Defining Portuguese aguardente

Defining Portuguese aguardente

I was prompted to write this article because of something I had read about a vine pull programme and potential lack of grapes for the production of wine for distillation in the region of Lourinhã. It turns out that Lourinhã is one of three demarcated regions of the world (the well known Cognac and Armagnac are the other two) for the production of aguardente. Although I’m not a great aguardente drinker, I do appreciate them as a digestive, but had never made the connection between the product and a given region, and was surprised to learn about Lourinhã and its DOC status.

Aguardentes are drinks with a high concentration of alcohol and are produced by distillation. Styles of aguardente have evolved in countries or regions where a particular raw material predominates, thus we have whisky in Scotland and Ireland (cereals), vodka in Poland and Russia (potatoes), saki in Japan (rice) and rum from Cuba and cachaça in Brazil (cane sugar), to mention just a few.

Our interest, in this article, lies with aguardentes vinicas, or distillates produced from wine. As an aside, bagaço or grappa is produced from wine residues (grape marc and lees) and has different organoleptic properties.

The grapes used in the production of aguardente vinica are usually white and are intended to produce a clean, low alcohol wine, fairly neutral, with good acidity. Low sulphur levels are important as this product can carry over into the distillate giving it a dirty character. In Cognac and Armagnac, the bench mark styles, Ugni Blanc is the variety mainly used – this variety exists in the Ribatejo and Estremadura and is known as Talia. It is important to distill the wine as soon as possible after the completion of fermentation, while it is still fresh. The distillation technique is important in producing a quality spirit – the classic alambique or pot still double distillation method of Cognac is the most famous. The principle of distillation is very simple, being based on the fact that alcohol and wine constituents boil at a lower temperature than water (alcohol boils at 78.3 ºC and water at 100ºC).

The vapour resulting from heating the wine is condensed in a cooling column – the separation of this distillate, which is made of “heads” (impurities, dirty odours), “heart” (complex, aromatic, mostly ethanol) and “tails” (acids and esters) is the key to the quality of the end product. After distillation, the clear spirit, which contains about 60% alcohol by volume, is aged in oak barrels of various ages, in preferably humid cellars to minimise evaporation losses.

In Portugal, aguardentes vinicas are made in a similar fashion to our French counterparts, at least in terms of the distillation process – the main difference is that in the majority of cases, the wines used have not been made specifically for this purpose; or rather wines used are of inferior quality or are considered excess to requirements after the vintage.
This situation appears to be changing with the recognition of the vinho verde region as a quality aguardente producer – this is logical, given the nature of vinho verde as a base wine with the necessary requirements of low alcohol, neutrality and high acid. Also, demarcating the new region of Lourinhã is a positive step in gaining credibility for Portuguese aguardentes – hopefully the vine pull system will not put paid to this.

Aguardentes vinicas with age mentions (velha, 10, 20 years etc) are expensive but can be very good. Some examples are Adega Velha (Aveleda), XO 40 anos (Caves Aliança), Ferreirinha (Sogrape) and Quinta do Rol, an outstanding example of a premium aged aguardente from the Lourinhã region. Recently, Esporão made a joint venture with this producer and we now produce our own aguardente velho, Magistra, with their help.

Aguardentes which have no age mentions and are inexpensive have not been barrel-aged; rather they have been “prepared” and owe their colour and flavour to caramel and artificial aromas. Brandies also fall into this category.

David Baverstock is winemaker at Herdade do Esporão. This article was originally written for Essential Algarve magazine.
By David Baverstock