Ica: Wine, Pisco, and One Bad Grape

Ica, Peru is a small-ish town about 4-6 hours south of Lima, making it a popular weekend getaway from the city. The climate is dry and desert-like, and it’s perhaps best known for its wine and pisco Bodegas outside of town. Ica is Peru’s primary wine and pisco producing region, and we were excited to both check out the local wine culture and taste the national beverages!

We splurged on our hotel and booked Villa Jazmin (pronounced: veeya yasmeen), a cute boutique hotel in a gated community just outside of town. Our room had an amazingly comfortable king-sized bed, modern furnishings, and a private balcony. It even included a welcome Pisco Sour that we enjoyed next to one of the two pools. Compared to the last few weeks this was top-tier luxury!

We spent our first morning in Ica lounging by the pool, enjoying the desert sun and smog-free air. By the afternoon we decided it was time to check out our first winery and asked the front desk to call us a taxi. A half hour ride over bumpy dirt roads brought us to the impressive Bodega Tacama.

 

Tacama winery and pisco
Tacama winery and pisco

The winery was remarkably uncrowded for a Sunday afternoon (quite a contrast from Sonoma!) and we ended up getting a private tour. Tacama is one of the larger and more modern bodegas in Peru. It’s also one of the oldest, and even has an old monastery within it’s walls. The vineyards were expansive, and we would have had a great view from one of the towers, if not for the strong wind that was stirring up massive clouds of dust. We snapped a few photos then quickly headed inside to the building where the wine and Pisco are fermented.

Pisco still
Pisco still

Here, we checked out their oversized wine barrels, an array of winemaking equipment from over the years, and got to see the Pisco distillery in operation.

Bell tower of Tacama Vineyards
Bell tower of Tacama Vineyards

Our tour finished with a tasting of 7 different wines and piscos. We were surprised to find that the wines varied from sweet to sweeter. Apparently for Peruvians wine is not meant to be paired with dinner — it’s an aperitif with high sugar levels. We also sampled a couple piscos and were impressed by the nuances. It was smooth (with a kick!) and the characteristics of it reminded Kyle of a floral blanco tequila. Needless to say we ended up going home with a few bottles!

Huacachina oasis
Huacachina oasis

Day two we headed out to Huacaccina, the much touted “desert oasis” of Peru. Since the wind from the day before never died down we were greeted by a hazy, dust-filled town with mostly deserted sidewalks. Still, we tried to make the best of it and went out for a sandboarding excursion in the surrounding dunes.

Kim enjoying the sand
Kim enjoying the sand

The vastness of the dunes was an impressive site; once the town disappeared behind the first dune it was nothing but sand as far as we could see. Sandboarding itself was a bit of a letdown though — the boards were meant mostly for laying on sledding-style, and when we did convince our guide to let us give it a go standing up it was pretty anticlimactic. I’d compare it to very, very slow snowboarding…while being pelted in the face with blowing sand.

Wine barrels before wood was abundant down here
Wine barrels before wood was abundant down here

For our last full day in Ica it was back to wine — we opted this time to check out one of the smaller “artesianal” bodegas that still uses traditional methods for wine and pisco making. Ica has a significant number of these small bodegas, though most don’t have the infrastructure set up to handle visitors, and aren’t exactly known for quality — very different from the small family vineyards that we love in California.

Original still, wood fired and water cooled...
Original still, wood fired and water cooled…

Our visit to El Catador was structured much like Tacama with a tour followed by free tasting. The tour here was much shorter, but it was cool to see the more traditional wine and pisco making setup. In the back behind the tasting room workers were in the process of stomping grapes in massive concrete holes with their bare feet. We learned that here (and supposedly at a lot of the other small bodegas) they use a different winemaking process than we’re used to. Since pisco is the primary product and wine is somewhat of an afterthought, rather than age and ferment the wine as it’s own product they actually distill most of the grapes down to pisco that is then added to grape juice to make their wine.

It was here that we also had our first major food slip-up on the trip: we ate a grape.

