An Introduction to Bolivian Wine

 A vew of Bodega La Concepción in the Central Valleys of Tarija

A vew of Bodega La Concepción in the Central Valleys of Tarija

 
 

Bolivia has been producing wine for almost 500 years…

 

and yet few people outside of Bolivia have ever tasted Bolivian wine. Not many examples have made their way outside of Bolivia’s borders. For most of the history of winemaking in Bolivia, wine was made for local consumption. In the 16th century Vitis Vinifera, the species of grapevine known for producing fine wines, was brought into the territory now known as Bolivia from two different directions: through Peru and through Argentina. Francisco Pizarro arrived in Panama and made his way through Peru up into the Andes as the Spanish empire expanded toward the city of Cuzco. On the Argentine side of South America, the city of Buenos Aires was founded at the mouth of the Río Plata, and from here the Spanish expanded northward into Bolivia.

Criollo Wines

The Spanish colonists brought European plants with them and attempted to cultivate them in the various climates. Some common examples included sugar cane, rice, melons and figs. Not all plants were suited for the drastically different climates of South America, and many plantings failed. The few plantings that did survive began to adapt and change, creating slight mutations from the traditional European varieties. The Spanish use the term ‘Criollo(a)’ (Cree-oy-yo), or creole, to describe any plant, person or animal that was not native to the Americas, but was planted, bred, survived and adapted in the New World. These new Criollo plants were slightly different from the true European varietals provided the different growing conditions, diseases and pests.

Grapevines are typically planted as cuttings from a full, mature vines; literally a section of the hardwood from the vine replanted to grow a new plant. The resulting plant is an identical genetic copy of the plant it is cut from; this process allows Cabernet Sauvignon to be planted as genetically identical anywhere in the world. When the Spanish came to the New World, they were unable to bring cuttings because they wouldn’t have survived the long journey. Instead they brought with them dried grapes from their preferred European vines. Once planted, the seeds from these dried grapes would eventually yield a plant with a slight genetic variation from the European parent. Often times these variations caused large differences in yield, flavor and quality. Many of these plants did not survive, but the creole vines that did became the basis for colonial wine production in South America. Many of these creole vines carry the same names of their parent European vines, so it can be difficult to know whether the plant being referred to is truly a European clone or a criollo variety.

High Altitude Wines

The use of wine in the Catholic church made grapevines a central crop to the establishment the Spanish colonies. Bolivia was, and still is, a challenging environment for the cultivation of grapevines as the country lies entirely within tropical latitudes. Grapevines are native to the Mediterranean region, Europe and southwestern Asia, and when grown in tropical climates they produce grapes of poor quality and yield. Through a lot of trial and error the Spaniards eventually found the best wines were made from grapes grown in high altitude valleys throughout Bolivia. Though these areas are still considered tropical due to their latitudes, they have a climate that more closely resembles the temperate climates that Vitis Vinifera vines prefer. As the Spaniards entered the Bolivian territory through Peru, they were able to successfully produce wines in the valleys of Sapahaqui and Luribay, both located in what is now the Department of La Paz. Each of these areas is located between 8,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level (2500-3000 meters), which is impressive considering in Europe, high altitude winemaking is usually between 1500 and 3500 feet in elevation (500-1000 meters).

The second entry point for grapevines came from the Río Plata, where Spaniards founded the town of Buenos Aires. From here they eventually made their way up the river and further north into Bolivia. The first grapevines were planted on the outskirts of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, though the vines did not produce yields or quality ideal for table wines in this very tropical, low elevation climate. As the colonies expanded, they found ideal climates in the valleys of what is now Tarija, Vallegrande and Mizque. These locations were high enough in altitude to escape the typical tropical climate, but the most important influence comes from the Surazos: cold polar winds that blow from the Patagonia in the south. These winds help create a close match to the typical four seasons that Vitis Vinifera vines prefer, causing winter temperatures to reach the chilling range of 32-45ºF for long enough to allow the vines to rest in dormancy. This allows the vines to focus on one crop of fruit per year, and allows for proper quality and yields for making table wines.

For the first period of Bolivian wine, consumption was extremely local and was highly influenced by the Catholic Church. Many of the most successful wine growing regions were on frontier land; the border between the Spanish colonies and the native populations. The most notorious of the native populations, and the most aggressive, was the Guaraní tribe, also known as the Chiriguano (an offensive name given to them by the Inca). In the latter half of the 16th century the war between the Guaraní and the Spanish intensified. The Spaniards established their presence by building forts and eventually the colonial settlements of Tarija, Samaipata and Vallegrande. As these areas became established and secure, the production of wine grapes increased to fill the demand of the growing Spanish settlements.

