Drink the Grappa, Save the World
In an earlier post, I recounted some of the history of two families engaged in distilling—one being my ancestors during Prohibition and the other being the Italian Francoli family who are in the business for real. The Francolis make grappa, a distilled beverage akin to France’s Cognac. Grappa is so named because it is made from left over grape stalks (in Latin, “graspa” means “grape stalk”). The word “grappa” only appeared in the Italian dictionary at the end of the 1800s. Until recently, grappa was generally considered to be a lot like American “moonshine”—a potent alcohol to warm up the stomachs of farmers and outdoor laborers in the colder Northern Italian climate. It was low–cost, so it was also a popular beverage for alcoholic derelicts. Over the last 50 years, however, all of that has changed, but let’s go way back to the time around the year 50 A.D.
The distillation process, in its essence, was known as far back as the second millennium B.C. It was Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist who lived during the first century A.D., who is credited with the earliest recorded description of the distillation process, based on the water cycle (come on, try to remember back to around fifth grade). Roughly translated, he described a process “to imitate the sun”. Distillation is, essentially, a method of separating mixtures based on differences in their volatilities in a boiling liquid mixture. It is a process of physical separation, not a chemical reaction. You probably remember from your elementary school book reports that you were supposed to “distill” or “boil down” the story into a summary form. Distillation of a fermented solution involves “boiling it down” to a beverage with a higher alcoholic content. The plant and equipment used for distillation is called a “distillery” or “still”.
The Arabs really developed the distillation process during the 6th to 8th centuries, perfecting the “alambico” (or the Greek “ambix” or cup, or the French “alambic”, or what we call “alembic”) which eventually became the “pot still”. This equipment consists of two vessels connected by a long tube that points at a downward angle from the top of the first vessel until it reaches the top of the second vessel. The material to be distilled is heated in a batch in the first vessel until it steams up into the long tube where it cools and condenses back to liquid form and arrives in the second vessel. This is called batch distillation. In the 14th century, Leonardo da Vinci designed a more elaborate process. Today, the process of continuous distillation provides better control of the separation process.
In Italy, I had the opportunity to tour the Luigi Francoli grappa distillery. Luigi Francoli had the vision more than 30 years ago to make grappa with a minimal impact on the environment, and he set the tone for the company that still governs them today. They collected vinaccia (the organic material—primarily grape skins, stems and seeds—left over from the autumn winemaking process) from their own winery and from neighboring wineries. Until recently, the vinaccia was dumped into large cement bays that held 600 tons each. After five days fermenting, the vinaccia in the bays was covered for protection and then weighted down with a layer of sand to press down and force all the oxygen out of the vinaccia in order to stop fermentation and prevent the formation of bacteria. More recently, the distillery started putting the vinaccia, 300 tons at a time, into huge previously–used agricultural bags (kind of like a huge toothpaste tube) out in their parking lot. They seal the bags and the carbon dioxide from the fermentation process eliminates all of the oxygen from the bag. This enables them to reuse the otherwise discarded bags and achieve a greater degree of protection for the vinaccia.
When the vinaccia is ready, it is moved inside for distillation. A huge furnace is then used to dry the leftover solid material, and the seeds are separated out to make grape seed oil. The skins are used to fuel the furnace and keep the distillation process going without using other fuel and without generating any grape skin waste. The ashes generated from the furnace are used as fertilizer in the vineyards. They’ve refined their furnace and burning process so that they generate only trace amounts of particulate matter—less than one milligram per cubic meter, whereas regulations allow up to 50 milligrams per cubic meter. You can see how this process is a modern example of reuse and recycling and maintaining a low carbon footprint. In fact, they hope in the future to be able to generate enough excess ethanol to fuel the entire locality.
In the distillation process, the vinaccia is boiled and steam is generated. This causes the volatile materials to rise inside a long columnar tube. They refer to the top of the column as the “head”, the bottom as the “tail” and the middle as the “heart”. The goal is to reach “stasis” (a state of equilibrium), where they can draw distillate from the heart of the column and keep the process going continuously. The distilled fluid then rests in stainless steel tanks and is eventually moved into barrels for aging. The aging starts in very large barrels and the grappa is eventually divided among smaller barrels called “barriques” (typically, French oak barrels holding about 225 liters). In the barrel room, you experience an intense aroma, as the grappa fumes are very strong. In fact, they are quite flammable and great care has to be taken to avoid explosions (which are infrequent, but invariably fatal to those causing them).
The final product is a liquid that can vary from clear to golden to brown, depending on the aging process. In recent years, grappi made from individual grape varietals and even single vineyards have become popular. Some Francoli grappi are available in the USA. I’ll have to wait to enjoy their Barolo grappa (with a hint of Moscato) and their L’Ambra del Moscato grappa that I experienced in Italy, because they aren’t yet available in the USA. A note for those visiting Italy who want to really get going in the morning, you can order Café Corretto, which is espresso laced with grappa. It is important to experience grappa in a proper glass, one with a bowl shape, but with a narrow neck. This allows you to enjoy the aroma from the grappa without overexposing your nose to the relatively strong fumes. Small sips are highly recommended. Of course, I’m going to continue doing my best to support this environmentally sound enterprise by drinking their grappa regularly. Yumm!
June 26, 2009 at 3:36 pm
You almost lost me at let’s go back to 50 A. D.,. but then I was intrigued with all the different ways the parts of the grape are used that produces no waste at all. Thanks! I learned something new today.