Italy’s World Famous “Elixir” —
The Historical Tradition of Grappa found in Bassano del Grappa, Italy
If you know an Italian “from the old school” you know that the culture in Italy discards very little, using every useable bit of the food supply, be it animal or vegetable produce. So it was in winemaking, the tradition to capture every last essence of the grape, by distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems, called the pomace, into “grappa”, now a name protected by the EU, historically from the medieval Latin “grappolus” or bunch of grapes. To be called “grappa” the product must be born and reared in Italy. “The Instituto Nazionale Grappa represents 80% of the production of the grappa distillate and its main purpose is its promotion and protection,” said Elvio Bonolio, President. Many family-run distilleries have produced this “elixir of ages” for many generations.
Grappa must be 35-60% alcohol by volume compared to wine (12%+/-) or vodka, rum and tequila (40%+/-). At the end of the meal, in Italy, it is a digestif. It is also added to espresso (“caffe coretto”). Like wine, grappa can be “young” or “old” and is served in the appropriate type glass. It can be colorless or a variety of tones, depending on its blend.
Terms and Definitions Can be Confusing
Grappa is obtained by distilling the skins and seeds of grapes, or the grape-pomace that is obtained exclusively from grapes produced and vinified in Italy and put into stills in Italy, following the restrictive indications prescribed by law. Grape Brandy is obtained by distilling fermented grapes with both the solid and liquid parts of the grape, but not quite a wine brandy (distilling only liquid material). Young Grappa is bottled nearly one year after it was distilled; Aromatic Grappa is obtained from aromatic varieties like Moscato or Traminer; Aged Grappa is matured in oak casks for 12-18 months and is amber in color from the oak; To be called “old”, aged grappa which must remain in wooden barrels of any type or size for at least one year. “Barrique”refers to an aging process in French oak barrels of 225 liters. FruitFlavored Grappa is young, bottled with the infusion of a specific fruit like blueberry for a few months and is the color of the infused fruit; Fruit Brandy is obtained from the fermented pulp of fruits like cherries, raspberries, pears, etc. and is always crystal clear.
How Old is it?
According to Simon Difford’s Guide, “it is probable that grappa predates grain-based distillates” since written evidence dating to mid-14thcentury places grappa origins in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The oldest book on the subject is dated May 8, 1500, by Hieronymus Brunschwigh. Alchemists intent on discovering the elixir for a long life, Renaissance doctors who distilled herbs and flowers for medical purposes, and Venetians producing brandies, all helped the distillation process to evolve. It spread through the northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Val d’Aosta and by the 15thcentury became licensed with taxes.
Bortolo Nardini established his inn and distillery on the Brenta river bank in Bassano del Grappa in 1779. Bassano del Grappa in the Italian region north of Venice is known as the “capital” of the Italian distillate. The Poli Distillery (est.1898) invites visitors to the Poli Grappa Museum where the history of the distillation process is illustrated in detail. In addition, the Poli Grappa Museum is home to a collection of approximately 1600 old and modern books about grappa and the art of distillation and the largest known collection of Grappas in Italy. On display are thousands of bottles from hundreds of distilleries, many of which have now disappeared.
The Poli Distillerie is open every day 9am-7:30pm. Admission free.
Where Does it Come From?
Italy has risen to the demand for fine cuisine and wine. Grappa production and export is prominent in Northern Italy due to the cooler weather and altitude. Today, grappas carry the aromas and characteristics of their specific grape varieties and therefore, different taste attributes. The eight recognized geographical Grappa Regions are:
- Grappa di Barolo
- Grappa Piemontese/Grappa del Piemonte
- Grappa Trentina/Grappa del Trentino
- Grappa Friulana/Frappa del Friuli
- Grappa Veneta/Grappa del Veneto
- Sudtiroler Grappa/Grappa dell’Alto Adige
- Grappa Siciliana/Grappa di Sicilia
- Grappa di Marsala
Bottled and labeled with one of these designations dictates these are grapes from the region and at least 40% alc./vol.. Grappa sold without the above indications must be at least 37.5% alc./vol.. Additional style and age designations can be found on https://www.diffordsguide.comor www.poligrappa.comor email questions to email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Dunn
Among the more consistent quality Italian producers are Alexander, Candolini, Jacopo Poli, and Nonino. In America, “the best I’ve had comes from an Oregon producer called Clear Creek,” says food critic and author Dan Dunn. Other countries like Greece’s tsipouro and Turkey’s raki have their own version of grappa, again made from century-old recipes including herbs, roots and spices traditional to their culture.