February and March mark the season for saluting pisco, Peru’s national drink. It all begins February 2 with International Pisco Day and continues with Ica’s Festival de la Vendimia and nearby Huacachina’s Festival de la Sirena.
The grape harvest is coming in, and the Vendimia Queen is making the rounds of Ica’s wineries to stomp huge vats of the fruit. (The day before our tour visited El Catador, she had done a stint there.) Large clay urns hold the fermenting juice until it is time to pour it all into massive copper stills over huarango wood fires. The resultant pisco drips forth, and after aging, is poured into glasses for our enjoyment.
In this harvest season, pisco isn’t the only drink available. Many of the bodegas also produce wines, including perfecto amor, a perfectly lovely mix of young wine and pisco – and which packs quite a punch. (You’ll feel fine sitting down while enjoying a few glasses of it, but watch it when it comes time to stand up!) Also available only during March is cachina, a very young wine fermented for only seven days to two months. Be forewarned that this also can knock you for a loop.
Tours to one of Ica’s more than 80 wineries teach all the steps that go into making this prized national liquor and offer free samples of it. Most of the bodegas are small, family-run operations, like Lovera, Mendoza and El Catador. Tacama, one of Peru’s largest pisco producers, is also near Ica.
A fantastic place to visit is Museo Lazo. This is not only a small pisco winery, but also a museum filled all sorts of oddities related (and not-so-related) to the fruits of the vine (Camino Reyes 150, Salas. Tel: 403-430, URL: www.bodegalazo.com).
Tours of Ica’s wineries often also include a stop at Cachiche, a neighborhood that for centuries has been known for its witches and healers, and to a bewitched, seven-crowned date palm.
Ica is just one of the five regions in the country’s new Ruta Integrada de Pisco, a tourism route embracing over 200 pisco bodegas in Lima, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna departments. Peruvians debate where the best liquor comes from, but one thing is assured: each town has its own twist on pisco cocktails. The most famous is the Pisco Sour, but while journeying through Peru, be sure to also try the Tacna Sour in that city, or the Machu Picchu and Bandera Mokewana in Moquegua. Salud!