As a wine writer and wine consultant Harry Crowther is usually drawn to the ins and outs and challenges that come with with the vagaries in winemaking. But at a specialist tasting hosted by Torres Chile into different styles of pisco, he discovered a drink that also relies enormously on the growing environment of the wine grape varieties that go into a pisco base spirit, that makes it such a fascinating style of drink to discover.
If you think of pisco you probably think of Chile. Or if not perhaps Peru, or possibly both. For Harry Crowther going to his first specialist pisco tasting was entering an unknown world, but one he soon discovered brings together the best in wine pre-production and spirits pro-production.
I’m a wine guy. Just in case you didn’t know. Whilst I make sure that I go out of my way to indulge in alcoholic beverages outside the realms of wine, I have to confess my spirits knowledge isn’t the best.
I suppose the major difference(s) for me, between wine and spirits is that wine I see as more of a pre-production entity. Where do we choose to plant our vines? Why do we plant them there? Is there enough sunlight? Is it warm enough? Can we successfully ripen our grapes in order to make good juice? We only have one chance a year to get this right.
The hopeless romantics and the more rational wine thinkers alike, tend to agree on the fact that good wine starts in the vineyard… pre-production.
But when I think of spirits I consider it more of a post-production operation. Yes, yes, the type of corn, barley or potato definitely has an effect on the final product. And I am sure there are studies as to the virtues of site selection for base spirit ingredients. But it’s the post-production operations that so often determine the style and quality of the final product.
Where do we age the spirit? What type of wood do we use? How much do we cut the ABV back? What type of water do we use to cut it back? How do we blend it? Do we put a gin in oak? Hopefully not.
The recipe is more or less the same for distillation. It needs to be to ensure consistency of a brand and product. Granted, the Gallo’s and Treasury Wine Estates’ of this world also stick to a wine recipe; white Zin has to taste the same year in year out (for better or worse). But outside of the mass, bulk market, wines change every year, due to changes in the vineyard environment and as a result, so will the recipe.
I am always keen to see the cross over between the wine and spirits game. Cognac and other styles of brandy are the first to mind. Distillates from base wines have a rich heritage in the world of alcohol. Earlier this month, it was pisco in the spotlight.
Like most of the historical and great drinks of the world, champagne, port, tequila, sherry and so on; they all have geographical and stylistic designations, with a rich heritage.
Well, pisco is no different, whether its from Peru, or in the case of this particular tasting, Chile. Fernando Almeida, winemaker for Torres Chile for the past 20 years was in London recently to give us all the low down on El Gobernador, and a round up of the history and production of pisco.
Origins of The Guv’na
El Gobernador (translating to The Governor) takes its name from Felipe Margutt Donaire, a figurehead who fought for Chilean independence, which was eventually won from the Spanish in 1818.
Earliest signs of pisco can be found in texts dating back to the early 1700’s across northern Chile, Bolivia and southern Peru, which at the time were part of the Kingdom of Spain.
“I believe we call it pisco because it used to be transported around in clay amphora’s that are the same shape as a birds egg. In the Inca language, pisco means bird,” said Almeida.
Fast-forward to 1931, and the first pisco appellation was created in Chile, outlining specific areas of production, grape varieties and method(s) of production.
Starting to see a vinous cross over here? Let’s not to pretend that the introduction of a pisco DOC is a direct link to wine. Most spirits adhere to at the bare minimum, production regulations.
I mean, the French have been producing Comte for over 700 years with strict rules as to the breed of cows milk and even how many cows can graze per hectare. DOC’s and AOC’s are all around us!
Chile, Peru…What’s the difference?
Nowadays there are designations for both Chilean and Peruvian pisco, as Almeida explained: “The main differences between Chilean and Peruvian pisco are in terms of the origin of varieties and distillation techniques”. Pisco from Peru allows for up to eight different varietals to be used for production. These are grouped into aromatic and non-aromatic classifications*. The non-aromatics are all red varietals.
