What do you know about the strong Italian spirit of grappa? Perhaps, like many, you think of it as the liquid firewater enjoyed by farmers at the end of a long day toiling the land. Or you might be one of the thousands of tourists who’ve tasted its potent charms, even purchasing a bottle to take home to remind you of your travels.
Well, the time may have come for us all to re-evaluate the humble Italian grappa, because following its national decline in popularity over the past decades, the industry has undergone an incredible makeover.
The time had come to do away with cheap and cheerful, and millions of investment euros have been poured into creating a 21st century grappa – a spirit of quality and with a palate to tempt the cognac and whisky drinkers of the world. So what’s been done to try and gain a foothold in this illustrious market?
To explain this, it’s first necessary to understand a little about what grappa actually is.
What is grappa?
The spirit is, like cognac, derived from grapes. But this is where the similarity ends. Grappa is produced from the waste that’s left behind after the fruit is pressed for wine. This is called grape pomace – the skins, seeds and even the stalks in some cases. It takes around 100 kg of grapes to produce between 1 to 4 bottles of grappa. This pomace is distilled in copper stills, using a steam heated method to prevent any danger of burning the grape skins. During this process any toxic spirits, such as methanol, are separated. After distillation the spirit is chilled and filtered to remove any oils.
The end product is the cheap, fiery spirit that Italians have enjoyed over the centuries.
Grappa – upwardly mobile
However, in keeping with many who strive to better their reputation, grappa has undergone an almost complete re-invention. With a small output – 35-40 million bottles as opposed to cognac’s 163 million – the grappa producers can’t compete on quantity. So they’re going for quality instead.
Distillers such as Marzadro, in Northern Italy, who produce Grappa Trentina, have made some profound changes. First they ensure that grape stalks are eliminated from the pomace. This allows for a much softer end product. They also separate the different varieties of grape skins prior to distillation. Only at the end of the production process do they blend these together to produce distinct differences of taste in the final products.
But the biggest chance is that of colour and ageing. Rather than producing clear grappa, the spirit is aged for a minimum of 12 months in oak, cherry or ash barrels. This gives it the classic ‘cognac’ coloured amber hue – and it’s hoped that this will be pivotal in luring the foreign drinkers. The name for this type of grappa is ‘invecchiata,’ and it is this that Alessandro Marzadro of Marzadro distillers says “is the future of grappa.”
Currently only 3 per cent of grappa is sold outside of Italy, and this is to other European countries and the USA. The biggest problem is persuading consumers that the ‘grappa plonk’ of old has changed – and along with it the image and the price. Cheap, low quality grappa sells for around 6-7 euros a bottle. But high quality grappa sells for around three times that.
And in keeping with the higher end cognacs, grappa producers are turning to their packaging, using top quality designer Venetian glass makers and decorators to produce decanters for their outstanding products. A bottle of Nonio Grappa, presented in a Venini Glass bottle boasts a price tag of 1300 euros at the upmarket Milan food store, Peck.
Pic: Creatice Commons via Wikipedia