People keep asking me what the highlight of my trip to South America was. After spending four months on the continent – travelling from country to country – I’m sure you can imagine that’s not such an easy question to answer. One place which does stick out in my memory, however, is Bolivia. Bolivia in general, and – more specifically – Bolivia as a wine producer.
Why’s that? Most probably because it took me by surprise. Who would have thought that wine could be produced there? At up to 3.000 meters above sea level?
Maybe I didn’t do my homework. Maybe I was not properly prepared. But hey, that’s what we travel for, isn’t it? To discover new things; to learn new things. I think I can speak for both myself and Judith when I say that we learned an awful lot in South America, not least about Bolivian wine.
In Bolivia, we had the opportunity to meet several winemakers, to taste some very interesting wines, and to talk to professionals about this underestimated wine country. They explained why the region is so unique, and why costumers and sommeliers should try their produce.
For its flavour, of course, but also for its immense variety and – thus – its suitability for food pairing. This incredible variety is something that is illustrated by the outstanding restaurant Gustu in La Paz (which again got voted number 14 in the Latin American San Pellegrino List, and – it should be said – a place well worth a blog post in its own). The only wine served in Gustu is from Bolivia and, without exception, the wines and the food are matched to perfection. Thanks to the Sommelier Bertil Levin Tøttenborg!
Bolivia as a wine country is best explained by an expert. I am happy that I had the chance to ask Franciso Roig, Head Winemaker and Co-Owner of Uvairenda, a few questions and he took his precious time to answer them.
Here’s what he had to say:
How would you describe Bolivia as a wine country?
High elevation, unique and hidden. Bolivia is the only country in the world that produces wines with grapes grown at more than 1.500 meters above sea level. That is just crazy, we are not talking about just a couple of token vineyards, but all of Bolivia’s wine regions. Of course, this has an impact that makes it quite unique. Bolivia is a hidden treasure of viticulture, for it has more than four centuries of wine production and it is hardly known internationally.
How do the soils differ around the regions?
There are three main regions, all of them in valleys of the southeastern Andes.
Tarija is the largest and most developed with approximately 2.000 hectares of vineyards between 1.600 and 2.200 meters of elevation. Located in the very south of Bolivia, it is a large valley formed by a prehistoric lake. The soils are mostly alluvial and there are sediments of the prehistoric flora and fauna of this semiarid region. Tarija is home to the country’s largest and leading wineries, and is blessed with fantastic mild weather and a very charming local culture.
The Valleys of Santa Cruz (or Valles Cruceños in Spanish) is the second largest region with 400 hectares of vineyards, it is the fastest growing region. Samaipata is its most famous terroir. It is the coolest wine region, perched in picturesque valley in the edge of South American viticulture, it is home to a few small boutique wineries surrounding a cozy colonial town. The altitude in the Valleys of Santa Cruz ranges from 1.500 to 2.600 meters above sea level, and is the northernmost frontier of Andean viticulture.
The Canyons of Cinti are the third largest region with about 300 hectares of narrow canyons with planting on the alluvial river edges. This is home to some old and traditional properties, guardians of the colonial traditions of Bolivia. The elevation ranges from 1.800 to 2.500 meters, of steep valleys and red mountains.
How does altitude affect the grape and in the end the wine?
The higher the elevation the stronger the sun’s radiation which enhances the production of tannins, resveratrol, and several phenolic components. Moreover, there is a great temperature difference between day and night, even during the summer. This allows for good ripening and sugar accumulation conditions while maintaining the acidity and varietal flavors like nowhere else. Bolivian wines are more Old World in style because of the cooler climate conditions, with the uniqueness of its altitude characteristics.
Which grape variety works best in this unusual environment?
