Wine Club Newsletter - May 2019
Bolivia: Emerging Wine Country
During a trip to Bolivia in March, the Dutch wine expert Cees van Casteren held a blind tasting of tannats from around the world. Unsurprisingly, the winner was La Tyre, from Chateau Montus in Madiran, the French region that specializes in reds made from the tannat grape.
But a Bolivian wine, Unico from Campos de Solana, came in second. It sells in shops here for about a 10th of the $150 price of the La Tyre.
“You could say, in a way, Bolivia won the contest,” said van Casteren, who is a Master of Wine, the wine-world equivalent of a Ph.D. “I wanted to prove that the best Bolivian wines can compete with the best of the world.”
Van Casteren had a horse in this race: For the past eight years, he has been a consultant for the Dutch government, helping Bolivian winemakers improve their products for export.
But he is not the only believer in the local wine. At Gustu, a Claus Meyer restaurant in La Paz devoted to promoting the nation’s cuisine and training the country’s next generation of chefs and restaurant workers, the wine list is entirely made up of Bolivian bottles. “Bolivia is one of the most interesting wine countries in the world,” said the head sommelier, Bertil Levin Tottenborg. “The quality is extremely high, and no one knows about it.”
That is changing. Exports are trickling into the United States, Brazil, Europe and China, mostly in restaurants. “I think there will be much more interest in Bolivian wines in the next six to 12 months,” van Casteren said.
When he started to consult here, none of the country’s 65 wineries exported bottles. Now, five do.
Still, their reach is limited. Bolivia’s vineyards total only about 1.5 percent of the 550,000 acres in neighboring Argentina — the world’s sixth-largest wine producer — and Bolivia’s annual production of 8.3 million liters is a molecule among the world’s 25 billion liters.
One doesn’t usually find poverty and high-quality wines in the same place. Yet although it is one of the poorest countries in South America, Bolivia has a long tradition of winemaking, so the quality of its wines is surprisingly good. While the terrain offers its own challenges, from jungle to mountains, it also has benefits.
“Bolivia starts producing wine where everybody else stops,” said Francisco Roig, the head winemaker and an owner of Uvairenda, in Samaipata. The nation’s elevation — between 5,000 and 10,000 feet — moderates what otherwise would be tropical temperatures. And the intense ultraviolet rays at that altitude cause the grapes to develop thick skins, producing ripe tannins and flavors.
Daily temperatures can swing more than 35 degrees, which concentrates acidity, and summer rains dilute the wine, yielding a more elegant style, one “more associated with cool climates of the Old World,” Roig said.
No calling-card varietal has emerged. Muscat of Alexandria, a white grape, accounts for 70 percent of grapes planted in Bolivia, but most is used to distill the pisco-like spirit singani. Though the Spanish arrived with grapes in the 16th century, the modern industry is only 50 years old, so winemakers are still exploring different grape varieties.
“The French varieties in reds are working really good,” said Mauricio Hoyos, the general manager at Aranjuez, a tannat specialist here in Tarija, the country’s wine capital. “In whites, we have good results, but not so special results.”
Many vineyards are banking on tannat to give Bolivia a special international identity, as did the wine that finished second in van Casteren’s tasting, by the third-generation winemaker Nelson Sfarcich of Campos de Solana.
There are also pockets of grape varietals that were originally brought from the Canary Islands by the Spanish, like torrontés and pedro giménez in whites and negra criolla in reds. Vicchoqueña is a mutant of negra criolla that yields a wine akin to pinot noir.
The Valle de los Cintis, north of Tarija, is the spiritual home of small-scale traditional winemaking. There are still about 30 vineyards with parrales, or climbing vines, some 100 to 250 years old, that grow entangled with moelle and chañar trees. The Spanish used this system to protect the grapes from sun and diseases; it has disappeared everywhere else in the world, van Casteren said.
At Cepas de Fuego, Weymar Ríos Cavero, who is in his mid-70s, still makes wine much the way his father and grandfather did, hand-blending fertilizer and mixing a natural spray for diseases. “The only thing I’ve done is to put in trellises and search for grapes best adapted to here,” he said. His syrah is a standout, Tottenborg said.
Younger people are bringing new perspectives. It has taken 15 years for the fourth-generation winemaker Marcelo Vacaflores, 31, and his father to revitalize their abandoned family vineyard. They renovated the bodega, dug wells and plan to plant new grapes soon.
Northeast of Valle de los Cintis, the valleys of Santa Cruz and Samaipata demonstrate the potential for growth. When Roig established his winery in this region in 2007, there were just 100 acres planted. Now there are more than 1,200.
Roig, who left Bolivia when he was 17 and now lives in Washington, D.C., is focused on exports to Europe and the United States. That the wine “is recognized by people abroad brings up self-awareness and pride” for Bolivians, he said.
Recent monthly shipments to the United States of Uvairenda’s 1750 line of syrah, tannat and torrontés have sold out, said Ramon Escobar, managing director of Chufly Imports, as have Aranjuez’s tannat, tannat merlot and torrontés moscatel. Chufly, which handles only Bolivian wines and spirits, has distributors in five states and is in talks with one in New York, where sales could be significant for the Bolivian economy.
Escobar cited a study showing that for every 25 acres of grapes planted, 10 families are lifted out of poverty. “Our ambitions are very big for Bolivian wine,” he said. “We think it can be the next region, like Georgia.”
Pett writes for The New York Times.
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