The Pisco Wars

I’ve spent the better part of the last month researching the iconic South American brandy known as Pisco. Unfortunately, most of my work has revolved around books and the internet instead of a shot glass.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of conflicting information and historical turf wars going on surrounding Pisco. But, I’ve discovered the official government websites and culled information from dozens of producers, so here is my article on Pisco!!

Pisco SourPisco has been produced in South America since at least as early as the 1700s, and is thought to have originated with Spanish settlers who brought their technology and traditions of wine production to the New World.

Brandy is widely produced in South America, although Chile and Peru are the only two countries permitted to use the term “Pisco.”  As of May 16, 2013, the TTB (Trade and Tax Bureau) of the United States recognized “Pisco Perú” as a distinctive product of Peru, and “Pisco Chileno” as a distinctive product of Chile.

The birthplace of Pisco, the origin of the name “Pisco,” and even the right to use the term as the name of a beverage is a subject that has long been, and continues to be, hotly debated between Peru and Chile.

While the debate rages on, one thing both countries seem to agree on is that an excellent way to drink Pisco is in the popular cocktail known as the Pisco Sour. The Pisco Sour is considered the “national drink” of both Chile and Peru, and each country even has a national holiday with which to celebrate it. However, both countries claim to be the birthplace of the cocktail, and, like Pisco itself, both have their own version. The Peruvian Pisco Sour is made by mixing Peruvian Pisco with lime juice, simple syrup, and egg white, shaken and served over ice, and garnished with a dash of Angostura bitters.  The Chilean version is made with Chilean Pisco, the juice of Pica Limes (similar to a Key Lime or Mexican Lime), and sugar, shaken and served over with ice.

Pisco MasChilean Pisco:  Chilean Pisco is produced in the Atacama and Coquimbo regions, two official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) wine-producing regions established in 1931.  The Elqui Valley subregion of Coquimbo has emerged as the premier Pisco zone.  The government-based Pisco Chile trade group was formed in 2009 and has set new standards for Chilean Pisco.

The main grapes used for making Chilean Pisco include Pink Muscat, Muscat of Alexandria, Pedro Jiménez, and Torontél.  While Chilean Pisco is traditionally a pomace brandy, some versions are produced using wine. Chilean Pisco is generally double-distilled via pot stills to a maximum strength of 73% alcohol by volume. All Chilean Pisco must rest for a minimum of 60 days before bottling, however, unlike Peruvian Pisco, Chilean Pisco is sometimes aged in wood.

Chilean Pisco is sometimes diluted with water, or cut with neutral spirits to alter the final alcohol content by volume. The products are categorized, based on its minimum alcohol strength by volume, as Pisco Corriente or Tradicional (30%), Pisco Especial (35%), Pisco Reservado (40%), or Gran Pisco (43%).  The minimum alcohol by volume is 40% for those products exported to the United States.

Chilean Pisco, including some of those exported to the United States, is often labeled with the term “Transparent Pisco.” These products are aged for required sixty days, generally in glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or inactive wood. The following styles of wood-aged Pisco are also produced in Chile:

  • Pisco de Guarda: Aged in active French or American oak for a minimum of 180 days.
  • Pisco Envejecido (Aged Pisco):  Aged in active French or American oak for one year, though most producers age for two or more.

Pisco PeruPeruvian Pisco:  According to the Denominación de Origen, Pisco may be produced in the Peruvian departments of Lima, Ica, Arequipa, and Moquegua, as well as the valleys of Locumba, Sama, and Caplina in the Department of Tacna. There are eight grape varieties authorized for use, categorized as “aromatic” and “non-aromatic.” The aromatic varieties are  Italia, Moscatel, Albilla and Torontél; and the non-aromatic varieties include Quebranta, Negra Criolla, and Mollar.

Peruvian Pisco is produced via pot still distillation. Peruvian Pisco is unique in that it must be bottled at the same level of alcohol as when it was produced: additives of any kind – including water and neutral spirits – are prohibited, so the distillation must be precise. Per the regulations of the governing body, the Comisión Nacional del Pisco of Perú, the alcohol percentage must be between 38 and 48 percent.

