18.10.13

FLOWERS AND GRAPES

 

ENGLISH VERSION / VERSION EN CASTELLANO


Every outstanding manufactured product combines quality of two different kinds: quality of process, and quality of ingredients.

The value of process: a good recipe is like a magic ingredient that turns $5 worth of apples, sugar, flour and butter into a $50 apple tart. I say "magic", because the knowledge is infinitely replicable - anyone can copy a recipe without taking anything away from the original - and yet its application into process makes 1 + 1 = 3.

In this essay, however, I'm going to focus on the value of ingredients, leaving quality of process for another day.

Specifically, I'm going to focus on the culture of respect that some producers have for ingredients, and the impact this respect has when it is adopted into our culture, into our way of understanding the ingredients. This is the first step towards creating a truly outstanding pisco.

If you have ever seen flowers being picked around the Grasse region of France, you'll know exactly what I mean. The city of Grasse has a perfume industry that dates back to the late Renaissance, and flowers are picked every year to create essences from which perfumes are made.

Of course, flowers are very delicate things, and their essences evaporate rather quickly under the wrong conditions, so that everything needs to be done to ensure their integrity is preserved until they reach the place where they will undergo the process of scent extraction, typically by macerating them in cold oil or fat. This process is called enfleurage.

What is most striking is that the flowers are picked at night, just before dawn, when the night is at its coolest. This is done in order to preserve what are called aldehydes. Cut an apple open and smell it. That fresh smell you first perceive is an aldehyde: very light organic compounds that evaporate quickly, especially when exposed to light or heat. They are truly what makes things smell and taste fresh to us, since their absence means the article we are about to eat has been lying in the heat for a longer period of time. The scent of freshly cut grass is another example, as is the scent of the sea after a storm. These are all aldehydes used in the perfume industry to evoke a sense of freshness.

Now, as we know, pisco is a brandy that is distilled only once, unlike cognac which is distilled twice.

This means that a lot of the essences in the wine it is made from are still present in the brandy after it is distilled.



   Furthermore, pisco isn't aged in barrels the way cognac is, so it doesn't spend 10 years absorbing the flavours of barrel wood.

Finally, the wine pisco is distilled from is young wine. In the case of "mosto verde", it is particularly fresh and fruity, since it starts being distilled before all the sugars in the wine have been converted to alcohol.

In other words, it's all about freshness. If pisco were a perfume, it would not be a heavy or woody, and there would definitely be no musk. It would be a fresh and light cologne, with elements of citrus, neroli or bergamot.

The nature of pisco therefore requires the same approach to grape picking as we see in flower picking. It requires picking grapes at night, just before dawn. It requires a skin maceration at the winery that is as delicate as the process of enfleurage, at a temperature low enough for the smaller chemical elements to be released into the juice without releasing the heavier compounds (the bitter oils inside the pips, the tannins, etc.), and low enough not to start the process of fermentation.

And yet, more often than not, grapes in Ica are picked and thrown in a big box, which is then emptied in a big truck, in which the grapes on top squash the grapes at the bottom, triggering a temperature-induced fermentation to occur inside the truck itself, as the sugars of the squashed grape juice come into contact with the yeasts on their skin. This happens before the grapes have even been cleaned, so the yeasts on the skins are mixed with dust, soil and dead insects. All this, at 40 degrees in the sun.

It isn't difficult to imagine how much better the wine and brandy will be, when the ingredients are given a little more respect. When the grapes are picked at night, just before dawn, when the air is cool and fresh... When they are collected onto trays instead of boxes... When the trays are stacked up in a truck like shelves, so as not to squash the grapes... When the grapes are gently pressed in a cool environment, enough for the skins to macerate and leave their freshness in the juice...

Starting off from such a delicious ingredient, a young wine is born with all the freshness and playfulness of a young couple frolicking in the meadows. Extracting its essence, blending it to form the most perfectly balanced scents and flavours, is how we arrive at something as vivacious and ethereal as the colognes created in Grasse.

In the world of pisco, this is a road less travelled, and it makes all the difference.