The Ica region is Peru’s leading grower of grapes, with the area around the city of Ica itself being the epicenter. Pisco, a sweet aromatic grape brandy is produced here, as well as wine, and is said to have originated in the area four hundred years ago, although the people of Chile dispute that claim. The area benefits from the cold Pacific similar to that of Napa Valley. Local wines are sold at stalls along the Pan American Highway and most of the bodegas aren’t but a short distance and welcome visitors, as do those in Chincha to the north where you will find Vinas de Oro and Pisco Portón. Much of the pisco and wine is still made in traditional presses and aged in clay casks. Most degustations are free, although a small tip or purchase is expected.
Perhaps the biggest name in Peruvian wine, the Tacama vineyard, founded in 1885, is also perhaps the largest in size at 445 acres and the most sophisticated. Professional well informed guides offer tours of the colonial style hacienda that sits at the foot of the Andes. They lead you inside the bottling plant where you can see the many vats, lab, and the entire creation that eventually ships the dozens of vintages such as Grant Tinto, Semi Seco, and Blanco de Blancos across the globe. The vineyard uses French advisors that frequent Tacama and use the latest in European technology. An interesting note is that during part of the year the vineyards are irrigated by the Incan built Achirama Canal. Three types of Pisco (Puro, Demonio de los Andes, and Pisco de Ica) are also made here, as well as several champagnes. Tacama welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day.
Ocucaje (Panamericana Sur km 335.5) is another of Peru’s more sophisticated, established producers of wine and a long line of piscos is located about 35 km south of Ica. The 16th Century Vineyard also makes Fond de Cave, a locally famous and unique blend of Cabernet and Malbec. Winery tours last one hour and cost $3. You can get to the winery via taxi from Ica for $8 each way or via a tour.
Bodegas Lazo, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Tacama and Ocucaje. This bodega is more typical of Peru, more of an artisan operation, very rustic, hardly classy, but unbelievably interesting. Grapes are still stomped by feet and pressed in an almost ancient wooden press. The wine and pisco is stored in torpedo shaped clay vessels and tastes are extracted via a long bamboo stick with a shot glass sized notch in it. The storage area is also part museum with many pre-Hispanic artifacts (don’t miss the glass case with the mummified human heads), such as jewelry, textiles, oil paintings, chests, statues, and a dusty clutter of just about anything else you could imagine.
Bodega El Catador, uses similar techniques. They give short tours, tastings, and explain their own production process. They have a shop selling their wines, piscos, and other handicrafts associated with wine making. Most evenings the restaurants and bar have dancing and music, not to mention a chance to do more sampling. El Catador is a lively spot for the harvest festival.
In the district of La Tinguina, Bodega Vista Allegra, founded in 1857 by the Picasso family, blends modern equipment with old-fashioned remnants and has one of the largest wine cellars in Peru. Relaxed tours are given from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. In the district of Guadalupe, 3 km north of Ica, several small bodegas (Pena, Lovera, and El Carmel) aren’t much to look at, but worth going for the tastings alone if you have the time.
The Fiesta de la Vendima, or harvest festival, is the largest festival in the Ica region and tourist from Lima fill up the hotels which more than double their prices. Be sure to reserve well in advance. The festival is held at Campo Feriado, has a small entrance fee, and is held during the first half of March. On hand is free flowing wine and Pisco, horseshows, processions, music, dancing to the Afro-Peruvian festejo, arts, craft fairs, and cockfights. Of particular interest is the Queen of the festival beauty pageant. The elected queen is the first to tread the grapes in a vat while a crowd of onlookers cheer. Smaller celebrations are also held at many of the bodegas.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.