Thursday, August 13, 2009


On the morning of August 1st, a few hours before my cousin Hernan's wedding -for which we had journeyed to Ica, and at which I was to stand as witness- a few of us took the opportunity to visit Bodega Vista Alegre to learn a bit about how pisco is made.

Vista Alegre, manufacturer of Sol de Ica piscos and a number of wines, is one of the largest and oldest vineyards in the country, having been founded in the 1850s, and is one of the most modern in terms of equipment.

Peru can lay claim to having the oldest vinicultural history in South America, the Spanish having brought grape vine cuttings from Europe and established the first vineyards -in Ayacucho, it so happens- in the 1550s. Saddly, Peruvians cannot lay claim to a history of great wines, but when it comes to distilling fermented grape must they've certainly learned their craft well!

Pisco has been produced in Peru since at least the early 1600s, and received a boost in the 1640s when wine exports from the Viceroyalty of Peru were banned in order to protect the interests of Spanish wineries. The ban caused wine production to whither, but pisco production continued and expanded as its sales were not legally affected and it was not as perishable as wine.

The process of pisco production starts very much like that of wine. In March, the grapes are picked and brought to a large vat, the lagar, where they will be squeezed, and the skins and juice separated from the seeds and stems which would lend bitterness to the drink. In the old days, and in some artisanal bodegas today, the grapes would be stepped on to extract the juice but in larger operations -such as Vista Alegre's- a press would be used.

Today, Vista Alegre uses a mechanical press to accomplish this task. The must is then transfered to fermentation tanks, where naturally-occurring yeasts on the grapes transform the grape sugars into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds.

The fermented must -now, I suppose, actually wine- is then transferred to large pot stills (alambiques) where the liquid is heated and its elements separated from one another through evaporation and condensation. As the fermented must is heated, the more volatile compounds evaporate out and rise through the "swan neck" (cuello de cisne) into a condensing chamber, from whence it is sent through a coil (serpentina) immersed in water, which cools it down.

The distiller's craft and knowledge truly come into play at this point as s/he must discard the initial toxic methanol-laden runoff (the "head" or cabeza), judge when the sufficient alcohol level -usually around 42%- has been reached in the main portion of the distillate (the "body" or cuerpo), while keeping it separate from the "tail" (cola) which could introduce off flavors.

The pisco is then aged in a nonreactive container, which must not affect its appearance or character in any way. At some small bodegas the old pisco amphorae are still used, but at industrial scale operations, such as Vista Alegre's, vessels of stainless steel or food-grade plastic are preferred nowadays. Vista Alegre keeps its old ceramic pisco vessels around as a decorative and historical element.

After no less than three months, the pisco is tested, bottled, labeled, and sent out to the consumer.

After the tour, which was really quite interesting, we were conducted to a room near the entrance to sample some of the wines and piscos produced there.

The wines were OK but, like many Peruvian wines, tended toward the sweet and lacked a bit of body. We did, however, enjoy one of the red ones enough to buy a bottle.

We also liked the Sol de Ica acholado (mixed) pisco and my dad and I each purchased a bottle. Along with mine, I also bought one of only 5 remaining in stock out of 50,000 numbered bottles (mine is # 012654) of a special pisco produced in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World .

Afterward, we headed to the weirdness that is Bodega Lazo in search of a pisco vessel to buy, only to be flatly turned down by the owner, and thence, in a rush, back to the hotel to change for the wedding.

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