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Wines of Peru: A Category of Their Own with Intipalka Leading the Charge

Wines of Peru: A Category of Their Own with Intipalka Leading the Charge

Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

Wines from Argentina made a big wave in the United States (US) market in the first decade of the 21st century with its inexpensive, yet good quality wines, particularly Malbec. In 2018, the US accounted for 22 percent of Argentina’s exports and Chile’s export production currently sits around 70 percent overall with the US as its second largest market. And then there’s Uruguay, which has been making a name for itself in recent years as well, also with the US as its second biggest market (behind Brazil). 

However, this influx of South American wines into the US, combined with the growing recognition of quality wines available, has done little to move these New World wines center stage on restaurant menus. In fact, many of these now well-known wines often remain relegated to the “Other Wine” category. So how does Peruvian wine fit into the mix? Although wine production in Peru currently pales in comparison to Argentina and Chile, exports have seen a dramatic increase, particularly to the US. 

Could this “OG” South American wine producing country be the catalyst for showcasing these wines under their own category? Intipalka wants to make it so.

Peru on the Map

Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

Most people know Peru for its ancient Andean history, and as home to a large Incan civilization with Machu Picchu still offering clues into the former empire. Peru sits south of Ecuador and North of Chile with 2400 kilometers of Pacific coastline. The Andes run through the center of the geologically diverse country, with the eastern lowland dominated by the Amazon Basin jungles, and shared borders with Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. The weather here is equally varied with desert conditions in the west, frigid to temperate patterns through the Andes and tropical weather in the east. But geography and weather aside, what remains relatively unknown, is that Peru was the first South American country to promote systematic viticulture, beginning even before the end of the Incan empire in 1547.

The Spanish conquest ultimately brought an end to the Incan empire, but it also brought vinifera to the country, which at one point had as much as 100,000 acres planted to vine. The wine industry was so robust that Peru was supplying wines to much of South America and even back to Spain. Eventually, protectionist trade measures went into place and grapes for wine production transitioned to grapes for the domestic spirits production of Pisco. Then in 1888, Phylloxera firmly took root practically decimating the industry, but not before one family also took root.

The Queirolo Family

Jorge Queirolo | Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

In 1877, the Queirolo family emigrated from Italy to Peru, bringing with them a history in viticulture and winemaking. Just more than a decade after arriving, the Queirolos established Taberna Queirolo in Lima and began successfully producing both wine and Pisco for several decades. Despite the Peruvian wine industry being at a near halt in 1960, the Queirolos moved on both figuratively and literally, as they relocated the vineyards 150 kilometers south of Lima to the Cañete Valley owing to rapid urban growth. The third generation continued the expansion with the acquisition of additional vineyards in the Ica Valley in 2002, bringing the total area set to vine to 2,220 acres (or 900 hectares). Sitting 300 kilometers south of Lima, the Queirolos quickly realized the promise of these new holdings and hired a French international nursery to assist with the new vinifera plantings in 2003. The third generation – Santiago, Jorge and Francisco Queirolo – who manage the winery today also moved and expanded cellar operations within Lima to a 12-million-liter capacity, as well as launched a new brand. Intipalka wines were first released in 2008 with the 2007 vintage and were produced with grapes from the most recently acquired and planted vine sites in the Ica Valley. Intipalka, which translates to “valley of the sun” in the Incan language of Quechua is named for the Incan god of the sun, Inti, and the valley which was coined in his honor. This sun-drenched, dry valley, cradled by the Andes to the east and the desert sand dunes to the west, harnesses the power of that same sun, in what the Queirolos believe is comparable to the best wine-growing regions in the world.  