Peruvian Pisco is not aged in wood, but is required to be aged for a minimum of three months in vessels made of copper, glass, stainless steel, clay, or other inert material. There are three official styles of Peruvian Piscos:

  • Pisco Puro (“Pure” Pisco): A Pisco made from a single grape variety.
  • Pisco Acholado (“Blended Pisco): A Pisco produced with more than one grape variety, generally referring to a blend of aromatic and non-aromatic varieties, or product made with several different types of Pisco blended together.
  • Pisco Mosto Verde (“Green Must Pisco”): Produced via the distillation of partially fermented grape musts before the fermentation is complete.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Carmenère

CarmenereThe Soundbyte: Carmenère is often called “the lost grape of Bordeaux” and was part of the original Bordeaux blend.  However,in the 1880’s as phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Europe and all the vines needed to be re-planted, Carmenère resisted grafting and was essentially lost. 

Many of the original vinifera vines planted in Chile were brought from Bordeaux during the mid-1800s, as phylloxera was ravaging the old world. Along with its better-known cousins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, Carmenère arrived in Chile at the same time.

 Carmenère thrived in Chile, where it was often mistaken for Merlot in the vineyard. In fact, much of what was bottled as a particularly spicy style of Chilean “Merlot” before 1994 quite possibly contained quite a bit of Carmenère. The mystery was solved in 1994 when Professor John-Michel Boursiquot of the Montpellier School of Oenology noticed the distinctive character of Merlots from Chile and soon discovered that much of what was considered to be Chilean “Merlot” was actually Carmenère—and not a local clone of Merlot, as had been believed.

In the vineyard, Carmenère is often the last grape to be picked, and it requires a lengthy season to reach full maturity. Therefore, it is not well suited to Bordeaux, but in the right areas it can produce great wines. Chilean Carmenère is rich in color, redolent of red fruits, spice, and berries, and has softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Chile is currently the only country growing Carmenère on a wide basis. Many consider Carmenère to be the signature grape of Chile.

Typical Attributes of a Carmenère Based Wine:

  • Rich with dark fruit flavors of ripe berries and plum.
  • grilled steak for carmenre with tomatoesFirm structure, full body and heavy tannins; lush, velvety texture.
  • Deep, dark color.  This is a “big red wine”!
  • Carmenère is distinguished by fruitiness accompanied by the flavors of “spice and smoke”
  • Some experts think Carmenère is a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the grapes do share many qualities
  • Underripe Carmenère, or grapes from a cool growing season, can taste vegetative, like green bell peppers. Carmenère  takes longer to ripen than other red grapes, so be on the look-out for these flavors.

Typical Aromas of a Carmenère Based Wine:

  • Fruity: Blackberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Currant, Dark Plum, Cherry
  • Spicy: Black Pepper, White Pepper, Dried Herb, Cinnamon, Anise, Vanilla, Licorice
  • Earthy:  Smoke, Wet Earth, Leather, Tobacco, Coffee
  • Oak-Derived:  Oak, Chocolate, Mocha, Cocoa
  • Vegetative:  Green Bell Pepper, Green Olive, Herbal, Lavender

Where The Best Carmenère is Grown:

  • Chile, where vintners have staked a claim on Carmenère as their “signature” grape variety. Chile is currently the only country that grows Carmenère on a widespread, commercial basis.
  • A few wineries in California and Washington State, where it is largely used in Meritage blends.  The Guenoc Winery in Lake Country brought the grape, which has to withstand a three-year quarantine before being planted, to the United States from Chile.
  • Italy’s Eastern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, including the Piave DOC, which since 2009 have been allowed to produce a varietally-labeled Carmenère.
  • Bordeaux, France; where the grape is grown on a very limited basis, but is still considered part of the Bordeaux Blend. Grande Vidure is a historical synonym sometimes used in Bordeaux. Chateau Clerc Milon has the largest plantings of Carmenère in the region, but there are still less than ten acres in all of Bordeaux.

Grilled spicy steakFood Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Veal, Venison, Pork
  • Poultry when prepared in a rich, hearty manner such as grilled, smoked, or braised…
  • Grilled Foods, Smoked Foods    

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Garlic, Onions, Mushrooms
  • Walnuts, Pecans
  • Rosemary, Oregano, Basil, fresh Herbs of all kinds
  • Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Eggplant, Bell Peppers
  • Black Pepper, White Pepper, Green Peppercorns, Spicy flavors
  • Barbeque Flavors, Hearty, highly seasoned foods 

 The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas   missjane@prodigy.net