How to taste grappa, little rules for appreciating the Italian spirit
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Drinking grappa does not mean simply swallowing an alcoholic drink. It means performing a great little ritual made up of slowness, enjoyment and the quest for positive sensations.
To make this experience even more agreeable and memorable, a few simple tasting rules should be followed. For example, grappa should not be tossed back in one gulp like sake, but sipped in order to better appreciate its qualities.
Before tasting grappa must be prepared for service. The first aspect to consider is the temperature. A general rule, valid for all spirits, states that the higher the temperature, the more perception of aromas and the sharpness of the alcohol are enhanced. Consequently, it is essential to achieve a good balance, since a grappa that is too “warm” would appear pungent to the nose, while the organoleptic properties of its aromas would be attenuated in one that is too “cold”.
Young grappas should generally be served at temperatures between 8° and 13°; refined, aged grappas and reserves between 15° and 18° (even if some aficionados prefer them at 20°).
The use of a suitable glass prevents the alcohol’s “aggression” on the nose, while at the same time making it possible to appreciate the refined scents of the grappa. A good grappa glass should be tall and narrow and flare out lightly at the top to favour perception of the bouquet. The ideal is the so-called tulip (of modest size, rounded and with a narrow mouth, its shape recalls the floral emblem of Holland), in glass or fine crystal and with a capacity of about 100/150ml. In the case of grappa aged in wood a balloon with a wide bowl and slightly narrower top may also be chosen, its shape being designed to concentrate the aromas and intensify the flavours.
EVALUATING BY SIGHT
At this point, the senses should be brought into play, beginning with sight. By examining the colour, you can appreciate the grappa’s clarity and purity. If the distiller has done his job properly, the grappa will appear colourless and limpid, with no suspended particles that would give it a milky, penalizing appearance. Otherwise, the possibilities are three – ageing of the grappa, the addition of flavouring substances to the drink, or mistakes in the actual production process. In the first case it has to be borne in mind that aged grappa and reserves have the added value of colour as the result of the time spent in wood. Colour may be judged to be pale (if not very intense) or excessive (if by contrast it appears too vigorous), varying in nuances from straw yellow to mahogany.
Evaluation criteria are not the same for all grappas since certain differentiating factors have to be taken into account, such as time spent in the wood – which can go from 6 months for those simply refined, and more than 18 months up to dozens of years for stravecchia (extra-aged) or reserves – and above all, the type of wood used.
EVALUATING BY SMELL
The first rule of the smell test is simple but categoric – make sure never to stick your nose inside the glass, to avoid its saturation with alcohol which would anaesthetise your sense of smell. The grappa must be held slightly away from the nose, and after gently swirling the glass to release the aromas, sniffed briefly and with moderation, seeking to perceive its qualities without breathing in too deeply. A young grappa will have clear notes of fresh marc, or floral and fruity notes if aromatic. Grappa aged in wooden barrels will be rich in spicy notes of vanilla, cinnamon, liquorice, cocoa and even tobacco.
Defects of grappa on the nose: too pungent alcohol, or coarse, unpleasant odours (vinegar, sweat, wax, smoke, burnt etc.), are symptoms of poor preservation and marc quality as well as flawed, incorrect distillation.
EVALUATION BY TASTE
Last but not least, we end with taste, universally considered the most important aspect of evaluation of a spirit. The grappa should sipped a little at a time and swallowed slowly after inhaling lightly through clenched teeth, seeking to distribute the grappa around the entire oral cavity. The air taken into the mouth oxygenates the liquid and helps develop the aromas, which are also accentuated by the warmth inside the mouth.
The first sensation perceived is the impact of the alcohol on the tip of the tongue, followed by sweet, acid and bitter tastes and the tactile sensations of warmth and any astringency. If alcohol predominates, the overall sensation will be one of warmth, whereas if acidity emerges, the sensation will be of freshness. As a general rule, a perfect grappa will have clean, clear and well balanced flavours. However, the contrary is not always true – a mediocre grappa may not necessarily have unpleasant flavours, since a sweetish tone – usually a sign of added sugar – or a sour/bitter tone, which should be barely perceptible in a good product – are enough to render it disharmonious.
Cover Image by Andy Ciordia