 

I know, it sounds innocent enough, and really we should have known better. We had been warned before not to eat any fruit in South America without first peeling it. However, when we were on our tour and the guide gave us each a wine grape to taste instructing us to just wipe it off on our shirt first, we couldn’t resist. After all, it was one tiny grape and as wine lovers we were curious! A few hours later we realized the mistake we made, and paid for it over the next Cipro-filled week. On the upside, I think we both lost about 10 pounds…

 

Getting There

 

The bus to Ica was only about 6 hours — a quick jaunt compared to our last bus adventure! Not knowing what the neighborhood around the bus station will be like, and carrying all of our stuff, we usually try to arrive in a new city during daylight, but sometimes traffic messes with that plan. This was one of those times. Luckily we managed to find a cab driver that knew Villa Jazmin and agreed to take us for a reasonable 7 pesos (~$3).

 

Speaking of cabs…Ica has two types: tiny yellow cars with no trunk and tinier 3-wheeled tuk-tuks. We opted for the former and somehow managed to squeeze ourselves and our bags into the dust-coated back seat, clown-car style. If either of us had a regular-sized suitcase there would have been no hope.

 

Stay

 

Villa Jazmin
Villa Jazmin

The town of Ica itself isn’t very impressive – the garbage-strewn streets are dusty and crowded with tuk-tuks and tiny shops. There are some budget hostels and hotels, but I’d recommend following suit of vacationing locals and booking one of the boutique hotels in a gated community just out of town.

We loved our stay at Villa Jazmin. With it’s modern rooms, pools, bar and delicious on-site restaurant it felt like a true vacation. And for a fraction of the price of a similar hotel in the US! We also spent a night at La Angostura, another small hotel in the same neighborhood on a quick stopover between busses after Manchu Picchu. The pool was smaller and less suited for lounging, but our free upgrade to a Junior Suite and the lower price tag more than made up for it.

 

See / Do

 

In spite of the Cipro-filled aftermath, I’d still recommend anyone visiting Ica to check out the nearby Bodegas, especially Tacama. It’s a really interesting contrast to the wine culture and style of the US, and we learned a lot on the free tour and tasting. Just make sure you pass on any unwashed grapes!

 

Eat

 

The food at our hotel was so good that we never ventured all the way back into Ica to try the options there. We did get to try a few Peruvian dishes though — one of our favorites being Pollo Gallina, a shredded chicken and rice dish with a yellow curry-like paste sauce.

 

Drink

 

If you like sweet wines, Peru is your place! Many of the wines we had reminded me of Finger Lakes wine — even the semi-seco (semi-dry) varietals were fruity and sweet. We bought a bottle of Rose de la Vina, a 2013 semi-seco from Tacama.

 

Our favorite Pisco
Our favorite Pisco

Given the significance of the Pisco industry to Ica, it’s almost impossible to leave without trying some. I’d recommend trying it straight from one of the Bodegas if possible so you can sip and compare the different styles. We both preferred the sweeter, more floral blends styles as they were a bit less harsh to our inexperienced pisco palettes.

 

If you (like us) have never had pisco outside of the popular Pisco Sour, there are some rules you should follow to make sure it goes down easy. First — don’t try to take it like a shot! A good glass of pisco should be sipped like a fine bourbon. When you’re drinking it, take a small sip into your mouth, then exhale before swallowing. This will make it much smoother on it’s way down!

 

Lessons & Tips

 

  • Wineries in Ica are very spread out. It’s easy (and fairly cheap) to access the main ones via cab, but if you want to try to hit multiples in one day you’ll need to either book a (more expensive) tour or negotiate a day rate for a cab. We’d recommend leaving at least a couple hours per winery.
  • Don’t mess with the fruit in Peru. Seriously, if you don’t want to take the time to peel it, then just pass. It’s not worth the risk. Trust us.
Current Location: Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
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One thought on “Ica: Wine, Pisco, and One Bad Grape

  1. Nancy Callender

    The wines sound like my kind of wine – sweet to sweeter! The sand storms would not be my thing! Sorry about the fruit – as you say you wouldn’t think one little grape could be so bad. Another great post!

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