Making wine is an art form and my canvas is the hilly region of the northern Philippines. My medium -sugar cane.
I’m a fourth generation winemaker but I didn’t go to school for this. I went to university with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Then life happened and I realised that I was set to do something else -something closer to my heart.
I woke up one day and decided it was time to breathe new life into the sugar cane wine that my great grandfather used to make, back when he was a strapping young man in the 1900s. I could only imagine him writing the recipe down after a hard day’s work.
Funnily enough, I can only picture him wearing the very same suit he wore when he posed for a painting when he was already in his 60s. The painting is now in Manila and is in the care of my aunts and uncles.
Grapes & Sugar Cane
Science told me that I can’t make wine especially if I were to use grapes instead of sugar cane. Not in this country at least. The climate here won’t foster the growth of grapes that will produce vibrant wines. There are many considerations and they posed as a threat to what I wanted to make and what I wanted to do.
I told myself I can just make the sugar cane wine based on my great grandfather’s basi recipe. Fermented with wild berries and java plum, this wine has a deep colour and an aroma that reminds me of hot summer days when our backyard was inundated with baskets full of these fruits. Sitting right beside stalks of sugar cane, these little things in different shades of purple and violet seemed out of place.
Those hot summer days and the sweet smell of wild berries, plum, and freshly harvested sugar cane and how much I treasure them do not matter to critics of course, because critics told me that basi is not wine in the strictest sense.
I followed my instincts and did what I wanted to do anyway. I made the wine originally made by my great grandfather and named it after a Basi Revolt hero. His story is a story for another day.
After making wine from sugar cane, wild berries, and plum, I had grapes shipped to the islands. And they made their journey all the way from Europe -a place so far from the tropical country where I grew up.
When the grapes arrived, my little rebellion started. I donned an apron and fermented sugar cane stalks with grapes. Over six months later, Basi Maria was born.
When I started making my great grandfather’s basi, I felt closer to him, at least in the universe of my mind.
I have learned a lot from Javier, even if he lived in a different time and in a very different world. He was ahead of his time, by Philippine winemaking standards, talking (writing) about clarification and getting rid of all the bad jujus in the wine and how much of the berries and plum one has to use to give it its distinct colour. Javier had questions too and over a century later, these questions got some answers.
In a way, the wines we have now is a collaboration. It’s poetry written by two people who lived a hundred years apart.
Photo by Ryan Mcguire