Posted on | March 3, 2015
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
The brandy made from fresh grapes is ready for its close-up.
February is harvest time across southern Peru. Sprawling fields of grapes fall under the watchful eye of men on horseback, the naturally level gait of the Peruvian Paso permitting the riders to observe the nimble pickers amongst the vines. Soon, the dormant copper stills that dot the coastal region will spring to life and yield the first precious Pisco of 2015.
“In Peru, Pisco can be made only from freshly fermented grape must, hence there is only one production window each year. Unlike in other countries where distilleries operate year-round, Pisco distilling is concentrated in a few months,” explains Melanie da Trindade-Asher, founder and master distiller of Macchu Pisco. Harvest is a time of both hard labor and celebration for the producers and the many people they employ. “We work all year toward this magical and ephemeral moment called vendimia,” declares Marimon Jaime Pizarro, partner in Alembic Azpitia and chairman of the Consejo Regulador de Pisco regulatory body. “Each vintage is different, and the quality of the Pisco becomes apparent in the field at this moment.”
Because Peru’s Pisco is not far removed from the fruit of the harvest, the quality of the grapes is paramount, according to enologist Edwin Landeo: “With Pisco, there is no way to make a poor material into a good product. No amount of processing will improve the quality of the grapes. The key is great grapes that result in great wine and therefore a great Pisco.”
Pisco production is concentrated in the coastal area of southern Peru. Here, Pisco is the lifeblood of communities, a product so prized it has been recognized with the first Peruvian protected appellation of origin. “Smaller distilleries favor the traditional, old processes and attain high quality as a matter of family pride that spans generations, while providing employment to thousands of local families, among them the traditional pisadores, the grape treaders,” explains Gonzalo Gutierrez, Minister of Foreign Relations, who has written a book defending Peruvian Pisco’s Denomination of Origin.
Between artisanal distilleries and a few industrial companies, Peru produces about 4 million liters of Pisco each year. Large and small alike, each producer must abide by carefully enforced quality controls designed to preserve the prestige and traditions of Pisco, maintaining its place of distinction in the world of spirits. There are notable differences from the Chilean product that shares the name “Pisco,” according to Gutierrez. In addition to being crafted from pure grapes, with no added sugar or chemicals in its production, Peru’s Pisco must be distilled in batches, similar to Cognac or single-malt Scotch, and is always distilled to proof. By not permitting even water to be added, Pisco is a spirit of incredible purity.
Broadly speaking, Peru’s Pisco has three types: Pisco Puro, made from a single approved grape variety; Acholado, a blend of two or more varieties; and Mosto Verde, produced from grape must that has not yet completed fermentation.
There are eight approved grape varieties, each classified as aromatic or non-aromatic, characteristics that are useful in creating a variety of Acholado blends and in widening the flavor range of Pisco Puro. “The aromatic grapes are in the Muscat family, so the wines, and the Piscos, are highly perfumed and reminiscent of citrus and herbs,” reveals Landeo. “The non-aromatic grapes are more reminiscent of bananas and apples, with notes of wood or earth. The aromatic grapes are generally white, or bright pink, while the non-aromatic are generally dark red.”
Ernesto Grimaldi Roman, director of Bodegas y Viñedos Grimaldi and a third-generation Pisco producer, says he is especially fond of Pisco Puro from the non-aromatic grape Quebranta: “It is strong with a special aroma that for some is barely perceptible. It is a Pisco that stands up well in cocktails and therefore I think a perfect fit for the American market.” Acholado is an especially versatile style given its blended nature, according to Trindade-Asher, whose Acholado aligns the strength of the Quebranta grape with the floral qualities of the Moscatel, the smoothness of the Italia and citrus notes of the Torontel.
The U.S. is at the top of the agenda for advancing such understanding of its nuances. Of the $5.4 million in Peru’s Pisco exports in 2013, the U.S. accounted for over 50%. “Considering our relatively small values and volumes of total export, the U.S. remains a potential market to be conquered by Pisco, where it is still unknown to many,” says Gutierrez.
For the moment, it is time for the producers to concentrate on harvest, to bring to light the latest and best expression of Peru. Cesar Uyen Leong, marketing director for Pisco Cepas De Loro explains, “Harvest is a celebration, a party which aims to reinforce the connection between man and earth and of man with himself. It is the way in which we are able to share the fruit of our efforts,” he says.