Warmest how dos from Peru, where, by the grace of pachamama, I'm currently stationed to make my tenth TFWATH wine: Quebranta 2023.
This time I'm working alongside Pepe Moquillaza - Don Pepe - producer of one of the finest Pisco in Peru, and more recently a pioneering natural winemaker. That's Pepe in the bell tower below...
Don Pepe in the tower of Bodega Tacama - site of the oldest vineyard in Peru
The first thing people tend to say when I tell them I'm making wine in Peru is: 'Do they make wine in Peru?'
Yes they do. But it's complicated.
These days, Peru is Pisco country, and most of the grapes cultivated here are used to produce Pisco, or to sell as table grapes.
There are a dozen or so commercial wineries, but almost all of them are industrial behemoths making supermarket wine from international grape varieties. Typically Bordeaux blends. They seem to like Petit Verdot a lot.
Pepe Moquillaza is doing something different, and to me something far more interesting. He makes natural wine using criolla grape varieties - grapes like my right-beloved país (in Peru: negra criolla) which were brought over to the Americas by the Spanish from the 1500s and have since evolved, effectively, into 'new' varieties with their own particular characteristics.
Peru's winemaking history actually pre-dates Pisco - it was well established by the mid-1500s. But it is an interrupted history. In 1600, the eruption of the Huayaputina volcano - the biggest volcanic eruption in modern times in South America - devastated southern regions of Peru.
Then, in the early 1600s, problems with the Spanish crown led to a decree from King Felipe III of Spain prohibiting the shipment of Peruvian wine via Panama, Guatemala and Mexico. This de facto ban on wine exports led Peruvian winemakers to focus instead on distillation - Pisco.
When the prohibition was lifted, there was a resurgence of winemaking and in the 18th century Peru produced more wine than any other country in the Americas.
Then came the Pacific War with Chile. The war began in 1879. Peru lost and was occupied in 1882. The Chileans gave the hacienda owners in the south of Peru an ultimatum: pay a tax or see your property burn... there were huge losses across the south of Peru and winemaking began its slow decline.
Thus much of Peru's winemaking heritage has been lost.
But some important vestiges remain. Thanks to Pisco, the criolla grape originally used to make wine in Peru still exist. In fact more and more supposedly lost varieties are now being re-discovered - thanks to people like Don Pepe.
By finding these old varieties and the pockets of old vines which have survived, Pepe is trying to bring Peru's true wine identity - the one that existed before the sub-optimal Bordeaux blends - back.
Chilean occupation of Lima in 1881
If you walk down the street with Pepe, in Ica, or in the trendy bits of Lima where all the good restaurants are, the likelihood is that you'll be stopped, more than once, so this friend or that can say hello. Here Pepe is a face. A known guy.
A lot of that comes from the success of his Piscos. He makes one called Inquebrantable - produced in tiny batches of little more than 1,000 bottles and aged for 10 years before release - which is listed in some of the best restaurants in the world. But beyond that, he is also one of the most gregarious and big-hearted men alive.
Pepe has the social butterfly energy of an 20-year-old (at the time of writing he's 56). Owners of any decent restaurant or bar in Peru know his name. His networking, his travelling, his many projects, collaborations, consultancies, his Instagramming, are fairly breath-taking.
He lightens the mood wherever he goes. He loves his family, he loves wine, he loves Pisco and he loves Peru.
Me and Pepe in the distillery at Quilloay in 2022
There's one grape variety which matters more to Pepe than any other. It's called quebranta. This natural crossing of negra criolla (aka país) and mollar (aka negramoll) is unique to Peru and has long been associated with Pisco. Pepe's Inquebrantable Pisco (which you'll find in three Michelin-starred restaurants like Celler de Can Roca), is made from pure quebranta.
But you will struggle to find any 100% quebranta wine. Even in Peru. The big wineries don't have any faith in it. There's an analogue here with país in Chile - which until very recently was dismissed as a 'peasant' grape, unfit for good wine (NB: my país and those of my compañeros, Roberto Henríquez and Ignacio Pino Román now sell in some rather good venues).
For Pepe, quebranta is symbolic of the wine heritage of his homeland. It has survived and adapted through wars and natural disasters and is something uniquely Peruvian. And so, it felt only right that the TFWATH wine I would make with Pepe this year would be a barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hee hee. Don't be ridiculous.
The location: Hacienda Quilloay in the San Juan Bautista district of the Ica Valley. Ica is one of the southern valleys of Peru - the only part of the country where grape-growing is possible, the rest being high mountains or jungle.
The southern part of Peru is basically desert - a strip of sand dunes, with the pre-Andes mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, intersected by 50-odd rivers bringing water from the Andes, which make this otherwise dusty, arid land fertile and cultivable.