Mining and the Wine Industry

 This Damajuana is a remnant of the Bolivian Mining Industry. These large glass vessels built into wooden crates originally contained Hydrochloric Acid and other corrosive mining chemicals. They were shipped to Bolivia on boats from Europe, so it made little economic sense to return them. Now they are often used as fermentation vessels, or (shown here) to store and rest Singani.

This Damajuana is a remnant of the Bolivian Mining Industry. These large glass vessels built into wooden crates originally contained Hydrochloric Acid and other corrosive mining chemicals. They were shipped to Bolivia on boats from Europe, so it made little economic sense to return them. Now they are often used as fermentation vessels, or (shown here) to store and rest Singani.

The biggest demand eventually came as a result of the expanding mining operations in Potosí, which was founded in the 1500s when the Spanish discovered one of the most productive seams of silver ever encountered. This mine bankrolled the Spanish empire and became a place of great wealth and great suffering. During a 200 year period over 40,000 tons of silver were extracted making the Spanish one of the richest empires the world had seen. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves worked the mines. To survive the hellish conditions many miners chewed coca leaves and drank strong alcohol.  This demand for strong spirits, as well as the demand for fine wine and spirits from those growing rich from the mine, boosted the wine producing regions of Bolivia.

Eventually the Cinti valley became an important addition to the Bolivia’s wine viticultural regions. This valley was mostly a vacation retreat for wealthy families in Sucre and Potosí, but landowners found that they could plant grapes for wine production in this valley. The terroir was not the traditional ideal, but with an average altitude of 2,350 meters (7,700 feet) above sea level, it had a climate suitable enough for Vitis Vinifera grapes. The most important factor for the explosion in production in the Cinti valley was its close proximity to the wealth of the mines.

 An exhibit in the Ethno-Anthropological Museum of Cinti, located in Camargo, Chuquisaca showing the evolution of containers for the transportation of wine and Singani from clay pot and pouches made of animal skins or intestines, and eventually wooden barrels.

An exhibit in the Ethno-Anthropological Museum of Cinti, located in Camargo, Chuquisaca showing the evolution of containers for the transportation of wine and Singani from clay pot and pouches made of animal skins or intestines, and eventually wooden barrels.

Getting wine from the Cinti valley to its final destination in Potosí and Sucre was no easy task. It was originally a treacherous journey that involved leading trains of donkeys through the valleys climbing up to 4,000 meters (13,400 feet) above sea level. The first vessels that were used to transport the wines were extremely crude, but examples in the Cinti Anthropological Museum show the evolution from open clay pots to leather pouches and eventually small wooden barrels. The demand for stronger spirits and the financial incentive to make the trips more profitable encouraged producers to distill their wines into higher alcohol brandy. The most popular and traditional brandy is called Singani, which is distilled from 100% Muscat of Alexandria grapes in altitudes above 1,500 meters. Bolivia has an official Denomination of Origen for Singani, regulating the production areas, methods and grapes to maintain its traditional character.

Bolivian Wine Styles

The styles of wine made and the varietals now grown in Bolivia are highly influenced by the mixture of Spanish colonial influence and the modernization of Bolivian winemaking in the 1970s. The Spanish colonists and missionaries brought with them some of their preferred wine grapes, primarily Muscat of Alexandria (aka Moscatel de Alejandría) and Misionera (aka País or Negra Criolla). There are some other creole grapes that grow throughout the different regions, such as Vischoqueña, Pedro Giménez, and Torrontés, among others. During the 1960s and 70s, Bolivian wineries started focusing on growth and investment, importing modern winemaking equipment as well as international and French varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and others were brought in mostly due to their reputation for producing quality wines, but not necessarily with any specific insight into what would succeed in this unique high altitude terroir.

To this day, most of the country’s vineyards are planted to Muscat of Alexandria: some reports estimate up to 80%. The reason that Muscat has dominated in this landscape originates with the Spanish and their love of their old world wine styles. It was often used to make fortified and sweet wines, which can still be found in Bolivia, though not nearly of the same quality or tradition as in Spain. The grapes also grow well in the altitude, adapting to the intense conditions with a thicker skin and extra layer of vascular tissue. Ultimately, this help create an even more aromatic profile that is highly prized for making Singani, the clear brandy that has become the signature spirit of the country. Most of the Muscat of Alexandria production is diverted to distill Singani, since Singani must be distilled from 100% Muscat of Alexandria wine. Bolivia is and will be the major market for Singani for some time, though exports to Europe and the United States are growing thanks to the recent interest in Singani as a craft cocktail ingredient. It is very likely that we will see Muscat continue to dominate the landscape in Bolivia for the upcoming decades.

