The heartbeat of the grape

The heartbeat of the grape



The distillation of grape marc is one of the most deeply rooted traditions in Galicia and one of its hallmarks.


In any Galician house where wine is made, distilling the bagasse is nothing exceptional. It is what has always been done. The right thing to do. What tradition, the heart and even common sense dictate. After the fermentation of the bagasse, in every house it was time to distill. For many, including the Moure family, this is still the case. In fact, we are the only winery under the D.O. Ribeira Sacra that still does it.


Our obsession with distillation is due, first of all, to the fact that it is intrinsic to our nature as winegrowers. But, in addition, if we have never stopped betting on it, it has also been because we have always been convinced that Galician spirits could rub shoulders with the best in the world. For this reason, at the time, we did not hesitate to help promote the creation of a body that would protect them (logically, under quality criteria) and that would help their external projection. This effort was forged in 1993, the year in which the Geographical Indication Aguardientes y Licores de Galicia became the only one in Spain recognized with the Geographical Indication of the EEC, becoming part of a select list of 39 distributed throughout Europe, at the level of the French marcs or Italian grappas. Obviously, achiening the organoleptic requirements necessary to have this accreditation is not within the reach of everyone and requires a high degree of perfection.


Strictly speaking, distillation is a unitary mass transfer operation in which the vapors from the boiling of one or more substances are recovered and condensed, transformed into a different product. However, probably because of its origins in alchemy, it has always been surrounded by a magical aura.


The origins of this technique are found in Egypt and, later, we also find references in Greece, so it is assumed that its knowledge was moving from East to West, especially in Mediterranean countries. Those primitive stills were designed to obtain colorants and to create essences, perfumes and potions, but they did not allow obtaining high alcohol content, since they were not able to recover compounds with low boiling points.


It was the Arabs who perfected the instruments and introduced the technique in Western Europe. It is not by chance that words such as alcohol, alquitara or alembic have Arabic etymology.


The first writings in which distillation is specifically mentioned date from the year 760 and, in them, Abu Mussha-al-Sufi describes methods of evaporation, filtration, fusion, distillation and crystallisation with precision, demonstrating that his knowledge was quite rigorous. In that century, the vast majority of the Iberian Peninsula (including a large part of Galicia) belonged to the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba.


The first references to alcohol as a substance appear around the year 1100 and we know that barely 100 years later, alcohol obtained from the distillation of wine was a widely known product in Europe. It was mainly used to make pharmaceuticals, serving as a base for decoctions and macerations to which all kinds of substances, such as herbs or oils, were added, and its use was topical.


At that time, distillation was done in two stages. In the first stage, a 60% alcohol was obtained, known as agua ardens, and in the second, 96% alcohol, known as aqua vitae.


In those same centuries, the Pilgrim´s Way to Santiago experienced its period of splendor and religious congregations flourished along the way to provide pilgrims with spiritual support and, in many cases, to attend to their physical needs, with monasteries and convents serving as lodgings and hospitals for pilgrims. But the Jacobean route did not only bring pilgrims to Galicia, as, along with them, travelled merchants, merchandise, craftsmen and, of course, knowledge of all kinds, from all corners of the continent.


One of these routes, the Winter Way, used by pilgrims in the colder months to avoid the snowy peaks of the north, passes very close to A Cova. In A Cova there was a priory (of which the Romanesque church, now a parish temple, has survived) that most certainly already produced wine, so it is easy to suppose that the alchemical mysteries of distillation arrived here through that route and that, under the auspices of the priory of A Cova (or any other nearby), the pilgrims could use their wines and distillates to alleviate the suffering caused by the long walks.


The pilgrims perfectly illustrate the dual use that alcoholic beverages had always been given: medicinal or recreational, as appropriate in each case. The medicinal properties attributed to it, at a time when there was a lack of effective remedies for almost everything, were many, ranging from antiseptic to anaesthetic, muscle relaxant, antibiotic and many others. Practically the same effects were what made its recreational use so successful. Of course, with the advent of distillates and the considerable increase in alcohol content, the effects multiplied on all scales.