You turn off the drab interminable Pan-American Highway and drive into the barren, featureless dunes for a bit, then suddenly a lush, green valley opens to view, like some long-promised El Dorado. That's how it usually works.
Hacienda Quilloay, built in 1633, partially destroyed by an earthquake in 2007
Quilloay is an old Jesuit property dating from 1633. It is the oldest recorded hacienda in Peru. Tragically, most of it was destroyed in the 2007 Peru earthquake. Where the grand old manor house once stood, there's now just a couple of toilets, and a paved foundation where the dogs sleep, and where, during this year's harvest, we sat together to eat and drink.
There are still a few buildings standing on the property, and about 2ha of land with small patches of vines. There's also a distillery with a beautiful swan-necked copper alembic, and the remains of a system of concrete fermentation tanks... cracked and ruined by the earthquake tremors but still a rare and impressive sight - like something from Tatooine in Star Wars.
Pepe with the Quilloay distillery's cement tanks
Pepe calls Quilloay his 'wine lab'. This is where he makes wines the like of which Peru has never seen. Crazy, anarchic, totally natural wines with extremely long skin maceration, sometimes with flor ageing. Most of them are very wild. Some of them are enchanting. Each is totally unique.
He also makes and ages Pisco, mistela (wine fortified with Pisco before it finishes fermentation) and brandy here. I tasted one brandy that had been in barrel for three years and it was beautiful. Lord knows what he could do if he had the capacity to age it for a few years longer.
Most of the crazy long skin-contact wines - all made with criolla grape varieties: negra criolla, quebranta, italia (aka moscatel), torontel... - are from his collaboration with the Argentinian winemaker Matías Michelini. They are bottled under the MiMo label.
So this is Quilloay. This is where Pepe and I have made our Quebranta.
An inauspicious start
The harvest: apart from the grape delivery truck falling down a hole, it went very smoothly. Hot, sweaty work, but remarkably smooth. Even the ropey-looking destemmer, which turned up to the hacienda hanging out of the back of a clapped out Daihatsu mini taxi, and whose motor had to be started with a piece of rope, worked like a dream.
Peru is not the Côte d'Or. It is not Marlborough NZ or the Napa Valley. Things work differently here. Particularly if you're making the kind of wine I'm making. But it does work. You have to abandon your preconceptions, your protocols, your concerns about basic health and safety. But when you do that, and the sweat is pouring from your brow, and the Chilcanos are flowing - it's pretty fanfuckingtastic.
Unloading the truck at 45 degrees . It was eventually rescued from the hole it fell down.
The destemmer arrives...
...and works a treat
The wine: Pepe and I are making our quebranta in a long skin-maceration style (long for me, not so for Pepe, who has been known to leave his wine on skins for two years).
We destemmed the pinkish-purple grapes - some bunches speckled with green, yet ripe, berries - in the Mad Max destemmer, then transferred them to a 2,000l plastic tank. We let ambient yeasts dictate the fermentation, which lasted just over a week. Then the tank was sealed - wine and skins together.
The wine will stay like that for about 60 days. Then the contents will be pressed and the issuing wine will be transferred to another tank to age for a few months more.
Stan checking on the ferment
Katrina foot-stomping MiMo 2023. Katrina makes her own natural wines in California under a label called Social Creatures. She likes high-acid chenin.
The grape: quebranta is a pink-skinned grape, delicate in flavour, floral, with notes of violets and red and blue fruits. After extended maceration, especially when from the sandy soils around Ica, it will become more saline, the fruit more savoury. It's a step into the unknown for me, but the wines I have tried from Pepe that have been made in the same way have been so weird and wonderful that it had to be done.
Let's see what happens.
That's the story so far. TFWATH Quebranta 2023: a unique wine from a unique Peruvian grape variety. All being well, it'll be in the UK towards the end of 2023. Maybe early 2024. I'll be taking pre-arrival orders from late summer onwards.
Le meilleur equipe - Quilloay harvest team (L-R): Nacho, Dean, Stan, Katrina, Pepe, me and Rahul
And don't, I prithee, forget that you can now buy TFWATH wines, and the wines of TFWATH Imports (Ignacio Pino Román and Strange Grapes in Itata, Chile; Gaioz Sopromadze in Imereti Georgia) on this very website. You keep buyin em, I'll keep makin em. And importing 'em'. You'll also find more harvest diaries, articles (including my most recent feature for Decanter about effusively talented winemakers from Catalonia) and what have you.
Thanks for your interest in what I'm up to. More updates to come in due course (eg, bottling of TFWATH País 2022 and TFWATH Palomino 2022).
Keep it weird, keep it wonderful.