CustomsFood & Drinks

Toasting the New Year in Cuzco

It is New Years Eve. What do you drink? What is in the glass that you raise to toast the New Year and celebrate life and the people around you? Tomorrow night in Cuzco people will lift something to their lips; they have a history of alcohol that made the first Spaniards talk. What will it be?

Though this might sound like a strange question in places where people sometimes drink champagne and sometimes a cocktail or shot glass of their choice, it is not. Choices of what to drink sometime reveal custom and sometimes history. They are seldom random.

When the Spanish arrived, they commented on the power of drink, along with music and dance, in the lives of the people of Tawantinsuyo. The Spanish came with their own culture of beverages and drunkenness but they were astounded at the intensity they found in Peru. For centuries, they tried to stamp out that culture. Despite the force of those efforts, they also brought other beverages to add to the indigenous chicha of Peru.

People in Cuzco still make and drink chicha. They consume it in large amounts. But they also drink lots of beer, since the railwaymen who followed the Spanish in economic dominance brought it. Beer is a major industry in Cuzco.

But for this celebration, one that is not the indigenous high holy day of the season–Qhapaq Raymi–nor the stretched out nativity feast of the Church with its key moments of Christmas and the Feast of Kings a week from now in January.

Selling Wine from Ica at a Fair in Cuzco
Selling Wine from Ica at a Fair in Cuzco

Nor is it a natural “new” year in this austral land. That takes place in the June solstice when the sun reaches its nadir and begins its upward track again in the annual sky. This is a calendrical new year because of a scheme of dates and months grounded into a northern clime where the darkest days of the year have just passed and new light is appearing day by day.

But this new year, along with the calendar and political economic system that enshrines it, is strong in Peru’s cities even if not so strong in its countryside where more indigenous rhythms of nature still rule.

Along with it come customs and different beverages.

To receive the change from one year to another, people expect to wear new clothing, especially clothing in yellow. They scurry about from store to store and fair to fair looking for the right items in that hue of the sun and good fortune.

They buy items to prepare their cabalas, as thy are intriguingly called in Peru. The word is Kabbalah in English, from the Hebrew, the name of a Jewish mysticism. The word sounds odd in the Spanish of an Inca Peru that inherited the tradition of the Spanish Kings who sent the Jews packing and then formed the Holy Inquisition to root them out.

Different Bottles for New Years Wine
Different Bottles for New Years Wine

But the idea of mysticism, of seeking omens and means of massaging fate all around, joined an Andean concern for divination and for working along with the world to create fate to create a culture with twin roots. One is in the Arabo-Hebraic popular culture of Medieval Spain and the other is in the Andean concern for building good relations with a powerful and active landscape and time.

People will engage in a series of means to control fate and create a destiny they like on this magical night of change from one year to the next.

And for this day there is also drink, not the chicha of indigenous life nor the beer, per se, of modern life, but a glass of wine. The wine can be sparkling, given the importance of that in contemporary life, or it can be the preferred wine of choice in Peru.

Markets and stores have stocked up on wine for this feast You can see it in fairs and stores. The vendors have a good strategy for selling their wares. They invite you to taste the wine and to chose the one you like best, all the while they give you a story of where it comes from and its history.

There are wines in a range of prices from some S/15 to S/50 (from $6 US to $20 US). Of course there are even more pricey wines in supermarkets and specialty stores.

A Dama Juana of Borgoña Wine
A Dama Juana of Borgoña Wine

They come in different packaging and different boxes or bottles, to allow people to make their preference.

Of course, if people prefer not to drink wine tonight, there is always the very acceptable, national Peruvian option of pisco or the cocktail pisco sour.

This time of year, a particular packaging appears, the Mama Juana, or Dama Juana, a large jug for wine. There is debate about the origins of the name and it may remit to Mexico. But every year they appear at this time.

They are often aged and somehow carry the memory of a grandmother who keeps her jug of wine hidden in the home for many years and only brings it out on special occasions when she will serve up a cup of the treasured liquid. In almost every family in Cuzco you will find a grandmother who has her Mama Juana kept and ready for important times.

From this story of grandmothers and jugs of wine you can tell Peru is not new to the culture of wine, even if its fine wines are relatively new on a global stage. The Spanish brought treasured stocks of grapes to this land and quickly established wine making and wineries, as well as a market and trade in the beverage.

As a result of this history, Peru divides its wines into a classification of dry, semi dry, and sweet (or profound). The fine wines of international consumption tend to be classified as dry, while the popular local wine is a dark rose colored, blended wine called borgoña, or burgundy in English.

Borgoña Wine for New Years
Borgoña Wine for New Years

This is the wine Peruvians prefer across the Andean spine of this country from coast to highlands to jungle. Its prevalence suggests a history of muleteers carrying wine from the coastal wineries of Ica to the rest of the country.

Some people may prefer their wine much lighter colored and sparkly. Others may prefer it distilled as a pisco. But most Peruvians will drink the rich burgundy colored drink that is lightly sweet that is their wine of choice for this New Year, their vino borgoña.

No matter what you chose to drink, or how you celebrate this change of time marked now in a global calendar, may the New Year bring you fulfillment of your dreams and desires.

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