Grappa is a high octane spirit in Italy that is made from distilling "pomace," a by-product of the winemaking process. Pomace is essentially the pressed skins and stems left over after the first vinification process. The name grappa is in fact a reference to this, as it means "grape stems" in an Italian dialect and has been around since the Middle Ages.
Grappa is now a protected name in the EU, just like Barolo wine and Parmigiano cheese. To be called grappa, the following criteria must be met:
(1) Produced in Italy
(2) Produced from pomace
(3) Fermentation and distillation must occur on the pomace -- with no added water
Grappa is made by indirectly heating the pomace, causing it to produce steam, and then forcing the steam through a distillation column. It is important to heat the pomace indirectly with a water bath called a bagnomaria to avoid burning , which would bring about unpleasant flavors in the final product. The distiller must have a good "nose" to select the exact moment that the testa or head of the mixture can be pulled out and the heart (il cuore) of the grappa captured. A quality end product must be crystal clear. When it is all finished, the spent pomace is typically pressed into cakes, dried and used as fuel for the still. The ashes are returned to the vineyard as fertilizer and so the natural cycle is completed. It is one the great examples of Italian recycling ingenuity.
Grappa can be made in any grape-growing region, but the better the grape quality, the better the grappa. Among several locales, grappa is produced in the region of Friuli where it was a customary to rinse your empty coffee cup (which had a bit of sugar on the bottom) with a splash of this eau de vie. It is also a folk remedy for toothaches, bronchitis, arthritis and indigestion. Children were even sometimes given a shot of grappa before heading out into chilly weather for school.
The Nonino family of Friuli produces some of Italy's highest quality grappas. Founded in 1897 by Orazio Nonino in the Friuli region of Italy, Nonino has changed the way the world views grappa. Today, current proprietor Benito Nonino and his wife Giannola, together with their three daughters Cristina, Antonella and Elisabetta, continue to lead Italian distillers through their devotion to research, quality and innovation. It is notable that Nonino is responsible for the stylish and delicate glassware that most quality grappas are bottled in these days.
A grappa that has been aged in oak will have a golden tint. A riserva or stravecchia is aged at least one year, but many grappas are aged for two years or more. Most are blends of different grapes but the monovitigno, one grape-variety, has become popular, true to vinification tradition in the serious winemaking regions in Italy.
In Sardegna, the grappa is also distinctive and particularly good. One very interesting story is that of the old tradition of Filo di Ferro, or “wire” grappa. It has nothing to do with the flavor of the grappa, but a very old reference to the times when the best and strongest grappas were heavily taxed, even if it was homemade. In order to continue to make this grappa during this prohibition-esque high tax era, producers would secretly bury their grappa out of sight in receptacles that contained a wire that stood straight out of the top, and so after buried, it could be easily relocated visually many months later after aging.
The most common types of grappas today are: young, cask-conditioned, aromatic and aromatized examples. It's best to drink a young grappa (unaged, perfectly clear and colorless) lightly chilled in a tall thin glass. Aged varieties, or cask conditioned grappas are better at room temperature from a brandy snifter. Aromatic grappa is one that is made from a grape that is known for its unique and aromatic qualities (i.e. Amarone). Aromatized grappas are those infused with the flavor of a fruit, nut or herb (i.e. Pear or Fig).
Grappa bottles are typically very beautiful and range in size and unusual shapes but the color of glass tends to be crystal clear and colorless as the liquor itself.
Mike Mollica (aka "MikeMo") is an independent food & wine journalist for the "Italian American Community News", author and publisher of the very popular blog "Mike's Mostly Food and Wine Blog" and is also a blog contributor to VinVillage.com.