The Spirit of Vinous Recycling.
"The secret to great Grappa is simple: you just need fresh pomace and a hundred years of experience!"- Jacopo Poli, distiller.
If you're Italian, you may have memories of eccentric relatives who visited wineries during the harvest season. They came back not with fresh grapes, but with a mushy residue of skins, seeds, pulp and grape stems. Known as 'pomace', (a word used for centuries by English cider makers) it was more often reserved for cattle feed or compost. But skilled Italians have long known how to transform it into one of the world's most seductive spirits - Grappa.
Grappa's spiritual home is Italy, although it's produced in other European countries under different names such as 'Marc', 'Orujo', 'Bagaceira' and 'Tresters'. It's believed a Roman legionnaire probably brought back the plans for a still after returning from Egypt. With mentions of distillation in Friuli around 530 AD this makes sense. But the roots of Grappa - as we know it today - can be found later in the 10th century, written in scriptures of the school of Salerno. These scholars of the time, dwelling on the knowledge acquired by the great alchemists of the Arab world as well as other ancient civilisations, were able to codify the production of alcohols for medicinal purposes around the year 1000. In the 15th century the first treatise on the production of Grappa and Acquavite by Michele Savonarole introduced a number of innovations for its production. His treatise was followed in the 16th century by a significant body of work from the different Jesuits communities and alchemists around Europe.
Given Europe's ubiquitous and ancient wine industry, the widespread availability of cheap pomace was the obvious choice as a raw material to produce Grappa. Consequently, Grappa consumption grew throughout the middle ages, firstly as a palliative against diseases as diverse as the plague and gout, though it was also probably the preferred drink of peasants, who sometimes had to pay their landlords with a grape harvest and couldn't afford much else than a byproduct of their labours.
In Italy, production historically centered in the North above a line going from Venezia to Genoa. There were good reasons for this. Here, in the cooler wine regions relatively close to the Alps, unspoiled, fresh pomace, integral to quality Grappa was easier to source. Today, thanks to enological advances allowing pomace to be kept under inert conditions during transport, it's produced in every Italian wine region. Grappa's increasing popularity has also been driven by technological advances in distillation, specifically from the 19th century onwards, during which the term 'Grappa' became associated with specific production methods. The rise in quality led to the setting up of protected designations of origin, with Italy counting ten.
Present day European law states that the name 'Grappa' can only be used for spirits produced in Italy and made from pomace using:
(1) Fresh white grapes (vinacce virgine) the residue of which are left after pressing, still containing significant amounts of fermentable sugars (in this case it's necessary to undergo an alcoholic fermentation prior to distillation).
(2) Fermented red grapes (vinacce fermentate), the residue of which are left after the free run juice has been drained, and in which small amounts of alcohol, rather than sugar, can be recovered for distillation.
(3) And thirdly, from the residue of light reds and roses (vinacce semi fermentate).
Regardless of the source, the freshness of the pomace is paramount.Any spoilage will impart undesirable flavours in the final spirit.
Both continuous stills (similar to those used in the production of Cognac) and discontinuous alembics are allowed for the distillation of Grappa. The choice of one or the other still is in the hand of the master distiller and depends on the characteristics and the type of Grappa desired. Generally speaking, with an alembic (or pot still), separating the "heart" from the "heads" and "tails" will give richer, more textural and more fragrant spirits. The continuous still is preferred when looking to make a spirit that's slightly less fragrant and with good gustative qualities, but more often intended as a base for later blending.
The pomace presents a unique and tricky challenge for distillers given its solid nature, hence conventional distillation methods which use direct heat are near impossible due to the risk of burning the pomace, and so imparting undesirable flavours. Where traditional direct heat stills are used, the pomace must be suspended above the still base. Steam distillation is more commonly adopted in a process resembling that of a bain-marie. Super hot steam warms the pomace from below whilst condensers capture the spirit above.
Not surprisingly, Grappa is produced in many guises, with regional specifity often associated with particular grape varietals, like Nebbiolo or Brachetto. They can be marketed as Grappa Giovane (Grappa bianca), or Grappa Aromatica (which uses naturally aromatic varietals like Moscato or Gewurztraminer). They may be aged in glass only, when a fresher, more vibrant style is desired, but they can also undergo a maturation process in different types of wood. Age designations are as follows:
-Grappa affinata (for grappas aged for less than 12 months)
-Grappa Invecchiata or Vecchia (between 12 and 18 months of ageing in wood)
-Grappa Stravecchia or Riserva (more than 18 months)
Other categories of Grappas include Grappa Monovarietale (single varietal), Polivitigno and finally Aromatizzata, which is typically flavoured with different herbs, fruits or even honey.
Among famous contemporary producers, the Nardini and Poli families are probably the most iconic, both based in Bassano Del Grappa. The former is recognised as the "gold standard" of Grappa Bianche and the latter renowned for their inventiveness in the search of new flavours. Also worthy of mention, the Nonino family in Friuli who gained fame by reviving some indigenous grape varieties like Picolit and for championing Monovarietal Grappas. Packaging, or over packaging, as the case may be, has also been taken to new extremes by Grappa producers, with elegant and expensive bottles that have become show pieces in fashionable bars and clubs.