“My wife and I always travel with a bit of grappa in the car,” said the head of a large Italian winery that also makes grappa, “because if you run out of diesel, you can get 30 or 40 kilometers from a bottle!”
That offhand comment was intended as a joke. But if a well-known producer of grappa, Italy’s signature grape-based spirit, doesn’t respect it, why should anyone else?
According to the National Association of Industrial Distillers of Alcohol and Spirits, grappa production has risen slowly since 2010. Of the total production, roughly 10% is exported. And of that amount, a tiny fraction, under 3%, goes to North America.
Germany accounts for about half of all grappa exports, followed by Switzerland, which absorbs another 11%. Grappa producers are keen to expand sales outside of the European Union, particularly to North America.
Grappa a sustainable byproduct of the winemaking industry, and the quality available in the U.S. is on the rise.
Grappa has long had an image problem, particularly among U.S. consumers. For starters, few understand how it’s made. It’s not distilled from Italian wine. Rather, it’s made from pomace, the discarded grape skins, seeds and stalks left over after the juice is pressed to make wine. Those leftovers, which still have plenty of aromatics and flavor, are fermented, then distilled into grappa.
To winemakers, pomace is a waste product. That viewpoint likely isn’t helped by the fact grappa production has mostly been divorced from winemaking. Thanks to Italy’s stringent tax laws, grappa must be distilled at a separate facility, away from the wine. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
There’s a disconnect in terms of consumption, too. During a recent visit to Italy, I was surprised how grappa appeared so infrequently at the table. Wine is consumed before and during the meal, and amaros or liqueurs are offered as a post-prandial digestivo. Grappa appears on restaurant spirits lists much less frequently, if it appears at all.
Of course, not all grappas deserve a spot on the dessert table. Many unaged grappas are fiery and hard to drink, but not any more than vodka or moonshine, two unaged spirits Americans gladly embrace.
And many grappas are remarkably aromatic, like those made from Moscato grapes. Nonino’s version is particularly exquisite. A great many also are barrel aged, which transforms the clear spirit into a softer, honey-hued liquid that’s a kissing cousin to brandy.
Consider some of the grappas rated at 90 points or above by Wine Enthusiast. An Amarone-based grappa made by Bonollo, one of the leading makers of grappa, layers stone fruit with sherry and spice. Alexander Exquisite Grappa, made from a Valpolicella base, mingles mellow honey, coconut and tropical fruit. Gra’it, a blend of seven grappas, shows intriguing notes of vanilla, white flowers and cinnamon.
All this proves that while grappa utilizes the waste from wine production, after distillation, the resulting spirit is far from garbage. It’s a sustainable byproduct of the winemaking industry, and the quality of grappa available in the U.S. is on the rise. But if Italy’s grappa producers want U.S. consumers to respect grappa, they need to take the lead.