Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods?

My recent tour of grappa distilleries, sponsored by Hello Grappa, and in the company of a collegial group of writers and mixologists, was just as pleasurable as I had anticipated, and far more informative than I had expected.

 

 

I’m one of those smart alecs who thought he knew all about grappa; after all, I’ve been drinking it with relish since most of it was thought of as a long-haul trucker’s breakfast drink, and I’ve continued right through its transformation by up-scale Alpine and Dolomite skiers into the fashionable after-dinner drink and after-ski warmer it now is. What could there possibly be for me to learn?

Much, as it turns out.

Not only is there more to the art of distilling than I had realized – there is in fact far more art to it than the relatively straightforward process of distillation would seem to allow, for one thing – but, like so much else, the world of grappa itself is changing.

 

 

Traditional grappa is a clear spirit, aromatic of whatever pomace serves as its base, and fiery or elegant as its maker chooses.But those makers have come to realize, as Alessandro Marzadro, the latest generation of his family-owned distillery (almost all grappa distilleries are family-owned) put it, 90% of the spirits that are drunk neat, as grappa traditionally is, are what the trade calls “brown goods,” and 90% of the clear spirits in the world are used in mixed drinks.

So grappa, it seems, is an anomaly, a clear spirit in a brown-spirit niche; and to increase its market grappa would have to become both a clear spirit and something else – a sipping whisky, so to speak, and a base for cocktails.

I was struck by the obvious truth of his remarks. Grappa, in effect, has been the wrong color for the niche it occupies. I have always loved – and emphatically still do – the sensuously scented, clear, traditional grappas, but they do stand apart from the Cognacs, Armagnacs, and malt whiskies they are customarily shelved with. (Not unlike tequila and mezcal, of course, but that’s another story, not involving grapes at all, and I won’t go there now.)

All the grappa makers our band of merry pranksters visited seemed to be grappling with this dilemma. A few were trying to create a lighter-bodied, less fiery, clear grappa that would appeal in cocktails and mixed drinks. We tasted several of those, some of which were very successful, most of which seemed to me indistinguishable from mixed drinks made with who-knows-what. But I am not a cocktail drinker, and defer to the opinion of those who are: Several of our comitatus were quite excited by many more of these drinks than I.

All the producers we visited were investigating aging their grappas, using different sorts of wood and different periods of time. The experimentation is ongoing, and there are many, many options available for distillers to explore. This is undoubtedly making matters very complicated, not to mention costly, for them: Tracking numerous different micro-distillations, and tying up salable grappa in short- or long-term aging experiments present all too many opportunities for both producers and their grappas to literally get lost in the woods.

 

 

The aging durations most frequently used are 12 and 18 months, and an 18-month-aged grappa may be labeled Riserva. All grappa runs clear from the still: Barrel-aging imparts, among other things, color, which may range from pale yellow to dark brown, depending on the type of wood used and the length of the time in barrel. Oak is the most common wood employed, but ash, chestnut, cherry, and acacia can also come into play. And aging can extend well beyond 18 months: several distillers – Bonollo and Castagner, for example – were experimenting with multiple-year spans, up to 14 years.

The condition of the wood used for aging makes an even greater impact on the finished grappa than does the kind of wood. New oak, or any fresh, unused wood barrel, will impart more sweetness – that vanilla taste – than will a used one, and a lightly charred (toasted) barrel can give coffee and even chocolate notes to a grappa, just as it can to a wine.

Barrels in which wines were previously matured also contribute a whole other range of flavors to grappas. It seems fairly common for grappa makers to age Amarone-derived spirits in old Amarone barrels, for instance: This is in fact something of a long-standing tradition in the Veneto. And we also encountered grappas distilled from Brunello pomace being aged in used Brunello barrels. But individual producers all had their own preferences, according to the style they were seeking for their grappas. Castagner, for instance, the largest distiller we visited, rests all the grappas it intends for aging for six months in cherry wood first, to soften them some, before passing them into barriques to finish their maturation.

This was intriguing to me, though I am far too old and cranky ever to surrender my preference for traditional, clear grappa, whether it be made in the fiery style or what Italians call morbida – soft, and often lightly fruity. For my palate, the most successful aged grappas were those that, along with the acquired quasi-Cognac quality that wood aging imparts, retained a recognizable grappa heart – the firmer spine and tiny hint of fire that bespeaks grappa.

We tasted many grappas, of varying ages, that were very nice brandies, but weren’t grappas any more. A few of these, like the 14-year-old we tasted from Castagner, although no longer recognizable as grappa, had become very fine brandies in their own right: They’d metamorphosed into some third thing that wasn’t grappa or cognac, but nevertheless an excellent drink.

I’ve already written long enough, and presented complications enough, for one post. Next time, I’ll follow up with an account of the distilleries we visited and the grappas – and their variants – we tasted.

One Response to “Grappa: Clearly Fine, but Lost in the Woods?”

  1. Tom Hyland Says:

    Tom: Sounds like a very worthwhile trip for you. I look forward to your next installment.

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