It took a year, but finally the copper pot-still or alambique I rescued from the scrap man last year and built a cob ‘stoven’ for is all fired up and producing aguardente.
The vindima this year was our best yet: a good growing season in combination with the vines on the quinta now being in much better shape. It’s taken 4 years of successive pruning to bring their energy and strength back to their central stems from way out at the ends of neglected canes several years old, but even vines I thought I was going to lose because they were so weak seem to have come back into some production this year. There’s still lots of room for improvement, but it’s rewarding to be finally getting somewhere with them.
In common with many quintas in this area, Quinta do Vale is planted with many traditional grape varieties of the Dão region, all mixed together with white amongst the red. Pre-blended, so to speak. No two adjacent vines are the same variety. I’ve been able to identify Jaen, Rufete and Alvarelhão amongst the reds but there are many more and some which it’s entirely possible nobody can name. Whites include Bical and Malvasia-Fina, both early-maturing varieties, but again there are many more. There are roughly 3 times as many red as white grapes which seems to be more or less the norm. Many people pick them together and make their wine from the mixture.
This year I didn’t wait for the surrounding villages to begin their vindima before I started. I did that last year but a good proportion of our potential harvest was well past its best by then, including all the white grapes which were unusable, so I harvested when the majority of the grapes were ripe and sweet.
Although much of the quinta is north-facing, it seems our grapes are ahead of both the village below us and the two above us. Perhaps it’s something to do with being in the middle? The valley floor below is slower to warm up in spring and cold air sits down there whereas here it just passes through. And the villages above, although getting the spring sun and warmth before us, are at a higher altitude so more exposed and generally cooler.
So the white grapes were harvested 3 weeks ago on the Harvest Moon of September 19th, and the red the following week; both before the equinoctial rains and about a fortnight ahead of the surrounding villages. The wines are already in their barrels (60 litres of white and 150 litres of red) and even in racks in the store room, which we built only just in time. As a result, the pomace remaining is now ripe and ready for distilling and leaving it any longer would risk spoiling the flavours.
Before I could fire up the alambique however, I needed to cut a chimney in at the back of the cob and firebrick stove.
Test-firing it last year, I discovered it was very difficult to control the fire adequately without a through draught (aside from the fact that a single opening makes for a lot of smoke in your face until the fire is going well). So I cut into the cob, removed one of the fire bricks in the top row (see here for how the stove was built) and created an outlet to support a single length of 100mm stainless steel flue pipe before cobbing it all in again. Rather than exiting through the roof as originally planned, I used 5m of flexible ducting attached to the top of the flue pipe to take smoke away to the edge of the roof as a temporary solution.
I also needed to build a water bath to immerse the copper coil from the still and create a condenser. Fortunately I had a spare oil drum which was the perfect size, so we cut a hole in the side for the coil outlet and gasketed it with washers made from an old inner tube. The water supply comes from a hose in the nearby stream, though one day soon there might even be a tap here.
I scrubbed the inside of the still with vinegar and salt before rinsing it thoroughly and sealing it into place in the top of the stove with a flour and water paste. The pot is lined with wet rye straw, and the grape skins, pips and primary fermentation lees poured in on top until the pot is about three quarters full. I didn’t add water. I asked the master distillers in the village above us whether it was necessary. Their reply – “Some do, some don’t.”
Then it only remained to assemble the still: seal the neck and lyne arm to the boiler with more flour and water paste, and light the fire.
I’m very happy with the stove. It runs very well and is lovely to operate, controllable to a surprisingly fine degree. I got a good fire going with pine wood, then switched to predominantly chestnut for a gentler, more moderate heat, spreading the embers well across the floor and adding a few small pieces of wood at a sufficient rate to keep the fire at a nice steady temperature. A piece of soaked chestnut was perfectly adequate as a fire door and the air flow to the fire was easily controlled by raising the door to the required level on loose firebricks.
For such a large volume of pomace, it didn’t take long before the first drops of alcohol appeared at the outlet of the condensing coil. The early distillate contains a high proportion of methanol, so I discarded the first litre although I was aware of a complete change of smell and taste in the distillate by the time 500ml had been collected. However, as this was my first attempt at distilling and I was unfamiliar with the signs of each stage of the process, I was going to err on the side of caution. And since I don’t drink much more than half a bottle of spirits in a year, I could afford to shoot for quality rather than quantity.
I collected the distillate in wine bottles so I could smell and taste each before pouring them into a bigger garrafão. As the organoleptics became more noticeable and less pleasant to taste, I switched to a second garrafão. Now I’m more familiar with the smell and taste of the distillate as it changes through time, I’ll be able to distinguish each stage better and determine the cut off point for collecting so I get enough flavour without compromising quality. At the moment, the distillate I’m saving from this run could probably do with a little more flavour although it’s smooth and pleasant and already recognisably aguardente even without the oak ageing. What I’m discarding will go back into the next run tomorrow.
This was such fun to do! Like wine-making, making spirits is shrouded in such mystery and mystique that, questions of legality aside, it seems far out of reach of ‘ordinary’ people despite it being one of the many familiar activities to our ancestors of only a few generations ago. Perhaps that’s why it feels somehow natural and easy, as if there’s a genetic memory that already knows exactly how to do it, the same as feet just ‘know’ when a cob mix is right, even when stomping it for the very first time.