The Awakening of Peruvian Wine
Surprising grapes, skin contact, and expansion into new landscapes. There's more than pisco in Peru.
Today’s post on Peruvian wines is by Nicholas Gill, who writes the excellent New Worlder newsletter and has covered food and drink in Latin America for more than two decades. Gill has also authored three of our new travel guides available for paid subscribers, including the most comprehensive guide to eating and drinking in Lima, Peru. Upgrade to paid to read all of Everyday Drinking’s travel guides.
The wine scene in Peru is suddenly catching the wine world off guard. There wasn’t much going on with Peruvian wine in recent decades, but things are quickly turning around dramatically, though still microscopic compared to neighbors like Chile and Argentina. Winemakers are now embracing the otherworldly landscapes of Peru rather than working against them. Everywhere from sand dunes to the high Andes are fair game. Natural wine making with criolla grapes is taking off and skin contact is becoming more frequent.
It's not as much of a surprise as one might think. The oldest vineyards in South America are in Peru. Some vineyards have been there since the 1540s when the Spanish planted vines brought over from the Canary Islands and Madeira. Wine making took off then and flourished from Lima south to Tacna for more than a century, but a century later the Spanish crown ultimately slapped a fat tax on them and killed Peru’s only real export market. That’s when Peru’s grape growers turned their attention to pisco and for the next few centuries wine making was a secondary feature.
In recent years, a handful of large producers captured a chunk of the domestic market, not to mention Peruvian restaurants abroad, with French grapes like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, malbec and tannat, while everything else was sold as bulk wine or in jugs of sweet Borgoña along the Pan Americana. Aside of a few interesting experimental wines from big producers like Tacama and Santiago Queirolo, any thoughtful expressions of grapes from Peruvian soil had to do with pisco. Looking back, it seems so obvious that a place with lots of old vines, criolla grapes and distinct landscapes would be a place to make great wines. It’s as if Peru was just waiting for the rest of the world to wake up to realize what was there.
About ten years ago, things started to change. Someone did wake up. José “Pepe” Moquillaza who makes Inquebrantable, one of Peru’s finest piscos, started to work with criolla grapes to make natural wines. Quebranta, a cross between mollar (aka negramoll) and negra criolla (aka listán prieto, país, or mission), Peru’s only indigenous vinifera variety, was his main objective.
“One had nice flavor, the other grew better, so they were fused together to create a single identity,” Moquillaza told me when we went to Ihuanco then, referring to the grape’s origins in the 17th century. His Quebrada de Ihuanco Quebranta was, at least for me, the wine that changed everything. It proved that a small producer could make a distinct, soulful wine that captured the essence of the ancient seabed and endless sun of coastal Peru. Albita, an orange wine made from a blend of two other criolla grapes, albilla and moscatel, came not long after. That was followed by a project called Mimo, with Argentina’s Matías Michelini, further south in Ica in 2020.
Now, the doors have been pushed open and an entire world of Peruvian wine is opening up. Last month I traveled to the Valle de Pisco, where the very talented Brazilian winemaker Pietra Possamai is making wines at Bodega Murga. I first discovered their Sophia L’Orange a few years ago when they came on the scene, and it remains their largest production at around 4,000 bottles annually. A blend of quebranta and mollar with 30 days of skin contact, it is named after Italian actress Sophia Loren. Recently picked up by importer Selections de La Viña, the wine has started finding its way onto wine lists in New York.
Beneath the bougainvillea at the 19th century hacienda Possamai has taken over with her partners (who are also producing pisco and building a residential project), you get a sense of what might be possible in Peru. With 32 hectares of vines (24 in use thus far), most of which is destined for piscos and mistela, they have made 32 types of wine since 2018. There are multiple levels of skin contact, Pet-Nats, amphora and various blends that pair various criolla grapes one by one, not to mention a vineyard set within and completely encircled by a sand dune. Yet, the oldest vines are only eight years old.
To see so many different expressions of grapes from a small but well-defined terroir is the greatest complement to boundless complexity of Peruvian cuisine. There’s no single easy-drinking wine to go with its many incarnations, but Possamai is showing that, with the just five criolla grapes they work with, there are lots of opportunities. It’s why Murga’s wines are all over the top restaurant menus around Lima, including on the pairing at the famed Central.