Although in the beginning, as we have already mentioned, its use was only topical, it soon came to be consumed orally. We do not know exactly how it happened, but surely the ingestion of distilled spirits gradually spread among the population, as did the practice of distillation, which, from being an alchemist's secret, became available to almost anyone. In the middle of the 14th century, the bubonic flu epidemic that devastated Europe, brutally decimating the population, caused its consumption to skyrocket, with citizens believing that its properties would help them overcome the disease. This was not the case, obviously, but desperation and the absence of other effective alternatives meant that its consumption, as well as increasing, has since become established among the customs of the whole continent. In fact, in Galicia it is still said to kill the bug ...


Many of the distillates that are nowadays typical of each area have their origins in those times. Of course, they were quite rudimentary products and it took many centuries and many technical improvements to reach the current qualities.


The first books dealing specifically with distillation date back to the 16th century, as does the first documentary evidence of the liquor trade in Galicia. It was also in that century when the coil that cools the liquid was included in the equipment, helping to condense it and, consequently, to have more control over the process. However, to achieve excellence, it is not enough to incorporate innovations: to obtain first-class distillates, you have to have first-class raw materials. And, judging by the history of our distillates, recognition of its quality goes back a long way, as evidenced by the fact that as early as the 17th century, it was in demand from many parts of Europe, with Holland (then and always a major trading centre) being one of its biggest importers.


Although taste, and therefore the quality of a product, is subjective, we can say that there are widely accepted criteria such as, for example, that the best spirits come from grapes that produce wines with low alcohol content and high acidity, so Galician distillates would already have this point in their favour to be appreciated by the consumer. But the richness of nuances and intensity that characterise them have more specific explanations, ranging from the morphology of the grain to the optimal preservation of the bagasse until the moment of distillation.


Bagasse contains more than 200 volatile substances that are responsible for giving each spirit its own character since, without them, it would be nothing more than a 50/50 mixture of alcohol and water. These volatile substances, most of which are found in the grape skins, have qualities (not always positive) that, depending on the quantity in which they are found and how they fuse together when distilled, will give the final product specific organoleptic characteristics.


For Evaristo Rodríguez, current head of Adegas Moure and former president of the I.G.P. Aguardientes y Licores Tradicionales de Galicia, the high aromatic potential of our distillates is due to the fact that most of the grape varieties grown in Galicia have good acidity, which translates into a wealth of nuances. Furthermore, the fact that the berry tends to be small and has a rather thick skin makes them more potent and concentrated, since the more skin we have, the greater the amount of substances that can be extracted. If we add to this the fact that the Galician heritage of local varieties is not only very extensive (it contains more varieties than the rest of the peninsula combined), but also exclusive to the northwest of the peninsula, it is easy to understand why the distillates are so different from those of other areas and why there is still much to be explored.


In 1739, the Government of the Kingdom of Galicia requested "the free manufacture of pomace liquor as something positive for the development of the wine-producing regions and for supplying the towns and cities with the alcohol necessary for medical and recreational uses", making it clear that its consumption at that time had already gone beyond the sphere of medicine. However, there is a long way to go from being a product that can simply be drunk to being palatable.


Technical shortcomings meant that the qualities of the spirit were not entirely satisfactory, so it was tried to add, either during distillation or later, by maceration, a host of products such as honey, sugar, herbs of all kinds, aniseed, fruit and, of course, coffee, giving rise to the iconic Galician coffee liqueur which, despite being of relatively recent invention (the oldest recipe found is from 1850), has a leading role among our distillates.


As experience accumulated and knowledge expanded, it was discovered that the distillation process is divided into three phases, each of which generates products that, although similar in nature, have a different influence on the final result. These fractions have been given the evocative names of heads, hearts and tails. This discovery represents a turning point in the history of the evolution of distillates.


Each of these fractions corresponds to different components of the bagasse, such as skin, seeds or husks, and therefore have different boiling points. Variations in boiling point determine the transition from one fraction to the next. It is difficult to establish these temperatures in a generic way, since they depend on the nature of the raw material itself, that is, on the qualities of the bagasse.


The heads appear at the beginning of the process and come from the boiling of the most volatile substances. They have an alcohol content of more than 75% vol. and contain the substances that are least suitable from a sanitary point of view (including methyl alcohol, although in a very small proportion), which is why they are discarded without becoming part of the spirit.


In the second phase of the process we obtain the hearts, whose alcohol content is usually between 75% and 50% Vol. It is in this part that we obtain the highest quality, which contains the most pleasant aromas and flavours and also those that distinguish some grape varieties from others.


Finally, the tails are boiled, which, although they do not present methyl toxicity, give a bad taste ( for example, acetals) and impoverish the final result, so they are also discarded.


