Colombia’s top sommelier Laura Hernández Espinosa on fermented fruit wine and a passion for pairings

Sorrel Moseley-Williams - 26/11/2018

In the latest article in the Igniting Passion series, presented by elit® Vodka, we speak to Laura Hernández Espinosa, daughter of Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa and sommelier at Leo, the Best Restaurant in Colombia at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018.

While a political science degree led Laura Hernández Espinosa to undertake diplomatic missions, her heart knew better and she ditched embassy life to fuse her real passions: social development and gastronomy. Since 2009, the head sommelier at Leo in Bogotá has also been executive director of FunLeo, a foundation set up by her business partner and mother, Leonor Espinosa, who last year was recognised with the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize. Here, Laura shares how combining her passion for the worlds of development and gastronomy is the perfect pairing to showcase the traditions of Colombia’s indigenous communities.

With a keen interest in food and wine from a young age – her first encounter with alcohol was as an 11-year-old, secretly trying Champagne under the table at her aunt’s wedding, she recalls, laughing – Hernández moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for university. With plenty of free time in the day, she used it wisely and signed up to take a sommellerie degree at EAS wine school. Twelve years on, pairings at Leo include a coca leaf liqueur distilled by an Afro-Colombian indigenous ethnic group alongside the Old World’s finest vintages.

“After tasting wine in that first class, I told my housemate I wanted to commit myself to wine,” Hernández says. “On that journey, I discovered sommellerie is a parallel to political science that also gives me the opportunity to be creative. It turns out international relations, geography, the study of cultures and humanities are all very complementary.”

After qualifying as a sommelier in 2006 and following diplomatic stints in India and France, she realised diplomacy wasn’t for her and decided to pursue an alternative path. “After falling in love with the foundation, I realised I could make all these projects materialise. Gastronomy had always been part of my life and the world of wine and development are puzzles that have come together: both things I love are in parallel and my local pairings use national products.”

Laura Hernández Espinosa and chef Leonor Espinosa receive the award for The Best Restaurant in Colombia for Leo at Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2018

As executive director of FunLeo, whose gastronomy-for-development pillar restores and promotes ancestral knowledge, particularly in indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, Hernández traverses the heights and breadth of Colombia. “I go to festivals and visit communities: I’m always on the lookout for new liquid projects. We used to undertake a lot of research into products when it was harder to obtain them, but now we have certain relationships and these things sometimes now reach me on their own. Someone might tell me about a drink then I’ll try it and it’s amazing. I love surprises like that.”

One beverage that recently caught her attention is vino de borojo, made from fermented borojo fruit in Colombia’s Caribbean region. “I went to the Petronio Álvarez Afro-Colombian descendent festival in Cali, a gathering attended by 3,000 people from different parts of the Caribbean who get together to share their cultures, music and food,” she says. “At one stand I tried a load of fermented fruit drinks and wines from Cajambre, an area in the Pacific. Borojo isn’t very pretty – it’s coffee-coloured with a delicate skin that makes it hard to transport – the community ferments the meaty pulp for a year and it’s incredible. I included it on the menu just last month.”

Coca leaf liqueur is another must-try, which Laura proudly includes in her pairings at Leo. “The Inga community has been making this for decades and the coca leaf is a jewel that we Colombians barely know about. But, by using Leo as a shop front, we can show it to clients and showcase diversity,” she says.

Via FunLeo, the sommelier also runs workshops that cross the gastronomic spectrum to benefit local communities: “These social projects fortify urban, rural and ethnic communities in gastronomy via diet diversification classes, or creative cocktail-making using local products, for example.”

Inside restaurant Leo in Bogotá

Besides serving and discovering beverages from indigenous communities, Hernández recently turned her hand to creating a soft drink. “Travelling to different parts of the country made me realise just how much biodiversity and gastronomic culture depend on territory and population,” she says. “But I realised there was a common denominator, from La Guajira in the west to Arauca in the east: aguapanela. This traditional fermented Colombian drink made from sugar cane is made by and consumed by everyone.”

Sold in restaurants in Medellin, Cartagena, Cali and Bogotá, all profits from Quamba go to FunLeo. “It’s been hard to get Quamba out there as there’s a monopoly on sodas but we’re now selling around the country and people love it,” she adds.

Hernández doesn’t tire of her vocation: on the contrary, she’s more passionate than ever. “I’m so lucky I love everything I do, from being entrepreneurial to discovering Colombian identity via the real people who make us a nation. Besides the restaurant, what really interests me is generating wellbeing for Colombia. I admit, I enjoy the days I do pairings more than the days I’m doing the accounting books but I’m passionate about it all.”

Besides drinking her first love, wine, at home, Hernández also adores viche, a distilled drink made from wild sugar cane sourced from Afro-Colombian Pacific communities. “I serve viche with sugar and lemon, local fruits, herbs – there’s an infinite number of ways to prepare it. It’s an artisanal drink made with little to no technological knowhow. It’s very noble; I love it,” she says.

As for the immediate future, Hernández plans to continue reaching communities and giving them their place on Colombia’s gastronomic stage. “I want to keep discovering noble drinks and giving them importance, moving forward and exporting them. It’s a long road but I simply need to work on these same projects in Colombia.”

Discover the other articles and videos in the Igniting Passion series, presented by elit® Vodka, including interviews with award-winning chefs Clare SmythPía León, Kamilla Seidler and Bee Satongun

Now go inside restaurant Leo with chef Leonor Espinosa:

Header images: Laura Hernández Espinosa and the artisanal Colombian drinks served at Leo (images by Agencia Creativa Vishop)

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