MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Days 4 and 5 – Laguna Volcan

After our amazing barbeque under the stars at Samaipata, we all piled back on the bus and headed back down the gorge road to our hotel for the night, Laguna Volcan, stopping about half an hour into the gorge.

Laguna Volcan is a resort set within the crater of an ancient volcano, but to get up there you need to take a four wheel drive up a bumpy and rather slippery dirt road. This meant having to ferry the eleven Masters of Wine and baggage in several trips.

We had pulled over at a clearing outside a local store. For security reasons, our bus driver was going to have to spend the night there in the vehicle. I ended up in the last group, though my hacking cough had returned. This was about half past ten at night, but there was a group of farm workers outside the store with wheelbarrows full of fresh fruit and produce. We were not sure who was going to buy fruit at this time of night (especially not slices of watermelon that looked like they had been cut open half a day earlier.) Eventually the hawkers started packing up their produce, but it just seemed so desperate to us. A tough way to make a living.

As the last group, one of our number suggested we try and grab a beer from the store while we waited for our ride up the mountain. They had to go hunting in one of the fridges for it, but they eventually managed to dig out a few cans, brewed in Brazil unfortunately.

I couldn’t resist taking this picture of Che Guevara in a compromising position.

We are very close to the Amboro National Park. And there is some spectacular scenery around. By the time we got up to the resort it was well past eleven and it was eerily quiet, there were bird calls and the sounds of frogs (toads?) Someone had managed to rustle up the bartender, but as we had just had a drink it was straight to bed.

This resort is very atmospheric, with a line of cabins stretching out alongside the named lagoon. There are other rooms in the main building, a pool area and a long covered deck that doubles as a restaurant.

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk around the lagoon. At the far end of the crater there is a huge drop and a lookout to another nearby volcano. There were a few issues with the water in the cabins, seems that this is an “eco resort” in lots of different ways. There were so many exotic birds – the place was alive with insect life. You feel like you have been airlifted in a Tarzan story (wrong continent, I know), a small oasis of civilisation in a remote jungle location.

The cabins have two bedrooms and are self contained, so a whole family can take up residence. There is a small golf course here somewhere, apparently, but that is not really the attraction.

A beautiful, peaceful place to catch our breath. I can see why our hosts were so determined for us to stay here.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – Bodega Uvairenda, Boutique Wines of Bolivia and El Pueblito Resort

Bodega Uvairenda markets its wines under the brand Vinos 1750, in recognition of the altitude at which the estate is located.

Their vineyard is on a moderately steep hill overlooking the town. Our bus somehow managed to get all the way up, but wisely, no attempt to turn into the driveway. On my previous MW trip we had a problem with one winery gate (turned into an insurmountable issue for the bus and bus drive, sadly.)

But this gave us the chance to walk through the property and down to the winery.

Bodega Uvairenda is steep, steep enough for contour planting, overlooks the town, and is vaguely reminiscent of somewhere in Europe? In several places on the property they have installed the traditional pergola system and planted Pedro Gimenez, one of the ancient varieties that was planted around these parts and which Francisco Roig has decided to specialise with. But otherwise the vineyard employs traditional VSP training, with each block planted to the variety that they believe suits it.

The winery itself is small, but perfectly formed. A small lab area up on a mezzanine, a corner for a few barrels and the company’s first tentative steps in oak maturation.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the winery terrace, featuring traditional dishes from this part of Bolivia, then had a brief tour of the winery. We were then treated to a walkaround tasting of some of the boutique producers of Bolivia, a blend of producers based in Samaipata and others with their holdings in the south of the country, near Tarija. All the wines were extremely interesting and there were several absolute standouts.

After our tasting we went downtown for a coffee presentation and tasting (more on that later) and a fascinating stroll around the town. Lots of interesting things to see and do here, and tourism is expanding all the time.

