The Rebirth of Wine in Peru’s Andes

By Nico Vera

This story first appeared in Vol 5. of Whetstone, Winter 2019

Apu Winery, Peru's Andes

Apu Winery, Peru’s Andes

It’s been over 400 years since anyone has attempted to grow grape vines near Cuzco, but that didn’t stop pioneering winemaker Fernando Gonzales-Lattini from trying. In Curahuasi, at 10,000 ft. above sea level, indigenous farmers plant traditional crops such as potatoes or corn, and they pay reverence to apus, the sacred mountain spirits that protect their harvests. Seven years ago, in this ancestral land, Gonzales-Lattini began to build Apu Winery by hand. After surviving the rainy season fungus, a devastating fire, and a bird plague, the vineyard’s first vintage in 2017 yielded a small craft batch of only 150 bottles, including Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese. But that was enough to gain recognition from the country’s best sommeliers and to mark the rebirth of wine in Peru’s Andes Mountains.

Sommeliers Greg Smith and Joseph-Ruiz Acosta visited Apu Winery in search of a high elevation wine to serve at Central, a restaurant in Lima that is among the world’s top ten. Central’s tasting menu takes diners on a journey across Peru’s vertical ecology—from the coast, across the Andes Mountains, and into the Amazon jungle. Foraged ingredients from different elevations define each dish’s landscape, and a high elevation wine would complement ingredients from the Andes Mountains. At Apu Winery, the sommeliers found perfect conditions for winemaking, vines growing on limestone and clay soil that are exposed to warm sunny days, between 25-35°C, and cool nights, between 4-10°C, resulting in a minimal thermal amplitude of 20°C. After tasting layers of aromas, better fruit flavor, more minerality, and higher acidity than wines from Peru’s coast, the sommeliers bought the entire 2017 Sauvignon Blanc harvest.

In March 2018, I took Mom and Dad to Central for lunch, and became intrigued by the high elevation wine from Peru on their wine list. I’d visited wineries and pisco distilleries in the Ica Valley and thought all wine was produced there, on Peru’s coastal region 200 miles south of Lima. It didn’t seem possible to cultivate vines at 10,000 ft. elevation, much less on the slopes of rugged mountains. I wanted to find out how they did it, and what factors made their wine so special. To do that I had to visit the winery. So I reached out to Apu Winery in June, told them I was planning a December trip to see family in Lima, and asked if it was possible to visit the winery from Cusco. Several emails and six months later, I found myself on a two-hour taxi ride from Cusco to Curahuasi, a small impoverished town in the Andes Mountains.

For centuries, farmers in the Andes Mountains have grown native crops such as potatoes and corn, the later which is fermented to make chicha, a primordial beer used by the Incas for religious ceremonies and as tribute to Pachamama, Mother Earth. So a vineyard may seem out of place here, but locals in Curahuasi believe that a nearby hacienda produced wine in the mid 1500’s. And that would make the mountains, not the coast, the birthplace of wine in Peru.

My taxi arrives in Curahuasi around Noon, and Meg McFarland, the winemaker’s wife and business partner at Apu Winery, picks me up in their 2014 4WD Subaru Outback. “You came on a good day,” she says, “our enologist Guillermo is arriving this afternoon to taste our latest harvest.” We drive up an unmarked dirt road that leads to their house and the adjacent vineyards. As soon as I step out of the car, I am enthralled by the lush valley below and the majestic snow capped mountains surrounding it. I was born in Lima, on the coast, but spent my childhood in the Andes, and that’s were my heart lives, in the mountains. This feels like home.

McFarland welcomes me into their house, a large fireplace divides the panoramic windows overlooking the valley; long ornate ceremonial candles hang from roof beams above the dining table near the entrance; hammocks, two small wine barrels, and a grape press are on the opposite end. We make our way into the kitchen where she is preparing a four-cheese risotto, a recipe from her husband’s former restaurant in Lima. They used to live in Peru’s capital, but have made the winery and Curahuasi their home, and their two young children attend school here. Winemaker Gonzales-Lattini arrives just in time for lunch and he pours me a glass of their 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, unaged, unfiltered, and with well balanced acidity, it pairs well with the risotto. We toast, “¡salud!” and begin talking about his winery project. I want to know everything.

“There was nothing here before,” begins Gonzales-Lattini, “and I searched for years to find the right slope, the right soil.” Everything, from carving the road up the hill, to building their solar-powered off the grid home, clearing the land for the vines, and installing an irrigation system, was done by hand. I am reminded of the three laws of the Incas that my grandfather taught me in Quechua: Ama Sua, Ama Llulla, Ama Quella—don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy; or the later in the affirmative: work hard. The hard work of our ancestors built an empire, built Cusco, built Macchu Picchu. The hard work of a winemaker’s hands built this home, this winery.

