A Grape Peru Can Call its Own

“I have a devotion to the quebranta grape, in wines and piscos,” says distiller and winemaker José Pepe Moquillaza to me, as we drive south on the Pan-American Highway from Lima, Peru.

With these grapes Moquillaza and Quintana are trying to create the first truly exceptional wine from quebranta grapes.

We’re riding in a pickup truck with one of his partners, Camilo Quintana, a farmer whose vineyards Moquillaza buys grapes from. We turn off at Cerro Azul, where the Beach Boys once sang about in “Surfin’ Safari.” Instead of driving towards the beach we turn inland a few kilometers to the town of Ihuanco, which is less of a town than a collection of small plots of land.

We drive around sand dune after sand dune, some of which reach a few hundred feet high. Eventually we reach a clearing. Just a flat lot really. There’s a pile of quinoa flowers drying in the sun where we step out. Everything around us is brown sand and blue sky, but I can just spot some patches of green vines not far away that are crawling up the dunes. With these grapes Moquillaza and Quintana are trying to create the first truly exceptional wine from Quebranta grapes. Grapes that can make a uniquely Peruvian wine.

Quebranta is Peru’s only indigenous vinifera variety. Some insist it is a mutation, but DNA testing reveal it is a unique grape that was the result of the cross of mollar and negra criolla (aka país or negra Peruana) grapes, which were brought by the Spanish, sometime in the sixteenth century.

“One had nice flavor, the other grew better, so they were fused together to create a single identity,” said Moquillaza.

The medium sized, sweet grape is grown all over Southern coastal Peru, though it grows best between Ica and Nazca. Quebranta does best when there is abundant light and heat, plus loose soil rich with minerals from the sea, particularly around 150 kilometers from the coast. More than any other grape I’ve found, it does a better job of expressing the terroir of coastal Peru.

“Quebranta runs in his veins,” says sommelier Greg Smith, Central restaurant’s wine director.

Acholados, or blended piscos, often combine quebranta with more aromatic grapes, as it often remains neutral. However, quebranta falling into the non-aromatic can be misleading. Depending highly on the valley in which it is grown, warm aromas and flavors can be coaxed out of it under the right conditions. Sometimes richer flavors might appear, like pecan, raisin, pepper, or lucuma. Other times the profile is fresher and fruitier with notes of apples or limes.

Inquebrantable, Moquillaza’s pisco, is one of if not the finest expressions of the quebranta grape. It’s a beacon among ultra premium piscos. An example of the elegance of the spirit. It’s not the firewater that industrial piscos sometimes can be, but rather a small batch, handcrafted, crisp product with smooth, clean flavors. It’s everything a pisco is meant to be. He has been able to achieve this not only on a shoe string budget and without his own distillery, but with a grape that is typically used in pisco sours and chilcanos because it doesn’t typically share the same aromatic, grapey qualities of grapes like Italia, torontel, or moscatel.

Ica born Moquillaza sees the long term potential of the spirit and in the quebranta grape in ways that few others do. He has consulted on many infrastructure projects that can help all producers the region and pushed for tighter regulations to ensure that Peruvian piscos maintain a high standard.

“Quebranta runs in his veins,” says sommelier Greg Smith, Central restaurant’s wine director. “Pepe is a tremendous advocate for pisco.  He can quote facts and figures about the history of pisco production, and respects the traditions when making his piscos.  He understands that there is a crisis happening right now (adulteration, use of non-approved grape varieties, use of cultured yeasts), and is a staunch supporter for stricter regulation. While everyone else dances around the issues, Pepe speaks out. As a distiller, he goes to great lengths to seek out the highest quality grapes and harvest them at just the right moment. The distillation is done in small batches. A labor of love as it’s an all-night process, and you can’t leave the still once the process starts. And although the law stipulates a minimum period of three months of rest before pisco can be sold, Pepe’s Inquebrantable sometimes rests for several years before being sold.”

When Inquebrantable entered the market in 2003, it wasn’t a pisco designed to make serious profit in the short term. Moquillaza only released a few hundred bottles per year and despite it’s popularity, there are only a production of a few thousand bottles per year. To make it even more difficult to source, Jose Andrés’ Washington D.C. restaurant China Chilcano now reserves 10 percent of his annual production. It has become the Pappy Van Winkle of the pisco world.

We hike through Quintana’s six hectares of vineyards, picking grapes off the vine a month or so before they are ready to be harvested. We also explore a few small plots of albilla grapes, as well as a few others set out for specific restaurants and winemakers. We then move under the shade of a tarp where the truck was parked to taste vintages of the past few years.

The first time I had Moquillaza’s pisco, Inquebrantable, was in a cocktail, El Capitan Inquebrantable, at the bar of Central. More than anything else in the drink, it was the pisco that stood out and later I ordered it straight. In 2013, Smith added Moquillaza’s quebranta wine from Ihuanco on the restaurant’s altitude based tasting menu. It was the first Peruvian wine to ever appear in the pairing of a top Peruvian restaurant. His extremely small batch mistela, a fortified wine under the label Antiguas Familias, is occasionally served at Central with desserts.

“It was the 2012 vintage, and when we started with it, the label for the bottle still hadn’t been printed,” said Smith. “ It was really something special to tell guests that this wine was truly hand-crafted and so new that it didn’t even have a label.  The idea was to open and close the tasting menu with something unique to Peru, so Pepe’s wine opened the menu accompanying the first few snacks.  And his pisco closed the menu, accompanying the last dessert.  The tasting menu has undergone several small changes, but one dessert has always had cacao or chocolate, and Inquebrantable has always worked well with desserts with these ingredients.”

In terms of wine, quebranta is a particularly unique varietal. It’s lighter than a red but darker than a rose. It’s somewhere in between and depending on the vintage Moquillaza’s might lean more in one direction than the other. His Quebrada de Ihuanco, as the wine is called, is a refreshing, summery wine that’s served best slightly chilled. It goes well with comida criolla, the hearty coastal fare with deep, sometimes spicy flavors.

Josep Roca, El Cellar de Can Roca’s famed sommelier, called it unclassifiable when he visited Peru and proceeded to add it, along with Inquebrantable, to the restaurant’s wine list. Moquillaza knows there is more work to do, but so far the results at creating a uniquely Peruvian wine have been encouraging.

He has been working on this project for more than four years and there’s no hint that he will stop. He says it would be a great opportunity for Peru to have an exceptional wine made from quebranta grapes.

“It exists, right?” I ask him.

“Si, existe,” he says. “Si, existe.”