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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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 1 continued

After a fabulous three and a bit hours at Astrid y Gaston, Igor suggested we walk to Huaca Pucllana, an ancient site within Lima. Thirty minutes later and still nowhere closer to finding the site, with various instructions along the way, we finally flagged down a cab.

Officially Huaca Pucllana closes at 5pm, but we got there in plenty oftime for the last English language tour at 4.40pm.

The Lima people lived in this area between 300 and 800 AD. And they started building this temple around 600 AD. The temple had a high priestess and sacrifices were made to female goddesses. Huaca Pucllana is about two kilometres from the Pacific Ocean – nowadays it is completely surrounded by suburbs – but the people were great fishermen and sharks, fish, sea snakes were highly prized.

There are millions of Adobe bricks here – and layers upon layers, built up over many generations.

The tour was fantastic – even included a nursery garden with specimens of famous South American food plants, also Guinea Pigs, llamas (and alpacas) and a strange local duck.

Excavation began in the early eighties, but the authorities are still learning more and more as the keep working on it.

While we were walking around, Igor mentioned that we were having our welcome dinner here a couple of hours later – and indeed there was a fantastic reception (and meal) with the two major family wine producers of Peru, Santiago Quierolo and Tacama. And our first lesson on Pisco production to boot.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 1 – Ironing in the dark – and Palm Sunday

My flight from Buenos Aires was due to land at 9.50pm, but in the end we landed a few minutes early.

That did not really matter, because it took almost forty minutes for our bags to appear. A flight from the States had just landed, and another from Colombia, so there was a delay while our bags were screened (I assume.) The Peruvian immigration officer was chatty and wanted to now how to say “New Zealand” and when I told her about “Aotearoa”, that just delayed things even more.

Had a quick look in the duty free store, “No, we don’t sell pisco here,” said the sales attendant. Another airport ignoring their local product.

The customs guys did not even check the bags, but coming into the arrivals hall, complete chaos. Hundreds of drivers holding up names of people to pick up. I had to go around and around three times until I eventually found mine. Thank you very much Tacama for picking me up at this late hour on a Saturday.

The traffic around Lima’s airport was diabolical. Cars broken down on the expressway, others with flat tires, traffic police screaming in the other direction. Thankfully I was not driving.

Eventually we got on the coastal highway (the airport seems to be west of the main city), but turned off sharply before entering the city and up a side hill.

Lima is surrounded by tall hills / mountains – pinning it against the sea. Some are even inhabited.

In the distance was a large illuminated cross perched on a hill overlooking the sea, but we never got close enough for a decent photo.

The area we are staying in is San Isidro, a very swank suburb, with a golf course, country club (the tennis courts were all lit up as we drove past.) More on that later, apparently.

After a disturbed night, woke up to a lovely breakfast with lots of exotic fruit, grenadine, prickly pear and so on.

There met up with my old buddy Igor Ryjenkov MW, who works for the LCBO in Toronto.

He had already mapped out a day sightseeing. I had booked Sunday lunch at the world famous Astrid y Gaston at 12.30. Astrid y Gaston is not open for dinner on Sunday, so this was my only chance. So we made a deal – to try and do both.

Catching a cab downtown (after nearly being fleeced for 79 solis, in the end it cost only 20), we found that most of the roads into the centre were blocked off. So we got out and hoofed to the main plaza, the presidential palace and cathedral. Of course, we had forgptten, this ws Palm Sunday, so it was all happening down at the cathedral. Not an especially ornate one, but beautiful nonetheless.

Lots of police around the area with riot gear, shields, guns equipped with gas canisters and so on. All the police were friendly however, including the stern guards protecting the back entrance to the presidential palace [editor’s note – about an hour after Paul and Igor tried to breach the carpark of the Presidential Palace, the Deputy President of Peru was sworn in as the new head of state after the various scandals that have hit this country.]

The library squished between the palace and the cathedral was spectacular. This library is named after and dedicated to Maria Varga Llosa. For me – this was the most moving part of my journey downtown. Wow.

