What Does Grappa Taste Like?
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Primary, secondary and tertiary aromas are the foundation of a great grappa. Learning to read and classify them is the best way to understand the quality of a distillate and reveal its expressive potential: just like a work of art.
Reading the preface written by P. Zanoni to the book “Grappa, tra assaggi e alambicchi” (“Grappa, amidst tastings and stills”) by Luigi Odello, it says:
There is no point in talking about grappa if we are not talking about high quality grappa. And if it only exists to prove the ability of a spirit to satisfy the hedonistic need of its consumer, it is equally true that whoever drinks it can enjoy grappa to the fullest only if he is able to grasp all of its expressive potential
If one is not able to «grasp the expressive potential of a grappa», according to the author, much of what the grappa conveys is lost.
High quality grappa can be compared to a work of art. The reader can admire it on multiple levels. He can linger on the surface and be captivated by the harmony of its various forms. But the more he delves into the historical context in which it has been produced, knowing the biography of the author, his style, the light and dark contrast of the details and the universal questions it asks, the more the piece will seem profound, layered, fascinating and, above all, gratifying.
The same goes for a great grappa, whose potential certainly lies in the quality of the raw material and the skills of the distiller, but also, for the most part, in the knowledge of its consumer. As the claim of a famous advertisement goes, if the grappa drinker does not actively participate in understanding what he is drinking, «he can only be partly satisfied».
So, what does grappa taste like?
Most importantly, which distinctive elements must be recognized during tastings?
VARIETAL AND PRIMARY AROMAS
Grappa is made with pomace. But there’s more. Grappa is made with Italian pomace, distilled in Italy, from Italian pomace, made with grapes exclusively grown on the hills of the Belpaese. Grapes with a distinct character and striking varietal differences. An outstanding grappa, therefore, will take pride in its raw material: it will not be “hidden” like with other distillates, where the personality of the cereal, tuber or grass plant utilized is not considered as an element to be featured.
The first and fundamental indication of quality that must be seen in a grappa is its “association”, or all that range of aromas, defined as “primary”, which directly and unambiguously derive from the variety of pomace utilized.
A great grappa, at any degree of aging, must respect these primary aromas and, somehow, transparently declaim its “origin”. It should be noted that primary aromas are more evident in younger grappas, or those that have not undergone aging in wood. The typical scents of the pomace must be clearly distinguishable: rather, they must be the dominant ones.
These are fresh, fruity, floral or herbaceous aromas that are very distinctive if the grape belongs to the «aromatic» (moscato, malvasia, traminer, brachetto) or «semi-aromatic» (riesling, chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon) varieties. In this case, the drinker must be familiar with the scents of the respective varieties in order to be able to appreciate whether or not the grappa distiller has been able to preserve the original bouquet.
>>> Read our article on aromatic grappas
Grappa is made with pomace. But it is a fermented pomace, initially used by a winemaker to make a certain type of wine.
Secondary aromas are those produced during the alcoholic fermentation, particular chemical compounds and higher degree alcohols that the pomace has developed during the process of transforming sugar into alcohol. These “secondary” aromas must be treated carefully during distillation, because if they are not “rectified” by the choices of the distiller, they might generate very unpleasant odours in the final product.
>>> Read our article on grappa rectification
An example of a secondary aroma are brought by sauvignon grapes. Lacking in primary aromas, during fermentation they develop high numbers of compounds called «thiols», which resemble the scent of grapefruit, boxwood and tropical fruit. However, if not properly “controlled” during fermentation, «thiols» produce a smell similar to cat urine. Certainly unpleasant.
Secondary aromas of grappa complement the primary ones, and together they make the “bouquet”: these are still plant-related and fruity aromas.
La grappa è vinaccia, vinaccia fermentata e… tempo. E il tempo di una grappa si misura in anni passati nelle botti di legno. Dunque anche il “contenitore” della grappa gioca un ruolo fondamentale nella sua composizione aromatica (solo se è di origine vegetale però, in quanto vetro e acciaio sono “neutri”).
Gli aromi terziari sono dunque quelli derivati da lento e costante contatto tra il distillato e il legno che lo ospita, il quale, grazie all’azione estrattiva dell’alcool, cede note particolari, che dipendono principalmente dall’essenza utilizzata. Una botte di rovere francese, ad esempio, cederà sentori vanigliati; al contrario una di una di mandorlo caratterizzerà la grappa invecchiata con il suo tipico aroma mandorlato.
Nello sviluppo degli aromi terziari giocano altri due fattori fondamentali: il mix di essenze legnose e l’utilizzo di botti in cui abbia già sostato un distillato. In entrambi i casi, si tratta di una scelta dell’affinatore che, adoperando la sua esperienza e il suo gusto personale, “sposta” la grappa di botte in botte, per il tempo che ritiene opportuno. In questo modo, “giocando” con botti di diversi legni o da diversi distillati (whisky, sherry o Barolo Chinato come per la Grappa di Barolo 10 anni) si dona alla grappa un “vestito” che porta la “firma” del produttore. Il quale, per non “sfigurare” il prodotto, dovrebbe sempre e comunque rispettare l’eleganza e il portamento della grappa originale.
Tra gli aromi terziari della grappa, il degustatore cerca note legnose, balsamiche e speziate, ma anche note di tabacco, di vaniglia, cacao e, addirittura, liquirizia.