Grappa is one of Italy's most popular alcoholic drinks, with somewhere in the region of forty million bottles of grappa being produced every year. It's also a very Italian drink; since 1989 the name has been protected by the EU, meaning that the drink can only be called grappa if it's sourced and produced in Italy.
What is Grappa?
The main ingredient of grappa is pomace, which consists of the grape skins, seeds and stalks that are left over from the winemaking process. These are taken through a second process of distillation, which extracts the remaining flavours from the pomace before the waste is discarded. The grappa is then either bottled at once, which creates white grappa (grappa bianca), or aged in wooden casks to create the yellow or brown-hued grappa known as riserva.
Grappa can either be made from a mixture of pomaces from different sources, or from one grape variety. If at least 85% of the pomace comes from a single variety, the grappa can be designated di vitigno or varietale, and the type of grape can be incorporated into the name of the drink. Examples of this include Po' Merlot di Poli and Po' Pinot di Poli from the Poli distillery and Francoli's Barbera and Moscato grappas. However, the best wines don't always produce the best grappa; as the grappa is made from the leftovers of the winemaking process, the more the wine takes out of the pomace, the less remains for the grappa.
A variety of flavoured grappas are also available, including drinks with a hint of almond, honey or blueberry and Nardini's Acqua di Cedro, a grappa-based liquor made with cedro (an Italian fruit similar to an oversized lemon).
Who makes grappa?
There are more than a hundred different grappa producers spread across Italy. Some are winemakers, such as Rovero and Castelleri Bergaglio, who make grappa as a lucrative sideline to their main business. Others, including Poli and Nonino, are distillers dedicated solely to the production of grappa, buying in their pomace from the winemakers. Several of the distilleries are based in the town of Bassano del Grappa, the historic home of the drink.
Nick Hopewell-Smith imports the popular Nardini brand to the UK, where his regular customers include London's famous Bar Italia. Grappa isn't always seen in a positive light by the British public, and Nick's a keen advocate of the drink, extolling its virtues at the annual La Dolce Vita show. 'Often they have these misconceptions,' he says, 'but when you go into it and explain the tradition, about Nardini and its history and the history of Bassano and the Ponte Vecchio, they really understand.' And if they actually try it, then more often than not they come back for more.
How to serve grappa
Grappa is a wonderful way to end a meal, drunk either as a shot on its own or added to an espresso (in which case it's known in Italy as a caffè coretto, or a "corrected coffee"). The Instituto Nazionale Grappa, the body that represents most of the grappa producers in Italy, recommends serving shots in small tulip-shaped glasses with open rims, rather than balloons or narrow glasses.
Many Italian households serve grappa straight from the freezer, giving it an icy, crisp taste, while the Instituto Nazionale Grappa recommends serving young grappa at between 9 and 13 degrees Celsius, and riserva at around 17 degrees. Freezing can affect the flavour of a good grappa, but it's a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy the drink. As Nick Hopewell-Smith says, 'you take something away when you chill it, but if it makes it more accessible to people and people are more likely to try it and enjoy it, then why not?'
The Poli Grappa Museum
Grappa distilleries, some of which have been run by the same families for several generations, tend to be very proud of their product and its heritage. Poli have opened the Poli Museo della Grappa on Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa (open 9-19.30, free entry, Tel. +39 0424 524 426). The museum features information on the history of grappa and the distillation process, as well as an opportunity to sample some of Poli's products. For larger groups, they can also arrange tours of the distillery.