Grappa. If your experience of Italy’s national spirit is a thimbleful of firewater poured with a knowing smile at the end of an Italian meal out, reading the word is probably enough to make you shudder. I share your pain.
Until recently my most memorable grappa experience was being, um, invited to gulp down a massive complimentary glass of the stuff in a shed in Northern Croatia, so as not to offend the village winemaker/distiller whose wine I’d gone to buy in empty 2L plastic water bottles. ‘Rustic’ would be a polite one-word review.
But then late last year this appeared in the shop and I couldn’t stop wondering. For starters, come on, look at it. Beautiful bottle and the kind of colour you’d search for prehistoric mosquitoes in if you were trying to genetically engineer a T-Rex. So a bottle came home for Christmas and all of a sudden my New Year’s Resolution is to get into grappa in 2021.
‘Impressive’ would be a mild one-word review. It’s not just the complexity of aromas, which bounce around between liquorice, bitter orange, earl grey tea, rockpools and rum-soaked raisins. Even with all that going on, the texture is what really sings. It’s creamy-smooth, velvety-voluptuous. Sip sip sip, yum yum yum.
Maybe the whole thing shouldn’t have come as quite so much of a surprise. It’s made by Antica Distilleria Quaglia in Piemonte, and they’ve been busy figuring out how to make grappa this good since 1871. But the way they’ve taken spent Nebbiolo skins and transformed them into this nectar through all those years of barrel ageing… it’s a revelation.
The journey from grape to grappa
Grappa is one of the wine world's great recycling stories. It's a pomace brandy, which means it is distilled from the skins of grapes previously used to make wine. Often pomace is used as a fertilizer or animal feed, but transforming it into brandy is surely a more noble fate.
There are as many different types of grappa produced as there are choices for the distiller to make. Any grape variety can be used - red or white - and it can be single varietal or blended spirit. Careful distillers are able to coax varietal flavours from their pomace (hence the bitter orange and liquorice notes in Quaglia's Nebbiolo Grappa).
The process for making grappa is different for white and red grape pomace. White grape pomace contains no alcohol, as the grapes were pressed before being fermented into wine, so it must be diluted with water and fermented to create some alcohol for the distillation. Conversely, red grape pomace already contains alcohol, as the skins were in during fermentation, so it can be distilled immediately.
Crucially, the quality of the pomace has a big impact on the quality of the grappa, so distillers must be every bit as selective as the original winemakers. And when it comes to finishing, only a select few grappas are deemed worthy of barrel age - another big tick for the Quaglia!
By Richard Marsden