Wine Culture and Information - Volume 12
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Grappa

The renowned Italian's national brandy is rich in pleasures and surprises. A tradition coming from centuries of history and still alive in the country

 Among the many traditional beverages of the Italian culture, two of them have an important role in people's life, their presence has been an integral part of the country's traditions for many centuries and they are both alcoholic beverages: wine and grappa. Although grappa has not a history as ancient and as definable as wine's history, grappa has been, practically since ever, the most preferred brandy of Italians. In the past centuries grappa was considered as a “coarse” brandy, something to be exclusively destined to people of low social status and it seems that nobles and higher social classes were not interested in grappa and they also did not drink it. In recent times, also thanks to new distillation technologies and to the rigorous selection of quality ingredients, grappa has got back to limelight and it is getting more and more to a dignified position among brandies, the high quality of this brandy has greatly contributed to its celebrity and renewed interest among Italians of any social class. Although grappa is known and produced everywhere in Italy, it is mainly spread and drunk in the regions of the north-west side of the country, in particular Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige as well as Lombardy and Piedmont.

 

What is Grappa?

 Grappa is a brandy made from grape's pomace, it is produced by distilling fermented pomace (grape skins) used to produce wine. As opposed to other brandies, such as Cognac, produced by distilling wine, grappa is produced by distilling solid matters, that is by distilling fermented grape's skins, after they have been pressed for the production of must used to make wine.

 The word “grappa” comes from the Lombard grapa, having its origin from the Gothic word krappa, which meaning is “hook” and gave origin to the word raspo and graspo, that is grappolo (Italian for “bunch”) that finally relates grappa to grape, the matter used to produce grappa. Even today in Lombardy, as well as in other northern regions of Italy, although with small dialectal variations, the term “grapa” is used to refer to the substance left at the end of the wine making process, that is grape's skins, pips and stalks macerated in the must during wine fermentation and, once again, states this name is truly originated by the word “grape”.

 Grappa is classified according its age, the type of aging technique used during production, grape or grapes used to produce it as well as the vegetal essences used to aromatize it. Grappa is classified according the following categories:

 

  • Giovane (young) or bianca (white) - it is the grappa which is bottled soon after production and was not stored or kept in wooden containers. This kind of grappa has no color and it is transparent, it has a delicate and typical aroma as well as a dry and clean taste
  • affinata (aged) - it is the grappa which is bottled after having been aged for a period not longer than 12 months in wooden containers. Its color, smell and taste depend on the type and capacity of the wooden containers
  • invecchiata (old) o vecchia (old) - it is the grappa which is bottled after having been aged for a period of time from 12 to 18 months in wooden containers. Its color, smell and taste depend on the type and capacity of wooden containers
  • stravecchia (very old) o riserva (reserve) - it is the grappa bottled after having been aged for a period of time longer than 18 months. Its color, smell and taste depend on the type and capacity of wooden containers
  • aromatica (aromatic) - grappa produced with aromatic or semi-aromatic grapes, such as Muscat blanc, Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau, Malvasia, etc.
  • monovitigno (mono-varietal) - it is a grappa produced with the pomace of a single variety of grape. The name of grape used is usually written in the label
  • polivitigno (poly-varietal) - it is a grappa produced with pomace of many varieties of grapes.
  • aromatizzata (aromatized) - this grappa has been added with one or more aromatic vegetal essences. The most common aromatic grappas are aromatized with fruits (raspberry, apricot, blackberry, peach, etc.) as well as officinal and aromatic herbs (juniper, rue, licorice, etc.)

 It should be noted that every category can be combined with others in order to create a new and specific classification of grappa, such as, grappa monovitigno riserva or grappa aromatica monovitigno stravecchia. Quality of grappa mainly depends on quality of the pomace used to make it as well as the variety of grape. Monovitigno grappas, that is the grappas produced by using one single grape variety, are usually the most elegant and refined ones, even better, the monovitigno grappas produced with aromatic or semi-aromatica grapes. Monovitigno grappas usually have the name of the grape used in the bottle's label, such as Grappa di Moscato, Grappa di Nebbiolo or Grappa di Nosiola. Polivitigno grappas can be easily recognized because they have no supplementary indication in the label, usually only the term grappa is written in it with no specific mention about the grapes used to produce it.