We can say that the aguardiente is made with the hearts of the pomace and also of the distiller, because, although nowadays distilleries have high technology, until a few decades ago, the usual tools used in any distillery in Galicia were stills and stills, without thermometers, without condensers and only with the eye of a good distiller.


It may seem that to make aguardiente it is enough to know how to differentiate the phases of the process, not to exceed the volume of pomace to be distilled (so that it is not too weak), maintain a regular fire, let the pomace boil and let its vapours rise until it cools in the coil, and finally deposit it in the adjacent recipient, in a process that lasts between 5 and 6 hours. Copper utensils should also be used, as they help to distribute the heat evenly, avoiding the bad flavours that can result from the accumulation of heat at certain points and also serve as a catalyst for chemical elements that are organoleptically unpleasant.


But it is one thing to make aguardiente and quite another to make quality aguardiente. For the latter, other factors come into play which, as with everything else, are mastered over time.


From the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th century, the legislation on distillates underwent several changes in Spain. At the end of the 19th century, the hoax spread that they contained highly toxic substances and that their consumption was dangerous for human beings, so their production was prohibited. In Galicia, what was achieved with this law was to drive it underground. As a result, it was gradually authorised again, but subject to rules such as the obligation to hand in the used caps to the town hall after each distillation (which, in reality, did not constitute an effective control measure on the healthiness of the activity). From 1927, brewing was permitted, but subject to specific taxation.


When Abadía da Cova - Adegas Moure was founded in 1958, the administration's control over the distillate trade was very much in evidence. In the archives we still keep the Accompanying Guides issued by the Guardia Civil, specifying the merchandise, the destination and the time available for the journey.


Those first vintages were made as they had been done all their lives. Celsa, Ana and José's daughter, remembers many nights accompanying her mother at the foot of the alembic, resting at times on improvised beds. Her father had suffered from a serious respiratory illness when he was a child which, as well as taking away all his parents' savings in penicillin, left him with consequences that were incompatible with the humid, cold and smoky air that was usually breathed in the places where the distilling took place.


In the sixties, with only a few years of experience in the business sector (but not in the world of viticulture), Pepe made a decision that undoubtedly determined the future of this winery. In 1963, some businessmen in Galicia (also in the Canary Islands) traded methyl alcohol for industrial use (not for oral use). This product was offered at a very low price to distilleries throughout the region and was widely accepted. Whether added to the spirit or used for maceration or distillation of liqueurs, it caused a serious food crisis that resulted in more than 50 deaths and led to the closure of the distilleries involved. When Pepe declined the business offered to him, he did so out of pure common sense, aware that such a cheap product could not be good, but unaware that it could be lethal. In addition to saving his winery from an premature death, Pepe, by taking this decision, gained the respect of the sector by proving that his priority was quality and not economic return.


From those nights when Ana watched over the process until Evaristo was appointed president of the Regulatory Council in 2007, the sector underwent profound changes, and always for the better.


Today we distil by vapour entrainment, known as the Portuguese method, the alembics are now copper cylinders in which everything is precisely measured and the coils have been replaced by a system of plates and ducts through which vapour and liquid are continuously mixed until they are converted into high quality spirits.


The way the wine is made, the methods used to select the varieties and even the terroirs, which have been perfected over the years, have also contributed to increasing the quality of the wine. The way the grapes are treated, the products applied to them both before and after the harvest and the way the pomace is stored until the moment of distillation are also determining factors in the characteristics of the spirit and, therefore, of all its derivatives.


All this, together with an exhaustive analysis and study of the distilled spirits obtained year after year, has allowed Abadía da Cova-Adegas Moure distillates to become a benchmark for quality and innovation, as evidenced by the awards and mentions obtained, including several in the Paadin Guide to Galician wines and distillates, and the third place in the world for our pomace cream according to Wine Enthusiast's criteria.


After distillation, the bagasse is transferred to containers where it is transformed into vermicompost to finally close the circle by returning to the vineyard and giving back to the soil what belongs to the soil.


Each drop we distil contains, in addition to the bagasse extract, knowledge accumulated over generations, family secrets, a multitude of selections, experiments, investments and the intention to demonstrate that distillation, beyond alchemy and science, is an art.


For us, distillates are much more than a commodity. They are the condensation of effort and love for a land that will remain alive as long as we continue to praise its origins, its products and, above all, its people.




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