swiss-Austrian border.
- di Barolo: Grappa produced using wine from the northern Piedmont region.
- del Friuli: A region bordering Austria and Slovenia.
- di Marsala: Grappa produced from cricket and catarratto varieties in Sicily.
- del Piemonte: Grappa made within the entire Piedmont region.
- di Prosecco: Grappa produced from Glera grapes used for Prosecco.
- di Sicillia: Grappa sourced from the Italian island.
- del Trentino: Grappa from the northern autonomous province of Italy.
There are two additional types worth noting, which are grappa aromatica and aromatizzata. However, these shouldn’t be confused as they’re quite different.
Firstly, grappa aromatica is derived from particularly aromatic grape varieties such as Moscato, which results in a richer flavour. Meanwhile, grappa aromatizza is flavoured with herbs and fruit such as honey, chamomile, or rue.
Finally, a grappa di vitigno or “monovitigno” is made from a single variety of grape. However, it may account for only 85% of the final product, which is technically allowed.
How To Drink Grappa
Grappa is typically served as a digestif following a meal. Traditionally, it is served in neat in a shot glass. However, tall, stemmed nosing glasses like those used for eau-de-vie or schnaps have become a preferred choice of connoisseurs.
In terms of temperature, younger bianca grappa is best served around 10°C (50°F) while aged grappa merits between 16 to 18°C (60.8 – 64.4°F) in order to open its flavours.
Interestingly, a way to properly evaluate a grappa before trying it is a dip your finger in the glass as rub it onto the back of your hand. A well-crafted grappa will reveal rich aromas in the vapours that evaporate as well as any impurities.
Nevertheless, it is also a common Italian practice to serve grappa alongside coffee, which can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.
Firstly, it may be used as what is known as an ammazzacaffè where drink the coffee first and then chase it with the grappa. Ammazzacaffè means “coffee killer” and the practice is said to dull both the coffee’s taste and its effects.
Alternatively, grappa may be enjoyed as a caffè corretto or a “coffee corrector”. Although the espresso and grappa are served separately, the drinker pours a portion of the grappa into the coffee cup to their taste. In this case, sugar is rarely added to the coffee as the grappa acts as a substitute.
Finally, the grappa can be used as a rinser or “resentin” where a splash is added to a finished coffee cup. The contents are swirled and then knocked back in a single gulp. Typically, the resentin will often be practised as part of an ammazzacaffè.
Although grappa is traditionally part of the above rituals, sweeter anisettes like sambuca may be used instead.
Grappa Substitutes & Similar Drinks
As mentioned above, grappa is somewhat similar to both French eau-de-vie and German schnaps. Although grappa is solely a pomace brandy, eau-de-vie and schnaps are more loosely defined and can be produced from a variety of different fruit.
Indeed, eau-de-vie and schnaps can even be made from either grape must or pomace so it’s possible to find some very similar products. Nevertheless, their production is rarely as strict but they can offer a greater range of choice.
Otherwise, Italian sambuca is usually served as an alternative to grappa. Unlike grappa, sambuca is made from either molasses or grain alcohol, which has been heavily infused with sugar and anise essential oils. As it’s sweeter and softer on the palate, some people tend to prefer it with their coffee instead.
Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Grappa?
Interestingly, 95% of a grape’s nutrients are found in the skin rather than the pulp itself. Consequently, pomace contains high concentrations of their often-lauded antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
While any of this survives the distillation process to produce grappa is another question and there is little evidence that it actually has a direct impact.
Nevertheless, grappa is often prized as being effective in soothing a bloated stomach after a hearty meal. Although it doesn’t necessarily have much medicinal value, grappa is used as a digestif for a reason and can help promote digestion by cleansing the stomach.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Grappa
As grappa is made only from pomace, it contains no gluten and is friendly to people with celiac’s disease or other sensitivities to the protein. However, it’s important to check that it isn’t a grappa aromatizza, which has other flavourings.
Otherwise, grappa is unsweetened and usually contains very little natural sugar. Consequently, a single shot only contains 85 calories and less than 2 grams in carbohydrates.
Now that you have learned all about grappa, why don’t you check out some of our related spirit guides?