While South America’s wine production is dominated by the bigger countries in the leggy Southern Cone of the continent, it was actually in the middle – in Peru – where wine production started. When the Spanish conquered the great Incan empire, they brought their diseases, women and wines with them. The diseases wiped out the natives, the women helped bear their future generations, and the blessed wines sanctified their questionable actions.
It was up in the heights of Cusco, the very epicentre of the Incan empire best known for Machu Picchu, where they planted their first vines in the 1540s. But the high altitude hills soon turned out to be too laborious a location for the sea-dwelling Spaniards, and the vines were moved further downhill towards the coast in the region of Ica – which is today the wine capital of the country.
Originally planted with typical criolla vines to make wine for the Catholic mass, wine production soon took hold of Peru and locals began enjoying the nectar outside of the church as well. At one stage Peruvian wine became so popular it was exported to Bolivia to meet the rising demand for alcohol in the booming industry city of Potosi, often referred to as the ‘Paris of South America’ at that time.
Peru’s wine boom was short-lived however, as the Spanish crown grew jealous of its growing reputation and increasingly more powerful industry and banned wine production in favour of importing their own wine from Spain. Many producers bargained a deal with the crown: to use their vines to make a local aguardiente instead, and so the national brandy, Pisco, was born. Other producers switched their crop for something else. And some more rebellious producers just plain ignored the crown, and kept making wine on the sly.
While wine production continued in much smaller numbers, the majority of it was quashed – seriously damaging the wine culture to boot. The upheaval of the ban decades later was of little relief though to a warring Peru, which was in the midst of independence wars. A severe earthquake in 1687 (sadly to be repeated in 2007) didn’t help matters either, and the wine city of Ica came to its knees in a pile of rubble.
The wine industry took respite and went rather quiet for a couple of centuries in the middle. Although wine production never entirely stopped, Peru began to import wine from Chile next door to fill the shortfall. As the economy strengthened so did local drinking habits, and soon Peru was importing wine from all over the globe.
That doesn’t mean Peruvian wine is still losing ground to international producers, Peruvian wine is in fact a growing industry – by some five to ten percent each year. The road to recovery has been partly paved by the government’s investment in the Pisco industry. An initiative to reclaim Pisco as the national spirit and to make it renowned around the world has made vines more lucrative again, and given wine producers some spare cash to invest in wine production.
Larger wineries are usually married to a Pisco brand, and even small producers usually manage both disciplines. While Pisco still uses the lion’s share of wine produced from the vineyards, the wines that make it to the bottle are a testimony to Peru’s resilience and its worthy attempts to regain its place as South America’s first wine empire.