In general, International varietals have adapted very well to the elevation, but have yielded distinct results. In Tarija, the home queen is Muscat of Alexandria which produces fresh, acidic and aromatic whites with a delicacy that is uncommon of the varietal elsewhere. Of course, Tarija is famous for its excellent singanis, produced from distilled Muscat of Alexandria wines. It is Bolivia flag spirit and very sought after by connoisseurs. Red varietals like Malbec, Tannat, and Cabernet Sauvignon produce European-styled wines (several of them with oak aging). Tarija’s red are great exponents of Bolivia’s tradition of winemaking and its Old World character.
In Samaipata, Torrontés yields bone dry, aromatic and delicate whites, which are very different from other regions of South America. Samaipata’s red (Tannat and Syrah) are famous for their elegance. With summers highs of less than 29 celsius, chilly nights and plenty of sun exposure the wines of this frontier valley are very ripe, full of tannins, and surprisingly smooth, vivacious and varietal.
Muscat of Alexandria, Criolla and Vizchoqueña are at home in Cinti, and are well adapted to the backing sun of the summer days, occasional rainfall and cool nights. The production split between table grapes, singani, dry, semi-sweet, sweet and fortified wine.
You work partly with rootstock and partly without. Do you see a difference in quality, maintainance or risk for other diseases?
I work both, and for safety purposes most of the new planting are grafted and certified. Samaipata (like the rest of the Santa Cruz) is free of phylloxera, but the other Bolivian regions and neighboring Argentina are not. So it is a big risk not to use pest resistant rootstock. All the old vineyards are planted from cutting (mainly Torrontés and Criolla Negra), the yields are more concentrated in the older vineyards. New planting do not have a significant yield difference.
What do you try to accomplish for Bolivia with your work?
To say that I want to accomplish one thing is keeping it short. I would say, we want to accomplish many things for Bolivia. By „we“ I talk about my awesome business partners, the staff in the winery, the grape growers, my fellow Bolivian winemakers. Altogether, we have a vision. We want to keep on growing steadily and sustainably, maintaining our uniqueness and keeping up the quality. Our country has limited viticulture oases for the expansion of the elevation vineyards so we have to make the best use of them. Bolivia can one day supply itself and the world with good quality of unique high elevation wines, bringing progress to our small nation and sharing the joy of our wines.
What do you want to tell the Sommeliers of the world about Bolivian wine?
Look for the uniqueness, these are not your textbook South American wines, these are unique high elevation wines from distinct terroirs with 450 year of winemaking tradition, mild to cool summers, intense and delicate varietal notes, and with acidity and weight more typical of some French wines than the New World. If you get a chance, come and visit us.
I can only underline the last words. Make sure you try Bolivian wine when you got the chance. Even if they are not easy to find yet – depending on where in the world you are located – but stay on it. I am sure Bolivia will rise in reputation and will take the wine world by surprise, as it happened to me. Like in every wine region you might have to look twice and check out some different types. To make it easier for you, here are some wines that we enjoyed and would recommend:
Riesling 2015, Campos de Solana, Tarija
citrus, peach, white flowers in the nose,
on the palate dry, slightly grassy, salty – nice easy drinking wine
Torrontés 2015, 1750 Uvairenda, Samaipata
quite some exotic and citrus in the nose,
on the palate the herbal and grassy part is upfront, nice mouthwatering acidity – great starter wine
Cabernet Sauvignon Crianza 2008, Casa Grande, Tarija
black pepper, dried red fruit, rose in the nose,
on the palate sweet red fruit balanced with a nice tingely acidity and soft tannins – refreshing & smooth
Tannat 2015, Marquez de la Viña, Cochabamba
bomb of chocolate, dark cherry and coffee in the nose,
on the palate surprisingly fresh with juicy red fruit, spicy notes and smooth tannins – great food match
You have any more questions about Bolivia or its wine? Please don’t hesitate to contact us! Happy to hear from you.
About the person:
Francisco Roig, born and raised in Bolivia, did most of his university and masters education in the USA (George Washington University, American University, University of California at Davis, WSET). In his 14 years of his winemaking career he focused on studying and teaching about Bolivia, where he ended up doing a lot of research.