The Oldest Vineyard in South America

 

The taxi took me from the brightness of the desert, and jostled through the uneven streets of Ica, past the middle of nowhere until the world around began to bloom again on either side in unexpected strips of green. Verdant cornfields bordered the dirt road with the majestic purple-grey mountains of the Highlands just behind. Excepting the palm trees, it might have been the wilderness of the American West, but I was headed to Tacama—the oldest vineyard in South America—where all the pleasure of Peru promised to converge.

We pulled up to an iron gate, which opened to a long, broad drive lined with towering trees hung with vibrant streamers and thick braids of paper chains that brightened their boughs. The vineyard was a cacophony of colors after the monotone of the desert, in perfect harmony with the hues of the flowers, and the buildings showcased what had always enchanted me about Peruvian architecture with its openness to the sky and landscape and its evident intention to align itself with the arc of the sun.

It would be a bit before the wine tour would begin, so I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of sparkling Rosa Salvaje. It was beautiful wine, a refreshing, not-too-sweet mix of Petit Verdol and Sauvignon Blanc. As I sipped leisurely, the bartenders squeezed limes and shook Pisco Sours with impressive heads of foam for my neighbors a barstool down, who, like me, were settling into the relaxed vibes of people lucky enough to be holding stemware mid-day.

I'd just set my empty glass down when the tour began, taking fifty of us past bright coral halls to an enormous vat room, with gigantic shiny-silver containers, where the guide described the technology improvements with pride, proclaiming that the vineyard once had a reputation for "great" Pisco, but now made Pisco that was perfection.

The vineyard had started out as a monastery. It began growing grapes in order to have communion wine without having to trade with their Spanish colonizers. The further we wound into the heart of Tacama, the more pieces and architecture nodded to this sacred origin. Light streamed into the galley through the stunning rose windows and from my vantage point next to the seventy-five-liter kegs I could see past rounded archways and into the monastery, through the open doors of the St. Maria chapel. It was easy to picture the monks gathering there as they would have done for centuries, to offer solemn prayers and small toasts at the altar.

Amidst these surroundings, it seemed only natural that the first miracle of Christ would be to make the most extraordinary wine that had ever been—an act that prolonged and extended a celebration of life. Here, it was a miracle of the highest order, and natural that his followers would strive to follow in his footsteps in becoming the best winemakers on the continent. Throughout Peru, I found this innate blending of religion and pleasure, sacred and sensual.

The tasting room was next, with light flooding in from the skylights in the ceiling far above our heads. The group gathered around the three tables while our guide spoke of the first wine, ‘The Blanco de Blanco. It was cool and thick, with just enough sweetness to round out the tone. Next was a very sweet red, and then a dry red that had after-tones of smoked meats, and then a shot of the famed Pisco, which lived up to the guide’s boastings of perfection.

It was my first time drinking Pisco without a mixer. I was instructed to breathe in as I sipped, then hold it at the back of my tongue, and breathe out slowly over my tastebuds after I swallowed. It was smooth and pleasing, similar to a top-shelf sipping whiskey, yet without the burn at the back of the throat, and perfect clarity. My limbs felt pleasantly warmed and heavy.

The happy group meandered back to the patio, where the tour concluded. A green lawn sprawled and stretched before the restaurant, scattered with chaise lounges and shaded tables made from kegs tipped on their ends. On the other side were neat rows of thick vines already heavy with grapes, extending out to a vanishing point before the mountains. 

I settled at a table and ordered Sopa Seca, a dish famous to this area of the country. They brought out rolls cooked in garlic, herbs, and butter with my main course—tender chicken cooked in a rich, sweet-savory sauce with legumes, spiced with coriander, basil, and cumin, served aside a bed of angel hair pasta. It, too, was perfection.

While I ate, a Peruvian woman with coquettish eyes danced barefoot across the grass. It was the traditional dance of the Marinera, which I’d seen performed before, but this time, the woman’s partner was a horse and the man astride the horse. The creature bowed gallantly and snorted, circling her with mincing steps, tossing his mane while she twirled her white skirts deftly and danced laughingly away. The man atop the horse lifted his hat to her beauty in hopeful salute, yet she only smiled and spun, enjoying her mesmerizing, siren-like attraction as she held us all spellbound with her movements.

This was Peru. 

Everything I loved about the country, and would take with me when I was gone was right here—her tastes and colors, the music and embracing of pleasure. Time was pleasantly slowed as I lingered and drank deeply of the moment, happy to share in the good company of those who knew well how to savor life...and the best Pisco in South America.

To you—
May your days be filled with pleasure.
May your wine be ever blessed.
Salute.

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