Moreover, the city’s bars and restaurants have become far more welcoming to Peruvian wines than it was in the past. The last few months have been eye opening to say the least. At Mérito, I had a lovely glass of a quebranta rosé from Hortencia in Quilmaná-Cañete. It’s from Alberto di Laura who produces mistela under the same label, aside of distilling Pisco Don Amadeo. On the pairing at Mayta, there was Why Not?, a red blend from Ica made of tempranillo, malbec and cabernet sauvignon that was paired with a creamy alpaca dish. At Cordial, a natural wine and listening bar in Barranco, there are occasionally extremely small batch wines – 100 bottles or so - made for the bar by Ismael Carpio in the pampas of Ica, such as a red blend of quebranta and tempranillo.
The development of a local market is allowing the map to expand. That’s what really excites me. In Caravelí, in the Arequipa province, Moquillaza and winemaker Keith Diaz are making a natural wine at 1,777 meters above sea level. The negra criolla and moscatel negro grapes are stored in a cavernous cellar inside of clay tinajas, amphora-like fermentation vessels that date to the year 1,777. They have even discovered a new criolla variety, a cross between moscatel and negra criolla, that seems to have potential.
Then there is Apu Winery, near Curahuasi in the high Andes a few hours from Cusco in the province of Apurímac, started by Fernando Gonzales-Lattini and Meg McFarland in 2011. Can you even make wine here? I asked myself upon visiting in 2018. They have three hectares in production and are working to get to six, having planted sangiovese, cabernet, syrah, merlot, tannat, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and riesling. The altitude of their two plots ranges from 2,850 to 3,300 meters, which make it South America’s highest vineyard, if not the world.
Altitude changes everything. They have to work around the rainy season, so the harvest takes place in October, like in the Northern Hemisphere. The soil is rich in limestone, though the lack of oxygen and strong winds can be a challenge. They hired on an enologist from Salta, Argentina to help them increase yields with this special terrain.
After tasting the wines, I concluded: Yes, you can make good wine here. Their wines are still limited in quantities, though I especially like the riesling. They are working on a blend of sangiovese, cabernet and syrah for Central, as well as a Pet-Nat, so I’m eager to see where they take it.
It makes me wonder where else in Peru might be next?
Peruvian Wine Picks
Available in the U.S.
José Moquillaza, Quebrada de Ihuanco Quebranta 2020, $30
Peru’s first natural red wine, made from quebranta, the grape that’s usually for pisco production. This is a wild, aromatic, edgy red.
Bodega Murga, Joyas de Murga Albilla I 2020, $35
Dry skin contact white is made of albilla (aka palomino, aka listán blanco) Light and bright, low alcohol, subtle tannins.
Bodega Murga, Joyas de Murga Italia 2020, $37
Dry skin contact white made from italia, a grape usually known for making pisco.
Bodega Murga, Joyas de Murga Italia-Mollar Rosé 2020, $37
Cloudy, dry rosé wine made from italia and mollar, low in alcohol, and with good acidity, minerality, and tannic structure
Other Quality Peruvian Wines to Seek Out
Alberto di Laura, Hortencia Quebranta 2022, Cañete.
Apu Winery, Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Curahuasi.
Apu Winery, Tannat 2021, Curahuasi.
Bodega Murga, Sophia L’Orange, 2021, Pisco
Bodega Murga, Agathademon 2021, Pisco.
Bodega Murga, Barrel White 2020, Pisco.
Bodega Murga, Campania 2021, Pisco.
Bodega Murga, Dríade 2021, Pisco.
Bodega Murga, Pet Nat Italia 2021, Pisco.
José Moquillaza, Albita 2021, Cañete.
José Moquillaza & Matias Michelini, Mimo Blancas Criollas 2018, Ica.
José Moquillaza & Keith Diaz, Vino de Tinaja 1777, Caravelí.
Tacama, Doña Ana Chardonnay 2021, Ica.
Why Not?, Blanco 2022, Ica.