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.