“In Chile, we use three different Muscats** and two less aromatic varieties such as Torontel and Pedro Ximenez (PX),” he added. Many will recognise PX as both a grape varietal and style of sherry, from Spain.
Bottling styles are also different between the two countries. In Peru producers can bottle under three different styles, Puro (100% from one variety), Acholado (blend of varieties), or Mosto Verde (distilled from partly fermented grape juice/wine).
“In Chile, we are producing pisco from dry wines and here at Torres we are starting to label our bottles with the grape varieties as well… we work with two grapes mostly here at Torres. The best variety for our pisco is Moscatel Rosada, a hybrid between different Muscats”.
Both DOC’s from Chile and Peru require a single distillation of the base wine in order to qualify for pisco, whereas in Cognac, for example, there must be two distillations.
But there is one big difference between the two single distillation approaches that determines the difference between both countries. Pisco from Peru must be distilled down to the desired ABV. Whereas Chilean production allows for a higher ABV distillation that can then be cut back to a desired degree of alcohol. “This allows us to work only with the hearts of the still, which come after the more volatile compounds and delivers a more floral and fruity profile” comments Fernando. Once the hearts of the juice hits around 65% ABV, it is cut before it moves into the tails part of the process.
Chris Dennis, brand ambassador for El Gobernador, puts the phenolic differences into context for us: “You can almost take a bite out of it [Peruvian pisco]. There is a bit more depth which lends itself to shorter and sharper drinks.”
A blend of pre and post-production
Being I assume, one of the few wine led guests in the room. I was keen to better understand what Almeida and the team look for from a viticultural perspective. We know that by virtue, most of the grape varieties boast exotic, aromatic qualities and from tasting El Gobernador (below) I can appreciate why.
But what else qualifies? “These vines have become acclimated to the area,” says Almeida. “The region is dry and dessert like, so the grapes need to be able to handle the natural hydric stress that the environment delivers”.
Here’s the clincher. “We also rely heavily on natural acidity the grapes are able to maintain”. I then learned that acidity in the base wine is essential for aroma retention. Think Ugni Blanc and Colombard in Cognac (again). The base wines are high in acidity and this helps to lock in precious aromatics for the final product.
Maybe you already knew that. Maybe you didn’t. But there is something romantic in the correlation between pisco’s dependence on the growing environment one would only ever associate with wine production. This, coupled with post-production practices associated with spirits (i.e. cutting back) makes for something pretty cool in my opinion.
Not the best spirits tasting notes you will ever find, but here goes. El Gobernador is a clear, white spirit. It’s floral and attractive on the nose with peachy flavours on the palate. Medium body with an oily textured mouth feel.
Here are a couple of cocktail recommendations courtesy of Chris Dennis.
50ml Pisco El Gobernador
15ml Dry vermouth
10ml Merlet pear
3d orange Bitters
40ml Pisco El Gobernador
20ml Yellow Chartreuse
15ml Ginger Syrup 2:1
Shake, Highball, Soda Top, Lime and ginger slice
35ml Pisco El Gobernador
10ml Apricot liqueur
3d peach bitters
Stir, coupe, Lemon twist
Duncan Nicol’s Pisco Punch
40ml Pisco El Gobernador
20ml Pineapple Syrup
Equal parts sparkling wine and soda top
Serve for many in a punch bowl, garnish with pineapple spears edible flowers and lemon wheels.
*Aromatic varieties: Italia, Torontel, Moscatel, Albilla (all white)
Non aromatic varieties: Quebranta, Negra Criolla, Mollar, Uvina (all red)
** Three types of Muscat: Alexandria, Rosada, Austria (red)
- Special thanks to Fernando Almeida, winemaker for Miguel Torres Chile, Chris Dennis, brand ambassador for Pisco El Gobernador and the team at Bar Three for hosting the tasting.
- You can read more from Harry Crowther at his blog and wine consulting website, Grape Times.