After lunch, Gonzales-Lattini gives me a straw hat for protection from the sun and takes me on a walking tour of the vineyards surrounding their home. Their two rescue dogs follow us and run up and down the empty rows of vines in one of the highest wineries in the world. He tells me they first followed the typical southern hemisphere cycle. “All wineries in Peru, in South America, prune in August and harvest in March.” But December rains brought a fungus, known as la rancha, which destroyed their first harvest. So they adapted to the seasons and now follow a northern hemisphere cycle, pruning in January and harvesting in October, which avoids the rain. “This year, some vines were damaged by hail,” he adds, pointing to a row of thin vines.

But two more obstacles delayed their first harvest. In 2013, a fire caused by a careless neighbor devastated the vineyards, and in an apparent Quixotic quest, Gonzales-Lattini persisted and planted new vines. Then, a plague of birds, attracted by the sweet maturing grapes, ravaged almost half of their crop. Now, they cover the vines with screens to protect them from the birds. Finally, after six years, Apu Winery produced its first vintage in 2017.

Gonzales-Lattini shows me a newly cleared plot of land, “Pinot Noir, Peru’s first Pinot Noir is going to grow here.” I notice that in this part of the vineyard, the hillside is carved into steps. Many mountains in the valleys and sierras of the Andes have these steps, remnants of the terrace farming the Inca agricultural engineers implemented to control drainage and prevent mud slides. Apu Winery is not just making wine here, they are reviving ancestral traditions.

Guillermo Arancibia arrives and we sit at the dinner table. He is here to taste their new harvest Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and to make recommendations for each varietal. How do they compare to last year’s harvest? More acidic? More rounded? Do they need to be aged? Arancibia swirls a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and brings it up to his nose, while Gonzales-Lattini opens a red notebook and reads brix levels from 2017. I sit, watch, and listen.

“It’s yellow and gold, with a passion fruit aroma, very tropical, I also taste mint and eucalyptus, typical of the terroir in the Andes Mountains, it’s well rounded, distinctly Peruvian,” remarks Arancibia about the Sauvignon Blanc. The Cabernet Sauvignon is next. “Dark red, and fruit forward, cherry, and roasted coffee beans, I feel that I am biting into the red fruit, giving it good structure, it has good body but it’s young, it needs to be aged, or,” he pauses, “blended.” Arancabia’s analysis opens a new possibility for Apu Winery, a red blend. Immediately, Gonzales-Lattini brings out some Sangiovese and blends 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Sangiovese. We all taste it and brainstorm names for what might be their first red blend.

After Gonzales-Lattini finishes making notes on his red notebook, I can’t resist asking both wine experts about the origin of grapes in Peru. We agree that Spain’s foodways introduced grapes to the New World four centuries ago, but what was the very first grape in Peru? Arancibia confirms what I had read during my research—DNA tests show that Peru’s first grape is the Negra Criolla varietal. Used for making pisco, the Negra Criolla is in fact the local name for the Listan Prieto varietal that arrived from Spain’s Canary Islands.

The conversation moves back to the recent harvest, and I ask Gonzales-Lattini about his wine making process. “It’s very traditional, we work by hand, wait for the vines to ripen, then crush the grapes, and let them ferment after adding yeast.” After pressing, he lets the wine rest, then filters it before bottling, or in the case of their red wines, it’s aged in small oak barrels. This year’s harvest will yield about 100 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, 50 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 100 bottles of Sangiovese. “Our goal is to make more wine each year, and new varietals too,” he adds. To accomplish that, Apu Winery is expanding by four hectares in 2019.

As the sun is setting, I bid Gonzales-Lattini and Arancibia farewell, or as we say in Peru, “hasta la proxima,” until next time. McFarland drives me down the hill back to Curahuasi, and I ask her about the winery’s future plans. “We hope to train the local farmers to grow grapes so they can supplement their traditional crops and make long term investments in their futures,” she explains. The winery will then buy the grapes from the farmers to make wine. Apu Winery is not only in the business of producing wine, they are also giving back to this impoverished community. And their plan could significantly improve Curahuasi’s agricultural economy, one that is often at risk from its strong dependance on just a few crops, such as potatoes and corn.

The town is quiet, but we find a taxi to take me back to Cusco. “Drive carefully please,” McFarland instructs the driver, who picks up one more passenger before we leave. Nightfall hides the road’s sharp turns and precipices, but I can still see the silhouette of the mountains surrounding the valley, and I can feel the apus protecting us beneath the starry sky.

In many ways, Apu Winery is the opposite of the wineries I’ve visited in Napa, Sonoma, or Willamette Valley that welcome visitors with their manicured lawns, neat rows of vines, paved roads, pristine tasting rooms, souvenirs, and large oak barrels on display. Yet the wine here offers something no one else can—a profound connection to the terroir of the Andes. A true sense of place that few can ever achieve, specially at this elevation. Over the next two hours, all I think about is returning for Apu Winery’s harvest, and coming back home to the mountains.