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Grappa 101 – Everything you wanted to know about grappa but were too afraid to ask

How is Grappa Produced

Go around the world and you’ll notice that, wherever people drink alcohol, every village, every region, every country and culture will have the spirit which, they’ll insist, is the spirit, the core expression of what their drinking culture means to them – their spirit, in other words, in more ways than one. Go to Britain and Ireland, for example, and of course whisky reigns supreme, as it does in Canada and the US (and, increasingly, in Japan); head south into Mexico, however, and the agave-based mezcal becomes the indispensable distillate of choice; keep going into South America and finding yourself in Chile and Peru and pisco reigns supreme, though if you turned the other way you’ll come to the land of cachaça, Brazil’s signature drink made from sugarcane – as is, turning from there north and out to sea, the rum that is the calling card of the Caribbean. In China you’ll find the universe that is baiju, made from sorghum, while heading north and west back towards eastern Europe, of course, vodka indisputably rules the roost.

And in Europe itself? Well, fruit-based liquor has since time immemorial been considered the natural choice, and while apples and pears have immensely distinguished histories in producing superalcolici, it is without doubt that brandy, made from grapes, has long been considered the champion digestif of virtually anywhere on the continent where its possible to make wine.

But not all brandies are made the same way – indeed, they aren’t all made from the same kind of grape-base at all, and I don’t mean varietally here. While the famous names of what is normally known as ‘brandy’ – Cognac, Armagnac and so on – are distilled from a base wine, the category has long had a more roughly-hewn, less airs-and-graces cousin, made from the leftovers of the winemaking process. These are known in France as marc, in Spanish as orujo – and in Italy, as grappa. And indeed it is Italy alone, really, where grappa is more commonly preferred to wine brandies as the go-to. In this country, heartland of the concepts of the aperitivo and the digestivo, where the first modern vermouths were popularised, which invented the idea of the spritz and the amaro, not to mention limoncello or mirto, nothing is considered to round out the meal quite as satisfyingly as a grappa.

Internationally, however, grappa has something of a fearsome reputation, often perceived as something to be dared rather than enjoyed; and while it’s true that, like anything, there’s a lot of bracing stuff at the cheap end, this reputation is criminally unfair to the many wonderful, artisanal grappe which proliferate on the market – and nowhere more so than in the Veneto and the north-east, which might justly lay claim to being – to repeat a pun (sorry!) – its spiritual home.

And so here, to help you tackle this notorious but rewarding tipple, is our 101 Guide, everything you need to know to get started with grappa. Enjoy!

What is Grappa?

Starting off with the basics here! Grappa is a pomace brandy, made from discarded stalks, seeds, pressed grape skins and whatever juice is left in them. This pomace – vinaccia in Italian – contains alcohol already, leftover as it is from the winemaking process to be put aside and fermented. These solids are therefore immediately distilled, which is quite unusual as most spirits are distilled from a liquid base product made in-house, or at least they tend to be if artisanal. This produces a base spirit of around 80-85% alcohol, which is then left to age before being diluted to 40-50% and bottled.

Where does grappa come from?

Oh it’s a long story, stretching back centuries, but, basically: according to European legislation, grappa only comes from Italy, San Marino and Ticino, the Italian canton of south Switzerland – as we’ve mentioned, elsewhere similar beverages carry different banners, such as marc in France. Grappa as we know it today can be traced to the foundation of the Nardini distillery in 1779, in the appropriately (though coincidentally) named town of Bassano del Grappa near Vicenza. That’s right – grappa, as we know it today arguably originates from the Veneto, and indeed from Bassano, with another historic distillery, Poli, also hailing from the small Vicentino town. It is also particularly strong, however, in Friuli, home to many historic grappa distilleries, such as Bepi Tosolini. Otherwise grappa, as we’ve said, can come from across the Italian region of Europe, but it is particularly strong in these areas.

When was grappa invented?

Alright then, let’s go back to the beginning. Evidence for distillation as a practice has been found stretching back millennia BCE, but it wasn’t until the mediaeval Arab scholars that a reliable process for strengthening or isolating alcohol – originally for medicinal purposes – was invented (indeed the word ‘alcohol’ comes from Arabic, and originally referred to powders used in the production of make-up). The following centuries saw the invention of many kinds of potable spirits, often referred to as aquavitae (Latin for ‘water of life’) or translations thereof, such as the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, which in English became ‘whisky’.

In Italy, distilled alcohol was certainly first used at the beginning for the second millennium CE for the aforementioned medicine, usually using mixed herbs (descendants of this style can be seen in drinks such as Chartreuse), but grappa – from the Latin ‘grappapolis’, or grape-bunch – is likely to have developed quickly, given its great utility as a way of reusing ‘waste’ products. The first recipe for what we know as grappa was written up in impressive detail by Paduan scholar Michele Savonarola (remarkably, grandfather to the famous Florentine reformer Girolamo) in 1400, and by the end of the century systems and laws had been introduced for regulating its production and sales.

Grappa continued thus for centuries, an honest drink of no great elevation or status, a tipple for the poor man after a hard day’s labour. This began to change around the time Nardini founded their business, but it wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that it would really come into its own as a respected beverage, with great distillers putting much more time and effort into improvements in quality and variety than hitherto.