 Grappa can be sold, according to the Italian law, only if the alcohol by volume is from 38% to 60%, however most of the grappa sold has about 43% of alcohol by volume. The percentage of alcohol in a grappa is a specific and precise choice of the producer, who decides the exact percentage of alcohol in order to have a balanced product as well as according to its organoleptic characteristics.

 

Production of Grappa

 Grappa is a distilled beverage produced with grape's pomace. Quality of pomace is the first and most important factor in producing a good quality grappa. Producers know this very well and they wisely take a scrupulous care in keeping and handling this matter. Pomace must be in good health and properly storing and keeping pomace is a very crucial aspect because every defect or fault, even the most insignificant or small ones, are easily transfered to grappa and they will be perceived by any good and well-trained grappa lover or taster.


 

 Before distilling grape's pomace, it is necessary that they have some alcohol. This is possible only when the pomace have been fermented, that is when the sugar has been transformed into alcohol. This condition depends on the origin of pomace, that is depends on the method of wine making in what they have been used to. Pomace used for the making of white wine, that is the pomace not macerated in the must during the alcoholic fermentation, are called “virgin”, they are rich in sugars and have no alcohol, therefore they must be fermented before distillation. The pomace used for the making of rosé or blush wine, that is the one slightly macerated in the must during wine making, are called “semi-fermented” and have a little quantity of alcohol. Pomace used for making red wine, that is a pomace which has been fermented during the maceration in must, are called “fermented” and, as they contain alcohol in good quantities, they are ready for distillation. Before distilling virgin and semi-fermented pomace, it will be necessary to ferment them in order to transform sugars into alcohol, thus obtaining fermented pomace.

 In case fermented pomace is not distilled in a short time, proper and scrupulous care is needed to keep and store it, because it can be easily spoiled, lose its quality as well as getting mouldy. Proper storage and care of pomace is fundamental, because a spoiled or defective pomace will surely give a defective grappa having low or bad quality.

 The process of distilling pomace is made by means of a distiller. The most popular and used type of distiller is the discontinuous one. Besides being the most traditional choice for grappa production, discontinuous distiller, because of its proper technical and functional characteristics, usually gives the best quality grappa. As the subject of distillation and of distillers is quite vast as well as interesting, we are not going to discuss this matter because it would go far beyond the scope of this report; for the moment, knowing that a grappa produced with a discontinuous distiller is better than the one produced with other types of distiller is surely enough. Producers usually write in the bottle's label the type of distiller used to make their grappa.

 The process of distillation begins by filling up the distiller's cauldron with fermented grape's pomace, and then the cauldron is being warmed. This first phase allows the evaporation of liquid substances from the solid matter, mainly alcohol and water. Ethyl alcohol, that is the main substance in a distilled beverage, starts boiling at 78,4° C, (173.12° F) however, as the alcohol in pomace is mixed with water, the boiling point will be higher and it will vary according to the percentage of water in the mixture as well as of alcohol. The higher the quantity of water, the higher the boiling point of the mixture. The pomace to be distilled also contains other components which evaporate when heated and are transfered to the distilled liquid. Many of these substances are unpleasing, therefore unwanted, and they will be removed or excluded. Fortunately, the many substances contained in the pomace have different boiling points, therefore by scrupulously controlling the temperature of the heating process, it will be possible to eliminate any unwanted component while keeping all the wanted and quality substances instead. This process of separation, or elimination of bad and unwanted components is called “cutting out heads and tails”.


