Tacama Vineyard: A story only few people know (and every winelover should know)

15 March 2021
Enólogos Robert Niederman y Émile Peynaud

Tacama is synonymous with South American wine history and innovation. All the milestones of wine and pisco, along with the people who made a mark in winemaking, are in its DNA. This time, we discuss malolactic fermentation, an innovative process in winemaking that was first carried out in America by Tacama, in 1961. We also explore the place where past and present meet in the vineyard: its historical wine cellar.

 

In the 1540s, the Spaniard Francisco de Carabantes planted the first grapevines in the Ica valley. Under the intense southern sun and in a privileged terroir, Tacama was born: the oldest active vineyard in Peru and the first in South America. In the following centuries, Tacama was in the hands of Don Alonso Calderón Jara, Don Antonio Larios, and the San Agustín convent. Finally, in 1889, the Olaechea family acquired it and strengthened its commitment to high-quality products.

Today, in its 250 hectares between field and cellar, one can get a glimpse into the origin story of highly recognized wine, pisco, and sparkling wines, and into a present that has everything necessary to be happy and make others happy. “In Tacama, our people make the biggest difference. Our team always seeks to make the best beverage and continuously engages in research to improve,” ensures Frédéric Thibaut, winemaker of over 21 years at Tacama.

OPENING YOUR EYES

Tacama is a space through which many winemaking greats have passed. The Frenchman Robert Niederman, for example, continued a distinguished dynasty of French winemakers at the vineyard. There, he was a master to many, such as Philippe Dhalluin, winemaker and now director of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild. “In 1961 and 1962, Niederman came here just for the harvest period. In 1963, he returned here once more and never left. He worked at Tacama until 2007,” tells the vineyard’s current winemaker. But who has Robert Niederman? As a human being, he was triumphant against adversity. He lost his family in the Second World War, lived in Argelia during the War of Independence, and evaded terrorist bombs in Peru with an enviable philosophy. “He was a superhero. He never showed defeat, he always had good spirits and was an eternal optimist,” reveals Fréderic Thibaut, his student, and successor.

He was a humble winemaker, curious and open-minded. His achievements speak for themselves. “The first: sparkling wines. Tacama didn’t make them before him; he created the line from scratch. He quickly won international contests. To this day, we make sparkling wines in the barrels he sent to be made in the 60s,” tells Thibaut. The second: importing grape varieties from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Bordeaux (one of the world’s main research centers for vitis vinifera). Robert Niederman tried at least 70 varieties to find the ones that would adapt to Ica’s climate and soil. “I’ve brought some, but we are still working with the ones he brought, like Tannat and Petit Verdot,” adds Tacama’s winemaker.

Third: Robert Niederman was the first to carry out malolactic fermentation in America. “The time period’s technology only knew of one type of fermentation: alcoholic,” describes Spanish winemaker María Isabel Mijares during her visit to Tamaca in 2000. Alcoholic fermentation happens when the sugar-filled wort (the grape’s juice) transforms to alcohol due to yeast and produces wine. However, “the wine holds a good amount of malic acid that can be decomposed by bacteria. But if the bacteria are lactic, the malic acid transforms into lactic acid, making the wine less acid, rounder, and more pleasing. However, one must make sure that the lactic bacteria only consume the malic acid and nothing else. This second fermentation is called malolactic,” explains Frédéric Thibaut. Today, this process is the main way in which the world’s great vineyards produce wine.

This is the story few winelovers know, but all should know: in the early 1960s, when Niederman worked at Tacama, he discovered that his recently made red wines had bacteria, then considered winemakers’ enemies. “It was an extraordinary event. In Latin America, when bacteria were found in wine, it was thought that the wine was ruined,” indicates Mijares.

Robert Niederman, known as “the doctor” in Argelia due to his capacity to fix bad wines, wanted to find a solution and remembered a conversation he had with Émile Peynaud, father of modern winemaking before he arrived at Tacama. In the conversation, Peynaud shared his discovery: malolactic fermentation. Niederman was skeptical. This time, intrigued, Niederman called him to share what had occurred in Tacama, Peynaud guided him step by step, and his process was successful. Ever since then, there’s no red wine that Tacama makes without malolactic fermentation.

Émile Peynaud is another great name in the history of winemaking; he had a deep relationship with Tacama and was a consultant for decades. “He wrote books that are still read to this day, advised the world’s most famous wineries, and radically changed the world of wine. He was like the Lionel Messi of winemaking,” mentions Thibaut.

WINE LEGACY

If we are talking about history, there is one place where Peru’s first vineyard guards it with special care: its historic cellar. It is a space about 7.5 meters underground, created five years ago exclusively for Tacama wines to be stored in optimal conditions.

Similar to the world’s great wineries, Tacama possesses a selection of approximately 3000 bottles that allow it to keep a record of its production (and its history). It holds the red wines of the 1960s, when malolactic fermentation began to be employed in America. It is a grape-flavored trip to the past. “Our products have improved every year as we invest not only in technology but also in knowledge,” shared José Antonio Olaechea, President of the Board. He adds: “In Tacama, there is a cult to high-quality wine. We have an innovative tradition, and we believe that all Peruvians should get to know our country’s winemaking history.”

 

 

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