By Julie Coen
The potent firewater called grappa (literally "grape stalk") was originally produced in the mountainous Friuli region, and has anesthetized generations of Northern Italians from the physical and spiritual pain of poverty. In Friuli, 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.
Written records trace grappa production at least as far back as the mid-fifteenth century, when the rafters who transported wood from the alpine foothills to Venice stopped en route in Bassano del Grappa, the center of its production. One popular shop, on a covered wooden bridge spanning the Brenta River, was run by the Nardini family...who continues to produce grappa to this day.
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.
Providing a fine example of Italian recycling ingenuity, grappa is created from the leftovers of wine-making — the grape skins that have been pressed, called vinace (pomace). 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 (head) of the mixture can be separated and the heart (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.
For the optimum grappa experience, 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 always as 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...completing the natural cycle.
Julie Cohen is a veteran Rick Steves tour guide.