Igor had said that he was keen to locate a Franciscan convent which apparently had lots of catacombs. We eventually found this walking north a short distance. There was another Palm Sunday service going on, lots of pomp and ceremony.

We eventually got into the Franciscan museum, which is actually a monastery, which had as a first stop a reading room dating from the 1600s and containing 20,000 original volumes, almost all in Latin. All covered with dust – I suspect that many of these are in dreadful condition now and not worth saving.

Sorry, not allowed to take photos inside the Franciscan monastery, so no photos of the catacombs. Trust me – this is a must see. Apparently 25,000 people are interred here. Apparently some of the other churches in Lima are also built over ossuaries, but this is the only one open to the public and they continue to excavate and restore it.

Eventually managing to untangle ourselves (we lost the tour guide sort of towards the end) we stumbled upon the Congress building and the statue of Simon Bolivar.

Just enough time left to get back to the hotel and freshen up for lunch.

My booking was originally for one, but now I had Igor and Arne Ronold MW from Norway coming. So three.

Holy heck – this restaurant was a hundred metres from our hotel. I had been freaking about the cabs…
Astrid y Gaston is a phenomenon, if anybody who knows anything about New World cuisine knows that this guy is a superstar. Somehow I had to blag three covers for what was originally a booking for one!

I had expected a choice between the 15 course deg and a 9 course cut down version, but no… We got offered the a la carte or the full fifteen. Nada.

Meanwhile one of the recently arrived MWs, Susan McCraith MW had given up on the hotel and after sitting in the bistro area (quite cool décor, all packing crate industrial etc) we suddenly had an excited British MW standing beside our table, looking optimistic for a fourth seat.

Well, the Astrid Police were up for this game, and after she was shuffled off for a full interrogation (and a few Hail Marys perhaps?), what this gave us was the opportunity for a shift to a much much grander table in a more exciting stage of the building, the old courtyard. Big thanks for the Astrid y Gaston team dealing with these difficult turistes on a Sunday afternoon!

Amazing.

Amazing is all I can say about the food, it is imaginative, certainly different. I don’t know how “authentic” it is, but what does that word mean anymore in terms of gastronomy???

Maybe two, possibly three, of the dishes showed a “gastro” twang to them, but the rest were just… wow… and what the… and a few other unmentionables in between. The last deg I had was back in late November, when Clooney (Auckland) announced its going out of business thing (sort of maybe didn’t happen) and while Jakob Kear was not in the room, we ate his menu and it was at times thrilling and cool, but at other times perplexing and troublesome.

But while there were some dishes at Astrid y Gaston I was not so fond of, nothing here was bad, or tricky, or “difficult”. This is haute cuisine that actually does not have its ego on its sleeve. This is the real deal.

More notes to follow… But…

The wine list is expensive and perhaps needs a bit more work (we were four Masters of Wine, so we were never going to go with the pairings, so looking for bottles was interesting.) Secondly, the service is very crisp, but this was Sunday lunch, so it was perhaps a little more relaxed than usual. We coped. I suspect that for what we were paying however you would not get away with this style in Napa (and we were paying Napa prices.)

I loved it (a full review to come), but I understand if your experience might be different. That is what it is about, isn’t it? Is not life different? Yours? Mine?

And for the next two days, if you see someone with a badly ironed shirt in Peru, you will know it is me.

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From the cellar

Glenguin Individual Vineyard 1998 Semillon Hunter Valley

Fabulous. A wine that initially retailed for around $18 (less by the case), the last bottle I had was around eight or nine years ago and was still lean and mean. I opened this bottle last night, slightly chilled, and it showed some of the creamy, toasty personality of aged Hunter Semillon. Since we couldn’t finish the bottle, I vacuvinned the wine overnight, now it is just starting to show some of those smoky, minerally notes of old Hunter. Not a big, weighty wine, firm acid on the finish, but that peacock tail, breadth of flavour, on the palate just magic. Lovely.

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