Finally we finished our day in Samaipata back up the hill, this time at the property just above Uvairenda, with a traditional Bolivian barbeque at El Pueblito resort. Our very generous hosts put on a folk band, an open fire and we got to sit out under the stars for a memorable meal.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – The Road to Samaipata

We did not land in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, or just Santa Cruz as everyone calls it, Bolivia, until a little after 2am. It is a three hour flight from Lima, Peru, but there is a time difference of one hour, so we lost an hour on the way.

By the time we had cleared immigration, located our bags and got to our hotel, the beautiful Los Tajibos, the clock had just ticked past 3am. Bolivian immigration officers are not terribly friendly and although it was just one medium sized plane, it took over half an hour to get through the queues. One of our party got held up – and they had to apply for an emergency visa.

It would have been lovely to have spent more time in Santa Cruz. Los Tajibos is a gorgeous hotel, centred around the inviting swimming pool (but sorry, no, no time for a swim!) – and I would certainly love to go back there.

Apparently the downtown area of Santa Cruz is very picturesque, based on the old Spanish settlement, which is laid out in a grid. A lot of the old buildings have been retained and there are bars and restaurants and lots of things to see. Apparently. Unfortunately our schedule was so tight, we didn’t have time to go downtown and wander around, but we had to get on the road to our next destination as soon as we had finished breakfast.

Santa Cruz itself is becoming a large sprawling city. Until the 1960s, it was a sleepy provincial town of no more than 60,000. All the major urbanisation had taken place elsewhere in Bolivia. However, due to the entrepreunerial outlook of the residents, there has been massive expansion and it is now considered the business centre of Bolivia (trick question: what is the capital of Bolivia?) These days the official population count is 1.5 million, but as it begins to swallow up nearby towns Santa Cruz is rapidly approaching 2 million.

Near our hotel there were lots of universities and polytechnics, and there are a number of private high schools (as well as good state schools) in the city. Municipal utilities, such as water and power, are run by local trusts or coops, which makes the tapwater apparently “almost drinkable” (no, still not taking that bet.) But there are also large groups of ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Europeans and Asians in Santa Cruz, which makes this the most ethnically diverse city in Bolivia.

Apparently after World War 2 there was organised immigration of Japanese wanting to escape the horrors of their bombed out towns and cities. Santa Cruz even has a suburb called Okinawa, would you believe. Because of this, Asian cuisine is quite popular in Santa Cruz, sushi (I have no idea where the fish comes from), various styles of Chinese cooking, southeast Asian, they have it all.

Santa Cruz is the most cosmopolitan city in Bolivia, and would be a great kick off place for a tourist. Quite different from the towns on the high plateau (altiplano), such as La Paz by all accounts.

Having said that, Santa Cruz is already at 1200 metres above sea level. However the start of the Amazon Basin is just a couple of hours drive north, while the foothills of the Andes are just to the west of the city.

It was this route that we took to Samaipata, up Highway 7 and following the Rio Pirai. Highway 7 leads into the interior of Bolivia, eventually ending up at Cochabamba, one of the cities on the high plateau at 2500 metres, or you can turnoff and head to Sucre, one of the capitals of Bolivia (yes, Bolivia has TWO capitals…)

But this road has another significance, because up this gorge Che Guevara marched his troops in July 1967, briefly capturing the town of Samaipata (he was desperately trying to find some insulin to ward against asthma), before the fled into the hills south towards Vallegrande.

Another hour or so driving west of Samaipatha, Highway 7 connects with Highway 22, the road to Vallegrande, and onto the town of La Higuera where Che Guevara was eventually captured and famously shot on 9 October 1967. It is amazing to think that is now just over fifty years ago – and it is interesting that the “Che Guevara Trail” is now being promoted by tourism operators. Certainly this gives me yet another excuse to come back to Bolivia and Santa Cruz.

The Pirai Gorge road is already a busy tourist route, with lots of adventure activities in these foothills. Many of the young people from schools and colleges in Santa Cruz come up here during the holidays, to camp out, swim beneath waterfalls and see the stars come up.

