What is Grappa?
Grappa has it’s roots in Italian winemaking. The textbook definition of Grappa is: a distillate produced in Italy from the pomice of grapes. The pomice is mainly grape skins but may also contain pulp, stems and/or seeds. Grappa has an alcohol by volume of about 35-50% abv. It is consumed as an aperitif (before the meal) or a digestif (after the meal).
The Tradition of Grappa
Okay, but Grappa is so much more than that. The tradition of Grappa in Italy goes way — way back. An Italian winemaker is not one to waste anything during the production of wine. After the grapes have been crushed and the juice fermented, there are grape skins leftover in the crusher or the tank. What does a frugal winemaker do with those skins and other leftover raw material? This is when Grappa is made for family and friends or the winemaker sells the pomice to a Grappa producer.
Grappa Production in Alba, Piedmont
Grappa is a very small drop in the bucket of global alcohol production. Billions of litres of distilled spirits are produced world wide with only about 42 million bottles of Grappa produced in Italy. Marolo Distilleria in Alba, Piedmont, Italy is a a tiny part of the Grappa industry, with a total production of 90,000 bottles. In an ocean of alcohol, they’re hardly a cupful. With a population of nearly 32,000, Alba is famous for peaches, white truffles and grappa, but it’s certainly not grappa that drives the economy in Piedmont. Alba is home of the third largest confectionary in the world: family-owned Ferrero. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tic Tac, Kinder Surprise and Nutella. That might have put Alba on the map, but it’s the tradition of grappa that is nearer to the hearts of Italians – and others – around the world.
Marolo Grappa Distilleria: A Father and Son Team of Artisan Grappa Producers
Paolo Marolo started making grappa in his parents’ garage in the mid-1970s when grappa was experiencing a renaissance. At the time, other grappa makers were blending all of their pomice together, regardless of grape variety. Paolo was the first producer in Piedmont to distill the grape varieties separately to make single variety grappa. To this day, the father and son team of Marolo Distilleria believes this is the best expression of quality grappa, providing a picture of variety and of terroir in a time capsule of the vintage. They only use very small producers for their pomice to maintain premium quality and freshness.
A Remarkable Grappa Tasting at Cardinale Restaurant in Calgary, Alberta
I was honoured to be invited to sit in on a special tasting of Marolo Grappa, represented by BonVida Importers & Distributors, at Cardinale Restaurant with Lorenzo Marolo. He is charming, funny and most of all passionate about his work with his father. He speaks of his father, Paulo, with admiration in his voice and is proud of what he and his father have created, giving most of the credit to the land, or as the French would say “terroir.” Like many other people in the room, I went into the tasting already knowing I enjoy grappa. Even if that wasn’t the case, I know I would have been hooked. I have studied wine and spirits for over a decade and listened to several hundred people speak about what they do or what they sell, but only a handful have ever been as engaging as Lorenzo Marolo.
What is the Difference between Clear and Aged Grappa?
Do You Drink Your Grappa With or Without Clothes!?
Here’s where the tasting gets interesting. Lorenzo explains to us that grappa is like a person. Sometimes that person wears clothes and other times – no clothes! Our intimate crowd of 12 giggles at the thought. He’s got our attention now. When you drink clear grappa (grappa that has not been aged in barrel), you are drinking it without clothes. Like looking at a naked person, you know exactly what you are getting because there is nothing covering it up. More laughter! We know exactly what he means. To evaluate the hand of a grappa maker, you want to taste the clear grappa first because nothing can hide. So when you’re drinking aged grappa, you’re drinking grappa with clothes. Lorenzo goes on to explain that you don’t want to see that person covered up too much with layers and layers of clothes because then you can’t tell what’s underneath. The same is true for grappa. Too much “dressing” will cover up the purity of grappa. Over-oaking with mask it, rather than enhance its qualities. Sometimes you want to see things naked, exactly as they are in the most raw form. Other times it’s nice to dress them up a bit. Neither is better or worse, just different styles.
The Grappa Line Up: A Variety of Styles to Sample from Marolo
Six different grappa samples to try that evening, They represent different varieties, regions, styles, ageing and flavours. Click on each for my tasting notes.
- Grappa di Moscato. Clear.
- Grappa di Barbera. Clear.
- Grappa di Amarone. Aged 3 Years.
- Grappa di Barolo 9. Aged 9 Years.
- Grappa di Barolo Bussia 2001
How To Taste Grappa
I’ve been drinking grappa wrong for years. Grappa should be warm, but it shouldn’t burn. If it does, it’s either lower quality or you’re doing it wrong. I wouldn’t normally tell people how they should experience any beverage, but in this case I was happy to let Lorenzo teach me the right way. Naturally, I’d be doing you an injustice if I didn’t pass along that information to you. Forget about what you’ve learned about wine tasting. It’s not the same for grappa tasting.
Here’s what Lorenzo Taught us about sipping Grappa:
Take a small amount in. Drops, not big sips.
Swallow immediately. Get the liquid to the back of your throat quickly and don’t swish!
Wait a few seconds for the warmth of the alcohol to disappear, then savour the grappa.
Now evaluate the flavours. If you try to assess characteristics without doing the above, you’ll get heat without flavour. Very unpleasant.
Nonna’s Traditional Grappa Milla Recipe
We finish the tasting with Milla, a liqueur made by infusing Camomile flowers in grappa. The flowers are picked near the beginning of June, when they are fully ripe then steeped in a Nebbiolo-based grappa for 11 months. It’s the same recipe, Signora Lodovina, Paolo’s grandmother, used and is common in the Langhe region. There’s a comforting floral aroma and subtle honey flavour. The sugar softens the warmth of the grappa and makes it easy to drink. Try pouring it over ice with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of sparkling water for a simple cocktail or as the Milla Mule, a twist on the Moscow Mule.
Take Your Time With Grappa and Savour the Experience
We learn from Lorenzo that clear grappa is better suited as a digestivo; something to be sipped in small amounts at the end of a meal to aid digestion. You can also add a little to espresso for flavour and use it to clean out the last bit of espresso from your cup. On the other hand, aged grappa is an “entertainment spirit.” It’s the gift of some extra time at the table with friends, or a chance for a few moments to yourself with a piece of dark chocolate or panattone. In a world that too often makes unreasonable demands of our time, it’s nice to sit down with people we care about, enjoy those precious moments and savour an ounce (or two) of really great grappa. Slow it down. Savour these moments. That’s what drinking grappa is really about.