Peru’s wine industry is infinitesimal compared to its South American neighbours of Chile and Argentina, but it could be the next major player in the wine world. Historically, Peru played a very important role in the establishment of the South American wine industry, but was curtailed by a series of events including earthquakes, the rise of pisco production (a spirit distilled from wine), the emergence of Chile as a major wine producer, and an agricultural shift away from grapes. Today, most Peruvian wine is very rough and often sweet, made by rustic bodegas and consumed by the locals or distilled into pisco (which is then mostly consumed by the locals.)
Peru does have a handful of modern wineries making much better quality wine, and a few distilleries making even better pisco. Peru’s climate is very similar to Chile and I think it has quite an untapped potential in wine; I expect that Peruvian wine will eventually trickle up into North America as the industry continues to develop – and indeed, this process seems to be already underway as there appears to be one lone Peruvian wine available in Alberta. (I’ll try to get my hands on a bottle in the next little while.)
During a trip to Peru just over five years ago, my husband and I visited a handful of Peruvian bodegas to experience their winemaking industry first-hand; what follows is the first stop on this trip – I’ll post on the other two over the next few days.
Peruvian Bodega: Lovera
November 27, 2008
The city of Ica is the agricultural hub of Peru and the area where all of the country’s vineyards are located: a fertile splotch of green against the uniform beige desert and washed-out sky. Upon arriving at Ica’s bus station (we drove up from the town of Nazca to the south, where we had just flown over the incredible Nazca lines a day earlier), we were greeted promptly by our guide, Paolo. Paolo is a short, portly man with a weathered face and a twinkle in his eye. He greeted us warmly and marched us over to a waiting van, where we briefly said hello to the driver, Luís, before he revved the engine and zoomed into traffic.
Ica the largest city in the area, the capital of the eponymous province, and is very busy by mid-afternoon. But as we distanced ourselves from the downtown core the traffic thinned and we sped up, weaving deftly along a narrow road. Already I had glimpsed a few signs for bodegas, often advertising free samples of pisco. Our first two visits were to these local artesanales: small-scale bodegas producing a limited amount of pisco and occasionally table wine. Peru has a growing number of commercial wineries that make table wine on a much larger scale, but the industry is still dominated by the pisco-making artesanales.
After about a fifteen-minute drive we arrived at the first bodega of the day, Lovera. It was rustic, for lack of a better word. I really didn’t know what to expect from these bodegas, though I knew it would be very different from my previous winery visits – North American wineries are all about shiny stainless steel equipment, tidy barrel rooms, and perky tour guides. In Peru, you get dusty concrete tanks, rusty copper stills, and a few leering muchachos tossing back shots of pisco in the shade.
Lovera is perfectly laid out for an in-depth visual lecture on traditional Peruvian winemaking, and Paolo was no stranger to the process. With ample arm movements and gestures to enunciate his description, he hopped up on the edge of the concrete crushing tank and launched into his lecture.
At harvest time, the hand-picked grapes are piled high in the three-foot deep concrete crushing tank (lagar). A continuous stream of trucks dumps ton after ton of grapes into the lagares, and by the end of the day the pile is only a few feet shy of the woven straw roof. The workers then start treading the grapes by foot, a process that can take up to twelve hours.
“The grapes usually go through three crushings, trillas,” Paolo explains. The first is mostly to break the berries and separate them from the stems. During the second trilla, the stems are removed with pitchforks. The third trilla, which sometimes happens the next day (depending on how long the crushing takes) yields juice with more colour, as it has had the longest contact with the skins.
Paolo also mentioned the hazards associated with foot treading. Along with grapes, the creatures living amongst the vines are also harvested – namely a lot of spiders and wasps. “They give the pisco bite!” laughs Paolo. These get tossed into the lagares along with all the fruit – so if you are allergic to bug bites, foot-treading is not your ideal occupation.
As the grapes are crushed by foot-treading and pressing, the juice/must (mosto) flows from the lagar into the must-receiving tank (la zona de recepción de mostos).
A pipe set into the base of the lagar allows the must to flow from the lagar into wicker baskets that are used to filter out all the solid material (skins, seeds, dead bugs) that escape with the must. Sometimes the baskets are lined with cloth for better filtration.
After flowing through the filtration baskets, the mosto then runs across the tank and out another pipe, where it empties into a large clay bottle (botija de mostera) waiting underneath. A cloth is usually tied around the end of this pipe so as to prevent any juice from spilling onto the ground.
The botijas rest in a wooden device known as a burro (literally, “donkey”) that is carried by two people holding either end. Workers will use the burro to move the botijas around…
…either setting them off to the side and allowing the must to ferment in the bottle for a few weeks….
…or emptying them into large concrete fermenting vats in the fermentation area (la zona de fermentación).
In Peru, and especially in its small bodegas, most wine is used to produce pisco rather than table wine. A few companies may make a bit of table wine, but it is usually quite sweet and very unlike the wine to which North Americans are accustomed. If table wine is being made, at this point in the process the wine would be bottled or simply kept in the botija where and dipped into whenever someone felt like a drink. Sounds sketchy? Well, this isn’t exactly state-of-the-art winemaking.
As Paolo mentioned earlier, there are usually three crushings of the grapes, during which the solid remains (skins, pulp, seeds) are removed from the juice. These solids, called pomace, are pressed and the bitter juice that is extracted is used to make vinegar. A mechanical press (prensa mecánica) is employed for this purpose, since it is able to squish every last drop of juice out of the grapes. The average prensa mecánica at a Peruvian bodega is pretty old school, requiring you to walk in a circle cranking a giant handle.
“It’s very hard work,” Paolo says. “After 20 minutes you are tired. So that’s why they drink pisco while they work, because you take a drink and then you say, ‘Ok! Let’s go!’ And then 20 minutes later you need another one.”
As Paolo demonstrates the press, I point to a large photo hanging overhead that depicts four young women stomping grapes in decidedly impractical winemaking costumes. “Do they help tread the grapes too?”
Paolo laughs, somewhat sheepishly. “No, it’s all men. The men need something to get them through the work, so they put up this to look at.” Ah, machismo – it is alive and well in Peru.
Once the wine has finished fermenting, it is then distilled into pisco. The botijas of fermented wine are carried with a burro and tipped into a trough, which runs into the copper pot (falca) of the still (alembique).
The stills used in pisco production are based on a French design but made locally, and they are now almost always constructed from pure copper – however, in the past they were made from an alloy, until chemical analysis showed that small amounts of lead were leeching from the stills into the pisco. Yikes.
Most pisco is made from Quebranta grapes, a native Peruvian variety. The aromatic Torontel (Torrontes) is also used quite a bit. My husband and I both tended to prefer the latter, as this variety gives such pretty floral aromas and is a tad sweeter, making the pisco easier to sip straight. However, we also acknowledged that the Quebranta piscos would make the best pisco sours and other cocktails.
As we wrapped our lips around the first pisco samples of the day, Paolo told us about Peruvian drinking traditions. “In every language there is a word you say before taking a drink,” he says.
“Salud!” I chime in, flaunting my impeccable Spanish.
“Right,” he says. “And cheers, prosit, all those. But in Quechua, there is none. [Quechua is the name of Peru’s indigenous people and their language.] Before the Quechua take a drink, they don’t say anything, but rather spill a few drops onto the ground as an offering to the earth.”
Paolo goes uncharacteristically solemn for a moment, ceremoniously tipping his glass and spilling a generous dollop of pisco onto the dirt. Then he grins, gold tooth flashing, and knocks the shot back.