There is commercial kayaking on the river, with different grade rapids. Right beside the river is a national park, with lots of day hikes, on some spectacular mountains. Ancient volcanoes dot the landscape interspersed with lush vegetation. We are at altitude, but it is also very temperate, climate wise.

And on one of these mountains, there is even a condor viewing hike. It is recommended to only do this with a guide, as the condors are quite ferocious close to their eyries.

And at the top of the gorge is the little town of Samaipata, which has vineyards in and around it, and several small wine producers based there.

The leading producer is Bodega Uvairenda, which was originally founded by Francisco Roig and now he has one of his best friends as a business partner.

Francisco was educated in America and is a corporate finance expert, so his English was flawless. He himself is not from a wine making family, but his wife is French, which is how he got the bug for wine. And because he still had connection in the US when he did his winemaking degree he did it through UC Davis.

Our bus (which was apparently kitted out for Catholic bishops when the Pope visited Bolivia) slowly wound its way out of Santa Cruz and passed through the outlying towns, now virtually swallowed up by the city. Then someone asked whether we had any water, so the decision was made to stop at a roadside store. While we were waiting at the side of the road, I noticed that there were lots of people outside the shop pounding away at something under an awning. I got out to have a look.

What they were pounding were coca leaves – the shopkeeper was filling little green bags of coca leaves for sale and the customers would then take these wooden mallets to crush the leaves and liberate the essential oils. Some of our hosts purchased a few bags of leaves and so we got to try coca on our way up to Samiapata. I had been very sick for a week or so and was coughing really badly – the coca not only helped clear my sinuses and supressed the coughing, for a short while at least. Yes, your tongue goes a little number of you chew the wad of coca in the appropriate place.

It seems that coca leaf chewing is frowned on by polite society, but a lot of truck drivers rely on the stuff to keep them awake. Seems to be a habit among poorer people, a little like smoking. We saw these little green bags elsewhere in Bolivia. It was certainly an interesting experience.

The gorge road is very windy and in places tight. Our journey was slowed somewhat by the work going on, it seems that this road is being upgraded, with new culverts and bridges and some much needed widening around several bends. There were workmen everywhere the day we went up, with a couple of one way Stop/Go sections. It will be great when it is finished (although some of the engineering in places looks a little questionable.)

I asked Francisco about getting to Samaipata from Santa Cruz. There are several local buses, though they do not look especially fast. He thought it about a little, then advised that the cheapest (and most direct) option would be to catch a cab. Apparently this is not outrageous as it seems, even though it would be an hour and a half to two hour drive. It is a lot slower by bus – believe me.

The little town of Samaipata looks like your typical Bolivian town, with traditional walled courtyards and verandahs, but there are heaps of tourist operations advertising their wares on footpath signs and several budget hostels. Apparently they recently got their very first luxury B&B, followed shortly after by a second. The local wine bar is run by a couple of Aussies and there is very good 3G coverage here apparently (but not if you are a customer of Vodafone NZ, it seems.)

Samaipata, and the other agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Cruz, was where some of the earliest wine was made in Bolivia. The Catholic Church sourced altar wine from this region, since grapes couldn’t survive on the high plateau. Conditions are kinder here, it is more temperate and there is enough water for vines to thrive. Pretty much everyone in Samaipata grew grapes during the Spanish rule. Even today, walking around the town you can see some of the walled gardens at the back of people’s houses where wild vines are growing.

Samaipata is a cute place – and I cannot wait to return.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 3 – Big Day

Driving back from Santiago Queriolo Resort, our driver made a fatal mistake by driving into Ica to get back to the main highway to Lima. The previous day we had skirted around the northern edge of town, but instead we ended up in a chaotic rush hour traffic jam. Ica itself is a sprawling, shambolic, dusty city, where nobody seems to follow the rules of the road. Tuk tuks everywhere, five rows of cars at one point in a narrow city street designed for one lane each way, a van broken down and some bemused police who seemed to have no idea how to fix the situation. These people need to go to Rome and teach people there how to weave through traffic snarl ups.

And why is there a massive sandhill smack in the middle of the city?