How exactly is grappa made?

Cool, interesting. But I want to know more! How exactly is grappa made?

Well now we’re heading into more complicated waters, and this article, as a 101, isn’t going to go into the alchemical world of alembics, stills, discalcolatori and flemma, all of which will be covered in a future article. However, suffice to say that the vinaccia, once obtained, is allowed to ferment to as much as it can, usually around 4% alcohol for red varieties and 2.5% for white. It is this fermented pomace that is then distilled (as it would be pointless to distill without first fermenting alcohol) to make the super-strong spirit eventually diluted into finished grappa.

There are basically two methods employed: batch distilling, in which the different compounds produced are siphoned off in, well, batches, and continuous column distillation, a relatively recent technique by which grappa is produced by separating the mixture in a process uninterrupted until the completion of the process.

We know, it’s a little complicated, and it’s only scratching the surface! For those who want to brave all the chemistry, however, we will return to the subject in a future in-depth blog.

What types of grappa are there?

Well! I get what I asked for I guess. But onto more important things: what does grappa actually taste like? What kinds of grappa are there?

Two massive yet interconnected questions, best answered in reverse order.

There are essentially three kinds of grappa: bianca, barricata, and flavoured.
Bianca, or white grappa, has been rested in the distillery vats for a time before being watered down and bottled. Depending the preference of the distillery and other considerations (such as, sometimes, choice of grape used), white grappa can range in style from dry, to aromatic, to semi-aromatic and to soft, with similar fruity, herbaceous and spiciness characteristics as those you might find in wine. For instance, at the drier end, you might expect green apple, mint, nettles, perhaps pepperiness; aromatic and semi-aromatic grappa is likely to exhibit perhaps rosewater, hints maybe of lime, some coriander; and finally, with soft grappa, you’re more likely to encounter fleshier fruit like peaches, papaya and even tamarind, with darker spice and herbal hues. Furthermore, grappa bianca is sometimes aged in large glass containers while settling to encourage a certain oiliness.

Grappa barricata, or aged grappa, has been aged in barrel in much the same manner as whisky or brandy, with the caveat that the barrel can, unlike many other spirits, be made from a variety of woods, such as cherry or even acacia. Oak, however, remains the most popular choice, for the same reasons it’s mandated for whisky and brandy: the mellowing, softening and rounding effect it has on the spirit, as well as the particularly attractive flavours that oak itself can impart.
As with those aforementioned other spirits, grappa that’s been in barrel will be immediately identifiable by its golden-brown colour, the depth of which will depend on the time the grappa has been aged for, the size of the barrel and the wood from which it has been made. It requires one year to be allowed to carry the label vecchia (‘old’) or invecchiata (‘aged’), and 18 months to qualify as riserva or stravecchia, though they can be held back for much longer, and it’s common to find years-old examples. For younger, less aged grappa, it’s to be expected that they retain a little of the sharpness of grappa bianca, maybe some fresh apple or pine, but with added hints of vanilla and cocoa, for example; the older and darker they go, however, expect much more of those secondary characteristics to influence the flavour, with notes of honey, butter, black pepper, crème anglaise, pineapple, coconut, black tea, coffee bean, caramel and so much more! Finally, if the barrel has previously contained some other alcohol (those used to age Amarone wine are particularly popular) then you can expect some influence from that to find its way into the grappa as well.

The final category is flavoured grappa, which has been infused with other things, usually types of herb or other flavourings, which naturally bend the grappa flavour in their own direction. There are absolutely innumerable options for steeping in grappa – and indeed you can do it at home with your own flavourings, though popular ones include myrtle berry, honey, gentian and cassia bark.

How do I serve it?

OK that’s great, but just one more thing – how do I serve it? Can I mix it into cocktails?

Grappa is generally served in a bespoke style of glass, long and fluted with a bulbous base for capturing and transmitting aromas. It’s often served at around room temperature but it can also be wonderful chilled, usually to between 10-14°C depending on the style (as with wine, the lighter the grappa style, the more conducive it is to being served at a colder temperature; fuller ones, however, need to be slightly less chilled to bring out the full range of their bouquets).

As for cocktails – look, it would be remiss of us not to mention that there are two main ways a grappa is drunk in Italy: straight, or in coffee as the ‘correcting’ element in caffè corretto. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! It depends on the grappa of course, but grappa bianca can substitute any other white spirit with interesting results, while fuller, spicier examples of grappa barricata can substitute lighter brown spirits in a variety of recipes. Owing to its particular affinity with coffee, however, an especial favourite of this blog is the Grappa Espresso Martini, a real unique twist on a beloved classic.

Grappa’s extreme reputation belies a universe of varieties, flavours, styles and cultures. Many of the most traditional makers are still well worth seeking, while artisanal producers are pushing the boundaries of the spirit’s expression, experimenting with varietal and blended grappa, the effects of different barrels and distilling styles, and everything else you could imagine. This most honest of drinks, a true friend of the working man, has never been more exciting, more open to change, and more of an inviting experience to the discerning drinker.

About Wine Shop all’Amarone

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select Grappa, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions.

Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 AM to 7:30 PM, Closed on Sundays and Mondays.

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