Words by Simon Difford
Originally a poor Italian man's drink, grappa originated as a way of capturing every drop of fermentable sugar left in the precious grapes after winemaking. For centuries, grappa helped numb the pain of hard toil and subsistence living, while also supplying additional calories to help overcome the work and cold.
Exactly when grappa was first distilled is not known but distillation originated in the Middle East during the 8th century, moving to Europe in the Middle Ages (1100s) through the Moors and their rule of Sicily. It is thought that Italian Benedictine monks in Salerno used their newly acquired distilling knowledge to preserve medicinal plants by infusing them in alcohol.
There is written evidence dating to the mid-14th century placing its origins in the foothills of the Italian Alps and the Northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Val d'Aosta. By the end of the 15th century grappa production was licenced with taxes levied on the production of distillates from wine and pomace.
The early distillers made spirits by heating wine, hence the emergence of the word 'brandy' from the term 'burnt wine'. It was not until the 16th century that distilling from mash made from grain was mastered. As grappa is made from the residue of skins, pips and stalks (pomace or vinace) left after grapes have been pressed to make wine it's probable that grappa predates grain based distillates such as whisk(e)y, vodka, genever and gin.
Grappa was only delineated as a style of product in the early 18th century with the distinction being made between distillates made from grapes rather than other types of fruit. Nardini, Italy's oldest grappa producer, started production in Bassano del Grappa in 1779 when Bortolo Nardini established his inn and distillery at the eastern entrance of the wooden covered Bassano bridge, on the Brenta river bank.
The word grappa comes from the Latin word 'grappapolis' meaning 'bunch of grapes', but the colloquial term 'grappa' only became official in 1951 after the spirit was awarded denomination. When Nardini established his business in 1779, some 172 years earlier, he used the term 'aquavite di vinaccia', literally 'water-of-life from grape pomaces', and in Italy this phrase still appears on Nardini's Italian labels. (The brand uses 'grappa' on its export labels.)
Grappa's gentrification from poor man's drink to one appearing in hand-blown bottles on after dinner drink trollies in the world's best restaurants is linked to Italy's post-war economic miracle. A vast injection of investment into what the Americans saw as a European hinge country under the Marshall Plan (1947 to 1951), then the 1957 creation of the European Common Market led to spectacular Italian economic growth, which continued unabated until the 'Hot Autumn' strikes and social unrest of 1969. "Economists calculate that the Italian economy experienced a 5.8% average growth rate in GDP between 1951- 63 and 5.0% per year between 1964 - 73" (source page 428 of the 1996 book 'Economic Growth in Europe Since 1945' by Nicholas Crafts and Gianni Toniolo).
This economic boom led to a demand for fine cuisine in Italy and newly fashionable elegant Italian restaurants proliferated across the developed world. Against this background, in the 1960s the Nonino family, up to then undistinguished traditional grappa distillers using a portable still to make grappa from mixed winery leftovers, started distilling single grape varietal pomace collected within hours of pressing using a discontinuous still designed by Benito Nonino. They produced a grappa using only Picolit grape pomace and so became the first to market a premium priced single-varietal grappa. These are termed 'grappa di vitigno' (grappa of variety) or 'grappa monovitigno' (single variety grappa).