Old Grappa…Good to Cook with?
Our grandparents knew that an old hen takes an extra-long time to cook for a broth rich in flavor. Does the same rule apply for grappa? The older it gets, does the more special it become?
Grappa is not just for drinking young, but lends itself very well to aging, too—whether aged for a short or long time, its flavor and aromas improve with age. It’s indisputable that the majority of grappa is “white,” or non-aged (and thus, most grappa you can find on the market is young). Another trend is the culture of using single varieties, such as the marcs from just one kind of grape variety. However, there is also growing interest for aged grappa.
You won’t just find more nuanced aromas in this category of grappa, but also the practiced and attentive hand of the producer: in the choice of wood, from its origins to dimensions and how long the grappa ages, all of which tell the story of the producer and his or her personal experience in the final product.
First of all, aging grappa is distinguished between short (or little) and long (or big) aging. In the first case, grappa is aged in quite large wood casks (from 6000 liters and up), and limited to six to twelve months. In this way, grappa obtains a light golden hue, with gently intensified and refined flavors and aromas. Long aging, on the other hand, means leaving the grappa in small barrels (max 700 liters) for periods longer than five years—even up to fifteen or twenty. The final product is something completely different: the color of long-aged grappa is golden amber, and its aromas are immediately more intense on the nose, with almost ethereal spices; in the mouth, there is a clear note of vanilla and the grappa is rounder and smoother. This is the typical meditation grappa, perfect for important lunches and dinners.
A high-quality aging is the result of much patience. If any of the process is forced in order to accelerate the process, the final result will forever be compromised. The gradual release of pleasant substances from the wood, oxygenation, and time are three essential factors that allow a grappa to age well and gain prestige, if done in the correct way.
The wood releases tannic and oaky substances, both rich in polyphenols, which give the grappa its amber color and a specific taste and aroma structure. Lignin softens the flavor, transforming the sugars (hydrolysis). Woods that give optimum results are oak, acacia, ash, and cherry.
The oxygen comes into contact with the grappa via the tiny pores in the wood, oxygenizing according to how much alcohol is in the grappa (upper and ethyl): the new acids react to form esters, which are responsible for a more complex bouquet of aromas.
The main part of the chemical reactions that happen during aging are very slow. Even though it’s possible to use smaller barrels or more porous wood to speed up the process, nothing can be forced without compromising the fineness, elegance, and balance of a good, aged grappa.
In the end, you can’t generalize or regulate the concept of time. The best thing is to frequently taste the distillate to know when to stop aging at the perfect moment. It is certainly only a task that can be performed with passion and experience in order to obtain excellent quality results.