On the way back to Lima we took a detour and drove inland to Pachamac, which is where Santiago Quierolo have their main production facility. When we arrived there was a line of trucks laden with plastic bins of grapes, waiting to unload the harvest. We only had time for a very cursory tour, taste some unfermented juice and to have a quick look at the Pisco stills.

When we got back on the main road into the city, our driver decided to go around the downtown area and head for the coast.

Lima is built alongside a group of cliffs overlooking the wild Pacific Ocean. We passed several really good surf beaches – and there were plenty of surfers in the water catching a few waves.

Eventually we turned inland and up one of those cliffs to the upmarket neighbourhood of Miraflores and our destination, El Mercado.

Santiago Quierolo had invited a couple of members of the local media to join in with our farewell lunch, as well as the winemaking team.

This is an absolute must do if you ever go to Lima. The place was buzzing when we arrived, a completely different experience from the restraint and quiet solemnity of Astrid y Gaston.

El Mercado is a large bistro – though “casual” is the way most people dress in Peru, everyone here was dressed sharply, it is clearly the place to be.

You start off with complimentary homemade corn chips and dips when you sit down.

What followed was basically a run through the entire Mercado lunch menu, including desserts. My phone died halfway through, so I am relying on others for visual evidence of the gourmet delights and all washed down with Intapalka wines and Don Santiago Pisco with the sweet courses.

You know you are in the right restaurant when even the locals are taking photos of the dishes. Outstanding.

When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from El Mercado it was off to a Gran Pisco tasting at the stately Lima Country Club, with our hosts Cona Pisco, the National Pisco Commission of Peru.

Carlos de Pierola is a Peruvian wine writer and an expert on Pisco. He judges at both local competitions as well as overseas spirits shows. He gave us a short introduction to Pisco history, production and regulations and then led us through eighteen examples from recent vintages. It was an incredible experience and I will be writing a story about Pisco shortly, but certainly I feel I understand what is special about Peruvian Pisco and why there is such a lot of interest in this category at present.

Carlo has his own website called Barricas though it appears to be in Spanish only. Full notes on the tasting to follow shortly.

Peru was playing Iceland in a World Cup warm up match at the stadium downtown, so the streets were relatively quiet (for Lima) when we left the country club to head to the airport for our flight to Bolivia. However as we got closer to Lima Airport the traffic began building up again

Our flight to Bolivia was scheduled for a 10.00pm departure, so there was a little time to look around the duty free store inside the airport. On the way into Lima a couple of days earlier I had stopped at the duty free store downstairs in the arrivals area and they apologised that they had no Pisco there for sale, just lots of the usual whiskies and cognacs you see everywhere else in the world. But here, on the way out, there is an amazing array of Piscos on offer (not so much Peruvian wine) and plenty of staff eager to pounce on you when you set foot in the store.

But I was already lugging way too much stuff – and thanks to Planet Wine in Auckland, we can now buy Tabernero in New Zealand.

To complicate matters – Bolivia is in a different time zone from Peru, it is actually one hour ahead. So our plane was really leaving at 11 Bolivian time, which meant that we would not be landing in Santa Cruz until after 2am. And getting through immigration in Bolivia, as I now fully appreciate, can be a slog…

This was certainly a “Big Day”.

“Miles of golden beaches
Excellent wines and features
Mister – take a week off in gay Peru
Penitent monks to stare at
Colonial Dons in old straw hats
Everyone’s there in gay Peru”

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 2 – Santiago Queirolo Resort

The story of Santiago Queirolo is worth retelling.

The family originally came from northern Italy in the late 19th century, founding a tavern in Pueblo Libre, a suburb of Lima. They imported and distributed speciality products from Italy, arguably introducing a lot of interesting food items to Lima and, ultimately, Peru. In the 1880s, the patriarch Don Santiago Queirolo started making Pisco and wine to supply the restaurant, with the fruit grown in nearby coastal valley. But demand for these products came from other establishments, so in1906 they made their first mass market wines, Borgoña and Vino de la Magdalena, both of which are still produced (side note – we tasted Borgoña at one point, it is a soft red, gently sweet and not too heavy, very much an entry wine for people who are not regular wine drinkers.)

