Far away from the sumptuous Machu Picchu and other Titicaca Lakes, it was in Lima where we started our trip. We had an appointment with Professor Eduardo D’Argent – Director of the Institute of Wine and Pisco – for a brief lesson of history (1). A nice appetizer.
The first vines were established here in Inca in 1540, shortly after the conquest of the country by Spain. And even though the Peruvian wine industry had its glory in the 17th century – thanks to the demand created by the mining city of Potosí, in present Bolivia (the largest city of the Americas at the time) – it collapsed after the Civil War (1861- 1865). Today it represents 14,000 hectares of vines for a production of 610,000 hectoliters of wine per year, between the cities of Pisco and Ica (2).
We were expected at Tacama, the oldest winery of Peru (established in the mid 16th century).
We headed to the Ica Valley by car with a driver (thank you Tacama!) It is “only“ 300 km away from the capital – yet about 6 hours driving! – due to the country’s roads being precarious and the traffic jams endless… A little bit shaken by the trip, we arrived at night at the gates of the estate.To our surprise, we were welcomed by soldiers on guard in uniform and armed with rifles and pistols.
We were warned repeatedly about the lack of security in this region, but still… “Violence and looting are numerous in the area, as the success of some arouses the strongest desires of many others”, Frédéric Thibaut, the winemaker of the domain, explained to us the next day. We were asked to turn around and to find a hotel : we arrived too late and staying at the estate for the night was too dangerous.
After a short sleep and a quick coffee on the go, we were picked up by a 4*4 of Tacama. The 200-hectares estate is as beautiful as surprising with its architecture of Spanish hacienda. Not surprising when one learns that the owner likes to come there to ride.
Although here, they have been working with France for a century (since 1920), with regard to grape varieties, technology and expertise. Tacama has always been surrounded by the greatest experts, including Professors Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, Émile Peynaud (3), Max Rives, Alain Carbonneau and Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon… just that!
The richness of terroirs is undeniable in the Valley of Ica and it plays in the big leagues. Because in prehistoric times, during the great period of thaw, enormous and devastating mudslides slid down from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean – forming the current valleys. It coined the basements of the valley, with stony and sandy foundations, resulting in superb alluvial soils.
During our visits it was mentioned that”The hot and dry climate reminds one of Chile”. Moreover, Professor Max Rives, who spent a lot of time studying Peru, said regarding Ica : “this region is adapted to produce wines under exceptional conditions… thanks to its climate and soil characteristics”. And even if the lack of precipitation in Ica requires controlled irrigation, Professor Rives was also convinced that it could produce quality wines comparable to the products of the best wine producing countries in the world. This shows the potential.
We even had the opportunity to enjoy a Pisco (4).
It would not be surprising to see wine investment flourishing in the coming years, especially knowing the Peruvian GDP growth, steadily increasing for the 15th consecutive year (5). Evidenced by current study projects in the Sagrado Valley – at 3000m – and also around Arequipa, more to the south.
The only wine tourism complex in the country is located at the Santiago Queirolo estate, proud owner of the Hôtel Viñas Queirolo, nearby Tacama. We were invited here for two days to discover the charms of the valley and to enjoy traditional dishes.
Luckily, Peruvian cuisine is among the most diverse in the world, as evidenced by the fact that it would have the greatest number of dishes (491). We discovered ceviche, a specialty dish made with raw white fish – preferably lenguado (sole) – “cooked” in lemon juice and served with sweet potato, cassava and maize. A great opportunity to enjoy the very fresh white wines of the estate with this dish. Proof that Peru also produces elegant white wines. “They have a very nice freshness and are very interesting wines”, Melina Bertocchi, a wine journalist in Lima, confirmed.
During our last evening here we admired the sunset from the top of the vineyard, 500 meters above sea level, in front of the foothills of the Andes, a glass of Extra Brut NV in the hand (100% Chardonnay). From here we admired the 120 hectares of vineyards (6) adjacent to the resort. Between the mountain behind our backs and the sandy vineyards at our feet, the view was breathtaking.
Near Pisco, we stopped at Tabernero winery, the 3rd largest producer in the country, to discover Borgoña, a wine which is difficult to ignore as it represents 85 % of the Peruvian wine production! This is also the favorite “wine” of Peru. Made from Isabelle (the grape variety that apparently makes people crazy), it is a good introduction to start drinking wine. The result is a very sweet beverage with flavors of candy.
We ended our stay with a visit to Santiago Queirolo’s cellars in Pachacamac, a suburb of Lima. A name that recalls the adventures of Tintin and ThePrisoners of the Sun, one of my favorite comics and in which Tintin and his friend Captain Haddock, upon arriving in Peru, are looking for Professor Calculus, who is prisoner aboard the Pachacamac cargo.
Now let’s go to La Paz by bus…! So dear friends be warned : those who have not (yet) spent 32 hours trapped in a bus traveling at full speed on steep and winding roads, climbing to peaks of up to 4,300 meters will struggle to imagine the nightmare of the Lima-La Paz drive.
1,552 km under a scorching sun. Besides that, be careful not to get off the bus for more than 5 minutes – during the rare breaks – otherwise it could leave without you! As a result, upon arriving in La Paz at 3,600 meters (the highest capital in the world), I was sick for 2 days. Long live acute mountain sickness (AMS) – also named Monge disease… an experience lived here against my sandstones !
Thank you to Professor Eduardo D’Argent and journalist Melina Bertocchi for their valuable advice, as well as Tacama, Santiago Queirolo and Tabernero wineries for their warm welcome.
(1) Professor Eduardo D’Argent has just written a book on the history of the Peruvian wine named Vino y pisco en la historia del Perú. And there has always been a friendly rivalry between Peru (1540) and Mexico (1520) about which of the two was the wine pioneer of the Americas…
(2) The main grape varieties grown are Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Torontel.
(3) Emile Peynaud, nicknamed the “father of modern oenology” revolutionized winemaking techniques in the second half of the twentieth century; introducing particular techniques such as crushing and fermentation in separate lots.
(4) Pisco is a brandy produced by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit. Peruvian pisco is produced only using copper pot stills, like single malt Scotch whiskies, rather than continuous stills, like most vodkas.
(5) 350 hectares, planted in the Cañete Valley, complete Santiago Queirolo’s production.
(6) Technically, Borgoña can not be considered as wine, since it is a Vitis labrusca, not a Vitis Vinifera.