A type of grappa glass
A type of grappa glass

 Vapors produced by heating and subsequent concentration, are chilled in order to turn them back again into their liquid state, this is what originates the distilled beverage. Every phase of distillation generates a particular type of liquid and it is classified, according to its components, as head, heart or tail. The head part is the very first liquid coming out from the distillation process and it is mainly made of bad and unpleasant components, that would give a vinegar taste to grappa as well as coarse aromas, and it also contains methyl alcohol, which is toxic, and therefore it is eliminated. Fortunately all these components have a boiling point lower than all the other wanted and “noble” substances and they are the first ones to be produced by the distillation. One of the many talents of the producer, is to determine the end of the head part and the beginning of the heart, that is the good and precious part of the distilled liquid, rich in ethyl alcohol and aromatic substances. The producer must also have the talent to recognize and determine the end of the heart and the beginning of the tail, that is the final part of the liquid; this part will be eliminated as well because it contains coarse and unpleasing substances and not much alcohol, already extracted with the heart, and it will not be part of the grappa. In short, grappa is exclusively made of the heart part, that is the liquid produced during the middle phase of distillation, rich in ethyl alcohol and fine and elegant aromatic substances, while discarding all the rest, head and tail, that is the initial and the last parts.

 At the end of the distillation process a brandy having a high quantity of alcohol is obtained, usually from 60% to 75% by volume when produced with discontinuous distillers, therefore the grappa is not yet ready to be consumed and appreciated. The next phase is used to lower the alcohol's percentage, according to the Italian Laws about grappa, this percentage can be from 38% to 60% by volume. Diminishing the percentage of alcohol is accomplished by adding distilled or demineralized water until reaching the wanted percentage of alcohol. The percentage of alcohol by volume in a grappa is a specific choice of the producer determined according to the type of grappa; the alcohol must be well balanced with all the other components without “burning” the mouth and without “hiding” all the other organoleptic sensations. Because of some insoluble substances contained in the distilled liquid, adding water will turn it turbid, giving it a “milky” and opaque aspect and this is, of course, unacceptable and unwanted to any taster. As the grappa must be transparent and crystalline, it must be filtered in order to eliminate these insoluble components. The filtration process also eliminates other coarse and unwanted substances as well as some insoluble oils. To make the filtration process easier, grappa is chilled to a very low temperature, usually ranging from -10° C to -20° C (14° ÷ -4° F) and then filtered.

 When the filtration process is done, grappa is finally ready to be bottled or aged in wood according to the type the producer wanted to make.

 

Service and Evaluation of Grappa

 Before being tasted and appreciated, grappa, just like any other food or beverage, must be properly prepared for service. The first aspect we will discuss is the temperature, determinant factor to accentuate or diminish the organoleptic sensations of this brandy. The general rule about temperature, alcoholic beverages and aromas is that low temperatures diminish the perception of smells and alcohol, high temperatures accentuate them. A high temperature, that would accentuate grappa's aromas, will accentuate alcohol pungency in the nose instead and therefore all the others aroma will be scarcely perceived. Young or white grappas are usually served at temperatures from 8° C to 12 ° C (46° ÷ 53° F) whereas aged, old and reserve grappas are generally served at temperatures from 15° C to 18° C (59° ÷ 64° F) and sometimes at 20° C (68° F) Grappa lovers usually like drinking grappa at temperatures from 18° to 20° C (64° ÷ 68° F), this temperature will surely accentuate all aromas, including the bad and defective ones, this means that it will be easier to recognize a bad or mediocre quality grappa from the good ones. Like we said, high temperatures also accentuate alcohol pungency in the nose: in case it is preferred to drink grappa at these temperatures, it will be a good idea to take same precautions in order not to get “burned” by the alcohol's aggressivity while smelling its bouquet.

 Using a proper glass is the main precaution against alcohol's “aggression” in the nose as well as allowing a better appreciation of all those fine and elegant aromas of a grappa. A good grappa glass should be tall and narrow while opening a little more at the top in order to allow a better perception of aromas. Figure represents an example of a grappa glass. As can be seen, the glass has a reduced diameter and volume, it is tall and slim and its opening is lightly enlarged. The body is tall about 9 ÷ 10 centimeters (about 3½ ÷ 4 inches) and keeps the nose at the right distance to the grappa and avoids alcohol vapors to “burn” the olfactory bulb. Grappa glass is also narrow therefore the quantity of distilled liquid it can contain will never be high. It should be remembered grappa is an alcoholic beverage and has about 43% of alcohol by volume and therefore it should be drunk with moderation and, to better appreciate it, at tiny sips. The glass is “completed” by a long stem, it should be as long as the body, and a base. The glass of this kind should be held by the base and never held by the body; this keeps the hand as far as possible from the nose as well as avoiding grappa to be warmed by hand's heat. The hand holding the glass could also have smells and odors, because of deodorants or soaps as well as for having being in contact with odorous substances, and this would disturb and alter the olfactory perception. Holding the glass by the body would, of course, heat the grappa and therefore the aromas and taste will be altered as well.