The restaurant / tavern in Pueblo Libre is still incredibly busy, though a little out of the way from where we were based in San Isidro, so we did not make a special trip out to it.

In the 1960s, production outgrew their Lima base and the family established vineyard holdings in the Canete Valley, to the south of Lima. Canete remains an important centre of Pisco production, with a number of quality producers based there.

Santiago Queirolo’s largest processing facility is in Pachamac on the outskirts of Lima. While not the largest Pisco producer in Peru, they are a significant player in the market and establishing a reputation for high quality Pisco.

In 2000 the family made a strategic decision to develop a new estate for quality table wines and so in 2002 an estate in Ica Valley was acquired and planted.

The Santiago Queirolo resort is only a couple of kilometres from Tacama, closer to the east and south of Ica Valley.

This is an amazing place, with beautiful high vaulted rooms built in traditional Peruvian style, thick mudbrick walls with wooden skeleton. I imagine these lodgings would be cool in the heat of summer.

Originally built as a weekend retreat for the family, it was later decided to open up the complex to accommodation. However the devastating southern Peru earthquake in 2007 (which caused massive damage and loss of life in the city of Pisco) wrecked the main hotel. The decision was made to rebuild and even expand the resort further. So there are now two pools, several bars, a conference centre and a range of different room formats catering for various sized groups.

The restaurant literally overlooks the main vineyard block and there is a miniature winery on site, which was fermenting base wine for Pisco while we were there.

After checking in and shaking off the dust, we all piled into four wheel drives and took a drive up into the hills behind the resort. The company has been progressively developing these hillside plots and there is a lot of land still to be planted. It is very dry and shingly, quite steep in places, predominantly north facing slopes, but with lots of gullies and folds. The company has developed an expensive irrigation network amongst the contour plantings.

The fruit up here had not yet been harvested, so we got to taste some juicy, ripe Petit Verdot.

We stopped at a lookout area with a pergola and a view of the setting sun, along with a glass of one of Santiago Queirolo’s Charmat sparklings, a refreshing, light, semi sweet bubbly called Vals.

Growing on one of the pergolas at the lookout was Quebranta, one of the most famous varieties used in the making of Pisco.

Quebranta has huge bunches of fairly large berried grapes, but on the same bunch you can find berries that are completely green, while others may already be starting to raisin. The flavour of the grapes is very delicate, these are fairly large berries after all, faintly aromatic, and moderately sweet in the mouth.

After our toast to the spectacular Ica Valley, we went back down to the Resort for a formal tasting, followed by dinner.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia – Day 2, Tacama

Tacama are perhaps the best known wine producers in Peru. They are mentioned in Monty Waldin’s book Wines of South America (2003) and also in Evan Goldstein’s recent work of the same name Wines of South America (2014.) Like many Peruvian producers however Pisco is also a significant part of their portfolio.

The journey down the main highway from Lima had taken several hours, and this was an early start with a picnic box breakfast from the hotel to tide us over. On the way down we had picked up our generous host José Antonio Olaechea, head of the family that runs Tacama.

We got off the main road just before entering Ica, took dusty (and bouncy) country roads through groves of pecans and across dry riverbeds, eventually crossing the turbulent, chocolate coloured Ica River itself over what resembled a Bailey bridge. Another bumpy dirt road and, finally a large wall and manned gate, the entrance to the estate.

Inside was a very special welcoming party, a spectacular way to welcome the Masters of Wine to Peruvian vineyards.

We were then treated to a demonstration of Peruvian horsemanship on the lawn in front of the winery, along with snacks and cold drinks from the winery restaurant.

Breeding good horses is just one part of the magic. The handler and the horse spend many hours together to establish a rapport. It was a fabulous display, culminating in a dance between a woman and a horse and rider combination.

