What is grappa and how do you taste it?

In Tuscany, we like to relax and sip a glass of grappa at the end of a rich meal. Guests on our Chianti wine tours often seem surprised by this because of a common perception that grappa is a kind of “firewater.”

 It’s true that grappa has gotten a bad rap in some places. But when you learn more about what grappa is and how we drink it, you’ll see why we call it the “water of life”.

Grappa is a zero-waste product

Grappa is a classic Italian spirit produced in the vineyards of Tuscany and elsewhere in northern Italy. It’s made from “pomace” – – the skins, seeds and stems left over from winemaking. Indeed, the word “grappa” comes from the word “graspa” which, in the Venetian dialect, refers to the grape stems.

It’s said that 15th century farmers and peasants saved the pomace, fermented it and ran it through a distiller to make a strong alcoholic beverage to help them through the winter. It’s still an Italian tradition that we don’t waste anything.  

The drink was also thought to have curative properties. In World War One, Italian soldiers carried it in their flasks to sanitize their drinking water. No doubt, it worked because of the high alcohol content in grappa. Most grappas contain close to 40% alcohol, while some can be as high as 60%.

What does grappa taste like? Generally speaking, grappa is clear in colour, potent and dry, with a flavor profile somewhat similar to cognac. But the actual taste depends on the kind of grape pomace used to make it. For example, the mulch from the Sangiovese grapes in Chianti and Brunello wines will give grappa tones of sweet berries. Aging in oak barrels may add some smoother notes of vanilla or caramel. 

How to drink grappa   

Traditionally, we drink grappa after dinner because it helps with digestion.  It should be served, either at room temperature or slightly chilled, in small glasses. A narrow glass with a slightly wider opening at the top (tulip-style) is ideal for enjoying the aromas. You should swirl the grappa gently in the glass, inhale the aroma briefly and then taste it in small sips. 

Some people drink grappa in the morning by blending it with a steaming shot of espresso.  This is called “caffè corretto” which literally means “corrected coffee.”

I’ll let you in a secret. Grappa is also delicious when you pour it over sliced peaches, or on top of your vanilla or chocolate gelato. Once you try it, I’m sure you’ll love it as much as we do.

Learn more about grappa and Tuscan wines by joining a class at our Florence wine school.