 Grappa glass should be filled for a little less than one third of its height: do not forget one of the purposes of this glass is to ensure a proper distance between the nose and the grappa. Using the glass of figure as a reference, this should be filled up to the largest part of its body or slightly above this level.

 The first characteristic being evaluated in a grappa is the aspect that will always be transparent and crystalline with no exception, showing no extraneous substance. A grappa not transparent or opaque would mean a fault or defect during the filtration process or during the chilling phase before filtering. Young grappa will always show no color whereas the color of aged or old grappas can be straw yellow, more or less intense, as well as being amber in certain cases.The color of aged or old grappas directly depend on type of wood used and on the amount of time the grappa has been in contact with wood. Generally speaking, the more the color of grappa tends to amber, the more the time of aging.

 The next evaluation is about smells. Lightly swirl the glass, this operation will allow a better development of aromas, and smell with decision for a short time. In aromatic grappas, that is the ones produced with the pomace of aromatic or semi-aromatic grapes, a strong and good perception of the grape's aroma should be perceived then followed by all other aromas. In aged or old grappas, aromas transfered from wood to the liquid are perceived as well, their intensity varies according the essence of wood used as well as the time of aging. Typical grappa's aromas are the ones resembling fruits, such as, banana, raspberry, apple, strawberry and peach, as well as dried fruit, such as hazelnuts, flowers, vegetal substances and herbs. A defect that could be detected in some grappas is the exaggerated pungency of alcohol; detection of this defect is easily recognizable by the “burning” and “painful” sensation as the alcohol's vapors get to the olfactory bulb. Bad smells, such as vinegar, sweat, wax, smoke or burnt are, of course, defects and are usually originated by a bad pomace's storage and quality as well as a bad distillation practice.

 After this analysis is done, we will proceed with tasting the grappa. Grappa must be consumed at tiny sips and as the liquid is in the mouth, inhale a little air through the teeth while distributing grappa all over the mouth. The introduction of air in the mouth will oxygenate grappa and will help the development of aromas, the development will also be accentuated by the heat of the mouth that will warm the grappa. The first perceived taste will be, of course, the burning sensation of alcohol that will be perceived as a “pseudo-caloric” sensation more or less strong according to the quantity of alcohol contained in the liquid. After that, the flavors of grappa will come out and will be easily perceivable and recognizable: sweet and bitter. Acid flavor will be completely contrasted by alcohol and therefore it will not be perceived, whereas the perception of a salty flavor is always considered as a defect. Besides that, flavors of fruits will be perceived as well, usually the same ones perceived by the nose. The examination of grappa ends with swallowing. The grappa will be heated because of body's temperature as well as of oral cavity's temperature, therefore new aromas and odors will be perceived as “retro-olfactory”, that is on the inside and back part of the nose, these odors will contribute to the finesse and to the quality of grappa. The amount of time these aromas last and the capacity of grappa of leaving a “clean” mouth are both quality factors, sign of a good distillation practice as well as a sign of good storage and care of the pomace.

 Grappa is a refined and elegant brandy and more than any other, evokes the soul of grape: in it are perceived the characteristics of the grape used to made it and the talent and passion of man. A good producer of grappa is, first of all, a person who respect the matter used to make grappa and take excellent care of it, add his or her talent and mastery in order to obtain a nectar rich in aromas and sensations. The next time you will taste a grappa, don't forget to concentrate on its aromas, try to appreciate this aspect as much as possible, do not just drink it, try to appreciate every single aspect of it. This will surely make the tasting of this ancient brandy more pleasing and will let you understand the differences between a grappa and another, last but not the least, will honor the work of whom, with meticulous ans scrupulous patience, passion and mastery, produce it.

 



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