It may come as news to many Decanter readers that Peru even has a wine scene – let alone a rich history of wine production. In fact, it is the oldest wine-producing country in South America.
The area surrounding Lima, the capital of Peru, was where the Spanish conquistadors initially planted vines. Using grape varieties from the Canary Islands, they first made wine in the 16th century.
Historian Carlos Buller writes in his book Viticulture in Colonial Peru: ‘It’s likely that planting vines was one of the first things the Spanish did on their arrival, sometime in the 1530s, at different locations across the territory.’
These vineyards soon expanded southwards, mainly to Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. This led to a golden age of wine production for Peru, when Peruvian wine was sold right across South America in the 17th and 18th centuries.
However, by the 19th century viticulture had been relegated to the sidelines. This was due to natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and even phylloxera. There were also economic difficulties in the form of commercial restrictions imposed by the Spanish crown and the need to plant other crops.
The surviving vineyards were focused on producing pisco, the traditional grape spirit of Peru, as well as the popular Borgoña – a sweet wine made from the Isabella hybrid.
But Peruvian winemakers are a proud, resilient breed. Today, after modernising their wineries and repurposing their vineyards with the help of international consultants, they are determined to surprise the world with their fine wines.
They certainly have a lot of reputation building ahead of them. But I wouldn’t bet against Peru…
Peruvian wine today
Currently Peruvian winemakers are split between two different paths, which both offer plenty of potential. One path is to choose European varieties, notably Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
The other is to opt for ‘patrimoniales’, or heritage grapes that have historically been used for pisco. These include Quebranta, Mollar, Negra Criolla (Chile’s País), Torontel, Moscatel Negro del Perú, Albilla (Palomino Fino) and Italia. Some of these have been around since viticulture first began in South America, while others were bred on the continent itself.
‘Producing wines from patrimoniales grapes is a way to differentiate ourselves,’ says Pedro Cuenca Espinoza, a sommelier and founder of Perú Vino, a leading distributor of Peruvian wines. ‘Producers have learned to adapt their vines and harvest times to obtain grapes for fine wines. Today, you can enjoy Quebranta rosés and Italia [the Peruvian name for Muscat of Alexandria] whites, both of which are very fresh, expressive and well made.’
Meanwhile, Luis Gómez, head of winemaking at Intipalka – who has worked at La Celia and Bodegas CARO in Argentina – is convinced that European varieties offer a more promising future in Peru.
‘We have terroirs with plenty of potential to produce unique expressions using varieties such as Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet and Muscat of Alexandria,’ he says. ‘We’re not ruling out patrimoniales varieties, but our main objective is to show that Peru can produce elegant wines with a distinctive flavour.’
On the map
Peru has about 15,000ha of vineyards destined for the production of pisco and sweet wines. But only a small portion of this surface area is used to produce quality grapes for dry wines.
From north to south, the viticultural region stretches from Lima, down through Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. All of the terroirs are influenced by the Humboldt Current from the Pacific Ocean. The altitude and exposure provided by the Andes in arid areas at the northern edge of the Pacific coastal desert is also a factor.
Ica contains 50% of the quality vineyards of Peru and has three main sub-regions: Chincha, Pisco and the Ica Valley. Most of the vineyards are set at heights of between 400m and 650m above sea level. Their deep, sandy soils are rich in diatomite, calcium carbonate and minerals without much organic matter. The micro-climate – arid and subtropical – ensures a sizable thermal range, while the ocean breeze cools the otherwise warm climate.
Notable producers in Ica include Intipalka (Queirolo), Mimo, Ocucaje, Pampas de Ica and Tacama – a winery with the oldest vineyard in South America, dating back to 1540. All of them make pisco as well as fine wines from European and heritage varieties. Stand-out wines include Quebranta and Mollar rosés and whites from Muscat of Alexandria, Torontel and Albilla.
Regions and producers
In Chincha, Tabernero and Viña Vieja are traditional wineries producing international-class wines. Meanwhile in the Pisco Valley, heritage varieties come to the fore, as evidenced by the natural wines of Bodega Murga.
The Vítor and Caravelí Valleys are the hubs in Arequipa. Both valleys boast vineyards planted at heights above 1,200m in colluvial clay soils. The Vítor Valley produces mainly Malbec, known there as Burdeos, Moscatel Negro del Perú and Muscat of Alexandria for whites.
Paz-Soldán is the leading producer in the region. Caravelí is an important location in the history of Peruvian viticulture with heritage vineyards planted at heights of around 1,600 metres, where fruit is still fermented in centuries-old clay vessels and flagons.
Moquegua was an important viticultural centre in the 17th century, when it was known as the ‘Bordeaux of the Americas’. Today, Muscat of Alexandria, Moscatel Negro, Quebranta, Syrah and Malbec are the raw materials for the intriguing wines being made by the Viejo Molino winery.
Finally Tacna is the most southerly region in Peru with vineyards located at around 1,200m. There’s a vast range of different varieties here, as is reflected in the portfolio of Marqués Cariñoso, a winery that uses both European and heritage grapes.