Grappa: Italy's Firewater
|Grappa means "grape stalk" in Italian.|
By Julie Coen
This potent firewater anesthetized generations of Northern Italians from the physical and spiritual pain of poverty. It was originally produced in the region of Friuli where the local custom was to "rinse" the after dinner coffee cup with a shot of the schnaaps-like beverage. On a bad day a breakfast rinse was in order. Children were given a shot of grappa before heading out into the cold weather for school.
The origin of grappa is uncertain, but written word first traces it to the mid-fifteenth century when it was distilled in the Italian Alps and foothills. Even the rafters who transported wood to Venice stopped on their way down for a snort at the center of grappa production in Bassano del Grappa. The shop run by the Nardini family on a covered wooden bridge spanning the Brenta River was a favorite. The Nardini's are still open today for grappa tasting.
Grappa is also traditional in the northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Val d'Aosta. Illegal Schnaapstuifl (stills) were hidden in laundries because they used some of the same equipment.
Grappa is created from the leftovers of wine-making — the pomice or vinace. These are the grape skins that have been pressed. The word grappa literally means "grape stalk" in Italian. It is one the great examples of Italian recycling ingenuity. It is very important that the vinace is fresh and moist when it is fermented. Grappa can be made in any grape-growing region, but the better quality of grape, the better the grappa.
Distillers used to travel from one vineyard to the next, where they distilled on the spot and provided the growers with the potent spirit to ward off the cold. Still mobile after all these years, the Nonino family of Friuli produces some of Italy's highest quality grappas. After fermentation, the vinace must be carefully heated. The still is often placed in a second water-filled container called a bagnomaria (waterbath) or steamed to avoid burning. The second factor for producing quality grappa then comes into play. The distiller must have a good "nose" to know the exact moment that the testa or head of the mixture can be separated and the heart (il cuore) of the grappa captured. A quality end product must be crystal clear.
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 grappas are blends of different grapes but the monovitigno, one grape-variety, has become popular, true to wine-making tradition in the Piedmont region.
It is best to drink a young grappa lightly chilled in a tall thin glass. Aged varieties are better at room temperature from a brandy snifter. Grappa bottles range in size and many unusual shapes but the color of glass is as crystal clear as the liquor itself.
To many Italians, despite the elegant packaging, grappa remains a folk remedy for toothache, bronchitus, rheumatism and indigestion. When it is done, the spent pomice is 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.