Grappa is as ingrained into Italian culture as coffee and pasta. Every year, around nine million litres are produced. There are approximately 130 grappa distilleries in Italy with about two-thirds in the northern wine-making regions of Veneto, Trentino and Piedmont.
Just like bourbon in America, the Italians are incredibly protective over one of their most prized assets and there are very strict rules governing how grappa is made. For example: it must be made in Italy, San Marino or the Italian part of Switzerland; it must be produced from pomace, and the fermentation and distillation must follow a very specific and methodical process.
So without further ado, let us sip from the cup of knowledge and learn the answer to the question ‘how is grappa wine made?’
A Short History of Grappa
The best story about the origins of grappa is unfortunately untrue. It tells of a Roman soldier who distilled the pomace brandy in the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa using equipment stolen during a conflict in Egypt in the second century AD. Sadly, distillation wasn’t invented for another 600 years and it took a further two centuries for it to arrive in Italy.
Written evidence suggests that by the middle of the 14th century, grappa was being produced in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Within 150 years or so, the production of grappa was licensed and taxed.
Originally it was considered a drink for the poorer members of society. Grappa, from the Latin grappapolis – translated as ‘bunch of grapes’ – was a cheap, easily distilled hard liquor designed to dull the mental and physical pain of manual labour.
Today, grappa appears as a digestif on the world’s finest wine lists. Here, we’ll answer the question ‘how is grappa produced?’
How is Grappa Produced?
You can’t make grappa without someone first making wine, since the sole ingredients of grappa are the leftovers from wine production.
Depending on the region and the weather, the Italian grape harvest is between late summer and early autumn and the grapes go straight from the vineyard to the winery. At the winery, the grapes are mechanically pulled off their stalks and from there, they’re pressed to extract the juice and pulp.
What’s left behind in the press – the seeds, skins, stalks and some residual juice – known as pomace – is sold to distilleries to make grappa. But how is grappa made? Grappa chair and sit down, we’re about to tell you.
As always, the huge industrial facilities do things slightly differently to smaller, artisanal producers. This is how they make grappa in a factory.
As soon as the pomace arrives it’s carried by conveyor belt into temperature-controlled fermentation tanks. The pH and alcohol levels are carefully monitored to determine when the transformation from sugars to alcohol is ready. Depending on the grape variety and temperature, this process can take anywhere from three days to a week.
Once the pomace is ready, it’s transferred to wood-clad copper stills and brought to boiling point with steam. This turns the alcohol and the other compounds in the mix into vapour which rises to the top and exits via a hole in the side. This vapour travels through lengths of copper pipes to a condensation system which cools the vapour back into a liquid. The liquid in question is grappa and this process essentially answers the question ‘how is grappa produced?’
We’re not quite there yet. There are a few more stages to go in the process of how grappa is made before it ends up in your glass. As the grappa leaves the distillation tank it’s monitored by the master distiller for temperature and alcohol levels. They will discard the first flow and the last flow, capturing the midflow which is referred to as grappa cuore, or the ‘heart of the grappa’. The heart contains the majority of ethyl alcohol and the smallest amount of impurities. At this point the alcohol level is between 70 percent and 77 percent.
Now, the grappa is barrelled and stored in underground cellars. Over time, the wood in the barrel and the liquid exchange compounds which go a long way to influence the taste, smell and colour of the finished product. As an example, grappa aged in cherry wood barrels can have a remarkably different taste and aroma profile than grappa aged in oak barrels. The ageing varies between one year and twenty years or more. When it’s ready to be bottled, it’s diluted with demineralised water, which reduces the alcohol level from 77 percent down to a more drinkable 41 – 50 percent. Finally, the bottles are sealed, corked and labelled. This is the final stage in the process of how grappa wine is made.