Tacama has been producing wine for hundreds of years, but the real foundations of modern viniculture began in the 1920s, when José’s grandfather purchased the estate and began reforming the vineyards and winery. The family sought French consultants (from Bordeaux) in the 1950s and 60s, but a complicating factor was the land reforms of the 1960s, which divided up a lot of Peru’s large agricultural holdings into tiny parcels. José says that from 140 hectares he has slowly built the estate back up to 300 hectares, but progress is very slow as many of these small holdings have multiple family members owning them. The major issue in Ica Valley is buying land with water rights – as nothing will grow in this area without irrigation.

Formerly on this site there was a convent and so the estate has its own working chapel, as well as a belltower, which features prominently on the company’s labels. The bell was used to summon the fieldworkers to meals (while there is a large crack in it, it is still very much in working order.)

But now that all of this has been absorbed into the winemaking estate, the layout of the Tacama complex resembles a traditional Peruvian ranch, with a stable area at one end, a central courtyard and in the middle a lovely fountain. The belltower provides a great lookout on the main vineyard block, which is on sandy loam. Jose mentioned that they have identified a number of different soil types in the Valley, but most of them are variations on sandy loams.

The winery complex itself is huge, dating back as it does almost a hundred years. And there is ample room for expansion, though they have retained some of the character with the old wooden vats and some amazing photos documenting the history of Tacama Estate.

Tacama is a historically significant vineyard in South America. It was originally a site where a lot of Spanish varieties were first introduced to the continent, many by way of the Canary Islands, which were a staging post for ships to the new colony. Over the centuries, the varieties have changed as successive custodians have honed in on what works best in Ica Valley. However, right in the middle of the main vineyard block is a small, unkempt patch of vines, 120 year old Albillo plants, from which Tacama makes a small amount of wine.

Total production from the estate is around 130,000 cases, with around 25% of that being spirits, some of Peru’s best Pisco under the Demonio de los Andes and Gran Demonio labels. More recently the family have been planting classic French varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Tannat and Petit Verdot, to add to the varieties that were already here in the early twentieth century. Their winemaker is a Frenchman, albeit that he has settled now in Peru and they have maintained their relationship with consultants back in France.

Enotourism is starting to become important part of Tacama’s business. A week or so earlier there had been a long weekend in Peru, so the winery had been overrun with visitors The winery has an upmarket cellar door, with a huge tasting room and well stocked gift store. Easter was coming up – and they were already planning for extra staff to cope with the expected influx of holiday makers.

José and family realise how important this is to the future table wine market in Peru. In a country where the most popular wines are cheap, semisweet blends of all sorts of grapes (Ica Valley is also a large producer of table grapes, often grown on pergolas), getting people to trade up to varietal labelled wines is a big task. But he has already developed with some ingenious methods to engage these wine interested visitors. They have a small theatre, complete with video on how wine is made. And José has developed a viewing platform into the main winery, with a series of different coloured lights highlighting stages of the winemaking process. Finally they have a purpose built tasting room right next to the lab – so they can run formal tastings with members of the trade.

Now on top of this all, Tacama has a fabulous restaurant, presided over by José’s sister (who formerly worked in a law firm.) We were treated to a spectacular lunch featuring not just classic Peruvian dishes, but also prepared with local products and cooked by locals. It seems that Tacama had closed the restaurant for the day in our honour and we were given a long, leisurely lunch which more than made up for the early start.

After lunch we piled back in the bus to head over to Santiago Quierolo Resort.

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Day 1 ends – and Day 2 begins – MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Welcome to the Ica Valley

The dinner at Huaca Pucllana was fabulous.

We got to meet some of the principals from the two major wine (and pisco) producers supporting this stage of the trip, our flying visit to Peru, Tacama and Santiago Queirolo. Apologies in advance for the quality of the photos – I did not get a shot of our second course (seared squid) in time – I forgot to get a snap off and so what you have is the cut short version. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

We had cocktails to start (Pisco Sour, of course, along with a Manhattan made using Pisco instead of whisky, called an El Capitan.) We got to meet several members of the Queirolo family, one of whom had to dash off (politics in Peru is in flux right now – the previous President had just resigned and Vice President had only been sworn in that afternoon, which may explain the frosty reception Igor and I had received from the guards at the Presidential Palace that morning.) We also got a very brief but passionate introduction to Pisco from José Antonio Olaechea, the owner and head of Tacama Winery in the Ica Valley.

