The origins of Grappa, the clear Italian spirit made from marc, lie shrouded in the past. Grappa is made from the remains of wine grapes after they have been pressed, the name Grappa means "grape stalk" in Italian. One of the earliest recorded mentions of Grappa, dates back to 1451, when a gentleman known only as Enrico, from the Alpine foothills around Friuli, left a recipe for a clear, alcoholic spirit , made from leftover grapes, in his will to his family. The original use of Grappa was to provided a warming drink to fight of the chills of Northern Italy, but since these humble and more medicinal begins, Grappa has evolved into the globally loved beverage it has become today.
As with wine, Grappa suffers from varying levels of quality in its production, which has led to a rising demand for certain Grappa's and a widely varying spectrum of prices, ranging from fairly cheap to single varietal estate Grappa's worth considerable amounts of money. The cheaper Grappa's are industrially produced spirits made by a continual process, but the more expensive are distilled in individual batches, which each receive a craftsman's care. These single varietal Grappa's have seen global recognition over recent years, though some critics still say good Grappa can only be made from highly aromatic grape varieties such as Moscato or Muscat. Opinions also differ on the subject of ageing Grappa, some believe that the quality of the raw ingredient, marc, is the major factor in successful ageing, others believe it to be the skill of the distiller in adding character and quality to a Grappa. It is true to say that no amount of ageing in cask or skillful distilling can ever make up for poor quality grapes. Maturation will, however as it does with wine, develop character and round off any harsh flavours, harmonising and refining flavours and aroma's. A riserva or stravecchia is aged for at least twelve months, of which six are spent in wooden cask. This cask ageing in oak give the Grappa there typical golden hue.
Grappa's are best drunk chilled, between 8 - 10 centigrade, from a small stemmed glass, but aged Grappa's should be drunk a little warmer, between 16 - 18 centigrade, from a Brandy glass. No matter the age of a Grappa it should always be crystal clear, any cloudiness or impurities are signs of poor quality, as to are a sooty, acrid or rotten vegetable aroma.
The process of making Grappa begins with marc, the skins of grapes that have been pressed. To produce good Grappa, the marc must still be fresh and as moist as possible. This prevents any mood or bacteria multiplying to greatly in the marc. Marc made from red grapes will already have been fermented as part of the red wine making process making it ideally preferable for distillation. Due to the lack of skin contact in white wine production due to separation of grape juice and skins very early in the wine making process. The skins, however, still need to be fermented before the marc can be distilled. It is vital that manufacturers monitor the heating of the marc, as the marc will thicken and burn onto the bottom of the still, giving the Grappa an unpleasant taste. There a two main ways to prevent the marc from overheating, the first is to put the still in a second container full of water to heat the marc in a bagnomarie or water bath, the second way is to heat the marc by means of steam. Both methods ensure that there's no direct heat to the marc, and that the temperature doesn't exceed 100 centigrade.
Each of the various individual substances contained in the marc will boil at their own individual temperatures. The Methyl alcohol, and certain other alcohols present in the marc are the first to evaporate during distillation. Together, these make the Testa (head) of the distillate, an evil-smelling, poisonous mixture. Frustratingly for the distiller, the next stage contains the alcohols that are wanted and the substances that give Grappa it's aroma and flavour. To distillate these alcohols correctly takes a very skilled craftsman, who needs a "good nose" to separate the testa, from the il cuore (heart) of the Grappa. Only by acting at the exact right time can this separation be done correctly, and the spirit collected be free of impurities.
In the more industrial sized Grappa plants, this process is continuous, but small distillers prepare each batch individually. The stills are emptied completely after each process, then refilled with new fresh marc. The used marc is then pressed and laid out to dry, then used as fuel the following year and the ashes of the burnt marc are used to fertilise the vines which in turn will be used to make wine and then marc for Grappa.