Coming on Strong – Guide to Grappa
Whether you take it straight as a digestivo or slurp some into your espresso, grappa is a traditional Italian way to end a meal. But it’s not just the Italians who get a kick out of powerful grape-based brandy.
What is grappa?
Grappa is essentially a type of brandy. But while regular brandies are distilled from pure grape juice, grappa is made from the wine-maker’s leftovers. The process starts with a mash of seeds, skins, stalks, called pomace. This is fermented and distilled to no higher than 86 per cent alcohol. Distilled water is added to reduce this to between 38 and 60 per cent alcohol. Yes, it packs a punch.
By any other name
Many other countries have similar, and equally powerful, drinks made from pomace. The Spanish equivalent is orujo. It’s bagaceira in Portugal, tsipouro in Greece and trester in Germany. The French call it marc or, more correctly, “eau de vie de marc”. Marc (pronounced “mahr”) is the French name for pomace. Like grappa, these drinks trace their histories back to mediaeval times and were first used as medicines. A 13th century French doctor claimed marc could “cure poisoning, clear the chest, prolong life and maintain youth”.
Place of origin
Both grappa and marc are often named for their region of origin. Most grappas come from the north of Italy – you’ll see Grappa del Friuli, for example, or Grappa del Piemonte. Similarly, there’s Marc d’Aquitane, Marc de Bourgogne or Marc de Champagne – and many more. The flavours vary with the region, reflecting the types of grapes and the ageing process used.
Bianca, affinata or vecchia?
If grappa has been aged in wood for more than 12 months, it’s considered old, or “vecchia”. Barrel aging for less than 12 months means it’s “affinata”, literally “refined”. However, a lot of grappa never sees the inside of a barrel and goes straight into glass. In that case, it’s “Bianca”. Certain grappas, for example Grappa di Barolo, can be aged for 12 to 20 years. Marc is also typically aged in oak barrels for up to 20 years.
How to drink grappa
The traditional way to drink grappa is neat, after a meal as an aid to digestion. Another option is to add a dash to an espresso, to make what’s known as a Caffè Corretto, In Italy, it’s not unknown to start the day with one of these. The best glass for grappa is a narrow one with a slight flare towards the top. Young grappas are best served chilled, but a fine old grappa should be closer to room temperature. That’s a European-style, coolish room temperature you understand? Not 40 degrees in the shade.
What does it taste like?
Despite grappa’s reputation as firewater, aged grappas can have notes of spice, rose petals, chocolate, citrus and marzipan. Other, characteristic flavours include cheese, fruit and burnt rubber – yum! You can pair your grappa with fruit or match an aromatic variety with dessert. Some even say it’s great poured over ice cream!