Ica Valley Terroir

Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

Argentina may have the extreme altitudes and Chile the ocean, but the Ica Valley of Peru benefits from a mosaic of beneficial characteristics from sea and elevation to wind, soils and sun. With soils deficient in organic matter and rainfall less than 20 millimeters per year, these vines must struggle to survive; and as is commonly known, this struggle can make for quality grapes. The vine’s roots will dig deeper for nutrients and grape yields will be smaller, resulting in wines with notable minerality and significant concentration of flavors. Additionally, the Ica Valley vineyards sit at the 14th parallel of the Southern Hemisphere, a good deal outside of the 30 to 50 latitude range typical for growing grapes. This position close to the equator results in a high level of the sun’s ultraviolet light reaching the grapes, and with more than 300 days of sun per year, this intense irradiation has been noted to increase the phenolic composition of the ripened grapes. 

The increased phenolics and flavor concentration of these grapes is only half the story. Given the position of the Ica Valley, the region also benefits from significant winds and the cool air brought by the cold, oceanic Humboldt Current which travels up the Pacific Coast from southern Chile. These winds and cooling air serve to keep clouds at bay for maximum sun exposure, but also cool the valley at night, sometimes by as much as 20 degrees, thereby preserving the acidity levels in the grapes. In addition, the various elevations of the vineyards also lend specific character. The highest vineyards, in the hills at around 500 meters above sea level with calcareous and rocky soils, see the greatest amount of sunlight, resulting in lower yields and high concentration of flavor. The lower, valley vineyards see a deeper profile derived from strong vines and the sandy, limestone and clay soils where greater levels of acidity and varietal typicity are noted.

The Terroir Artists

Luis Gomez | Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

While good wines are made in the vineyard, it takes stewards of the land and artisans of the craft to translate an expression of place in the wine. For this, the third generation of the Queirolo family with Jorge Queirolo at the helm of the agriculture and winery team, has tapped the talent of two esteemed winemakers, each originally from Argentina, to harness the best expression the Ica Valley has to offer: Winemaking Consultant, Alejandro “El Colo” Sejanovich and Head Winemaker, Luis Gomez. 

El Colo is a renowned winemaker, named the 2021 Winemaker of the Year by Master of Wine Tim Atkin. Among his wines are the highly-regarded Manos Negras, Estancia Uspallata, and Teho & Zaha from Argentina, the latter of which was referred to by Mr. Atkin as an “Argentine first growth.”  El Colo also recruited Mr. Gomez to Viñas Queirolo based on his experience with both capturing place in wines as well as producing premium red wines. Mr. Gomez began his career as a winemaker for Finca La Celia, but most recently gained notoriety for his role as Chief Winemaker for Bodegas Caro (Catena – Rothschild/Lafite), where he achieved the highest points on his wines. 

Alejandro “El Colo” Sejanovich | Photo Credit: Viñas Queirolo

Together, Jorge Queirolo, El Colo and Mr. Gomez, each convinced of the Ica Valley’s ability to produce top internationally marketed wines, are making terroir-focused, technical changes in the vineyards at Intipalka and imparting as minimal of intervention as possible into the wines. The team has found a particularly marked expression of place in Malbec and Tannat, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, all of which are sold in various US markets. 

The fruit-forward Intipalka wines are now reaching 1 million liters per year with 14,000 cases hitting the US markets. While this may seem significant, the family has a goal to reach 50,000 to 100,000 cases in the coming years of both the single-varietal wines and the reserva blended wines, as well as the flagship Intipalka No. 1, a Malbec-Tannat blend, highlighting the notable Ica Valley terroir. Until then, the Intipalka wines are available for indulging through various retailers and restaurants; but, if a more authentic, in-person taste of Peru is the desire, the Queirolo’s also have the only vineyard hotel in Peru. The Viñas Queirolo Hotel sits in the foothills of the Ica Valley surrounded by 200 acres (or 80 hectares) of vineyards, where grapes and guests alike are illuminated by the energy of Inti.

The Queirolo family and teams at Santiago Queirolo and Intipalka are betting on the success of the fruit-forward, bright and balanced wines characteristic of their homeland; and if all goes to plan, they might even soon be listed under the “Wines of Peru” section of the wine list, in a category of their own. 

So, tell us, are you ready to taste the terroir of Peru?