After visiting this ancient temple site during the day, it was amazing to see the massive adobe brick structures lit up at night.

We started with a sparse crowd, but a couple of MWs joined us as the evening wore on and we were nearly a full crew by the end.

More on the food lately, but a wonderful start to our tour.

Day 2

A rude awakening, we had to be outside our hotel by 6.30am, with picnic boxes for our breakfast. I had stayed up until well after 2am watching the cricket match from Eden Park on my computer as the Blackcaps deservedly rounded out an innings victory in the first ever Day Night test in NZ against England. I had been there on the first day when England so I wanted to see it through. I even fielded a couple of calls from ecstatic Kiwis at 2.30am, didn’t have the heart to tell them what time it was in Peru.

It takes between 3 and a half to 4 hours to travel south to the Ica Valley, which is where some of the best vineyard land is in Peru and where a lot of the super premium Pisco starts life.

On the way we passed a few beach resorts for the wealthy Lima-ites. We saw some of the famous fog that comes off the Humboldt Current, but we also saw natural gas plants, mines, and lots of desert.

A short distance outside Lima we picked up José Antonio Olaechea, who was able to provide us with commentary on the trip down.

It is hard to believe that this is one of the driest places in South America, due to the influence of the Humboldt Current, until you get here. There are a series of east-west valleys opening into the Pacific Ocean, separated by barren desert outcrops. The landscape is forbidding and slightly out of this world, but in between there is irrigation, some from rivers, mostly from wells and there has been agriculture established that has brought life to the desert. Cotton was big here. There are still cotton plantations in places, and other crops (bananas, maize, citrus), but the agrarian reforms really mucked things up in the 1960s and so much of the good farmland was broken up into 4 ha blocks, many of which are blindingly obvious from the main highway South. Farms were put into cooperatives and the land was divided evenly in tiny pieces. José’s family is apparently slowly trying to acquire adjacent vineyards or land suitable for vineyards in Ica Valley, but it is a slow, painful process as Tacama has to deal with dozens of descendants of those first 4 hectare repatriations in the 1960s. Tacama is expending as quickly as it can, and vines are doing well in Peru, not just for pisco, and wine, production, but also for table grapes.

The landscape is stark.

José gave us a fantastic rundown of where Peru is at now with grapes, things are looking up, but it will take time.

Ica Valley is a little different as it mostly runs north south and we enter it just before we get to the port of Pisco. Pisco is named after all the birds that flock there – trying to hunt massive schools of fish just off the coast. This is why this area is so famous for its ceviche (cebiche?) And Pisco the port gave its name to the distilled beverage – English sailors apparently stopped over in the nineteenth century to load up on the stuff.

José’s parents used to have to ride a horse up the Ica Valley to get to the port – there is now an adequate, though only single lane highway – and then catch a boat up the coast to Lima. This all took two days. But Ica is not only a rich, fertile valley, it also has reasonable groundwater, if you have water rights that is. Wells are the main source for irrigation, but in trying to expand Tacama’s vineyard holdings, José also has to be mindful to purchase the water rights as well. Nothing grows here without this.

We pass lots of small, artisan producers of Pisco, a couple of open air restaurants and little holiday resorts. Eventually, after at least one U turn and a near miss on another intersection, we end up on a dusty bumpy dirt track and the spectacular estate that it is Tacama. This used to be an old convent (there is still a chapel there – and a belltower, which I got to ring), this wine estate is built on a “hacienda” model and now boasts an award winning restaurant and a massive winery complex dating back over a hundred years.

And we received a noble welcome – how about this for the welcoming committee, escorting our bus onto the winery…

Welcome to Peru, Masters of Wine!

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