Muscat of Alexandria is probably one of the most misunderstood and underutilized varietals for fine wines in Bolivia. Certainly, much of its value lies in Singani, however, fine wines are being made from this grape. This variety of Muscat is not thought of as the highest quality for use in wine production. This designation often goes to Muscat blanc à Petit Grains, which is used in Moscato d’Asti as well as in French fortified vin doux naturels. The advantage of Bolivian Muscat is altitude. The large diurnal shift helps the grapes develop high levels of acid, which creates an elegant backbone for the highly aromatic nature of the grape. Winemakers are experimenting with several styles of Muscat, including examples that are dry, off-dry, fortified, and sparkling. The most interesting examples incorporate lees stirring and aging, barrel fermentation and extended skin maceration. Many of these unique styles are still in their trial periods and won’t make it to export markets yet, but look to see some examples within the next few years.

In the last few decades Bolivian wineries worked with consultants, especially from Chile, to help determine the most suitable grapevines for the unique Bolivian terroir. Philippo Pszczolkowski, a Chilean Agronomy and Enology professor from the Pontifica Catholic University of Chile, went on sabbatical in Bolivia to get to understand more about their viticulture. During his time in the country studying the wine regions he noticed that certain varietals tended to be more productive in these challenging environments while producing wines of great structure, color and quality. Of these varietals, the most highly regarded was Tannat, a relatively forgotten wine grape originally thought to originate in the French Basque region, with Syrah and Malbec following closely behind. These grapes are known for their thick skins, which helps to make them more suitable for the extra UV exposure typical for high altitude landscapes. Their wines also benefit from the lower pH and higher acid content typically of high altitude wines, providing a beautiful counterpoint to their full fruit flavors and aromas. A few different wineries, principally Aranjuez in Tarija and Bodega Uvairenda in Samaipata, had already been experimenting with Tannat. They found that Tannat vines thrived in the high altitude terroir and were producing fruit of high quality.

Now armed with the confidence of external validation, as well as delicious examples of high quality wines, Tannat became a main priority for new plantings. As the vines matured the winemakers were able to make wines of high quality and even began receiving recognition from outside of Bolivia. In 2013, Aranjuez received recognition in Uruguay, the New World’s most successful Tannat producing country. At the Tannat al Mundo competition in Uruguay, a competition and showcase for Tannat wines, a 100% varietal Tannat and the Juan Cruz Gran Reserva Tannat from Aranjuez received the two highest honors in the competition. These results surprised everyone, especially because few people had ever seen any wines of quality coming from Bolivia. This success has and will continue to shape the future of Bolivian wine, showing the great potential of Tannat, especially in its ability to showcase high altitude winemaking. 

Other wines have also received recognition in international competitions, including the Esther Ortiz Gran Reserva de la Familia, a 100% Petit Verdot from Campos de Solana aged for 24 months in French oak. This is another example of external validation for a French varietal that seems to be doing well in the unique high altitude climate of Tarija. Campos de Solana has also received recognition for its single varietal Tannat, labeled as Único (Unique), during the 16th Decanter Wine World Awards, which will most certainly help cement Tannat as one of the major focuses for Bolivian wines going forward. These awards, and many others, have helped Bolivia get the stamp of approval for their higher end wines, and will likely continue to push Bolivian wineries to focus on higher end, single-varietal production.

 Copyright Wines of Bolivia (www.winesofbolivia.com)

Copyright Wines of Bolivia (www.winesofbolivia.com)

Bolivian Wine Regions

Bolivian wine is produced in just a handful of high altitude valleys with the majority of production coming from Tarija, located in the southern region of the country. Estimates put 93% of the table wine production in the Central Valleys of Tarija, making it the driving force in Bolivian wine. The city of Tarija lies at about 1,800 meters above sea level (5,900 feet) and the vineyards in the nearby valleys can easily get up to 2,200 m.a.s.l. (7,200 feet). Tarija is one of the warmer regions in Bolivia, but overall would be considered a moderate climate with average temperatures during peak growing season ranging between 16ºC and 30ºC (60ºF - 86ºF). Though this climate would be considered moderate, the higher exposure to UV rays at this altitude coupled with a larger swing in daytime to nighttime temperatures (diurnal shift) has a considerable effect on the fruit. The soil type varies, but is mostly loamy clay. Like most regions in Bolivia, Tarija receives the majority of its rainfall (550mm/21.65in per year) during the summer seasons, so botrytis and fungus are generally a challenge for grape growers. 

The Cinti Valley is seen as one of the more traditional wine producing valleys. Its history is more closely tied to the mining industry of Potosí and Sucre. As these cities grew due to the increase in mineral extraction so did the demand for wine and spirits. The history of Singani really begins here in the Cinti valley, and the longest running distiller, San Pedro, is based here. The Cinti valley is essentially a long narrow canyon stretching about 80km between Sucre and Tarija. This area is a bit higher in altitude, averaging 2,350 meters (7,700 feet) in elevation though a few vineyards reach up near 3,000 meters (9,840 feet). This area has two main differences soil types: on the west side of the river the soil is rockier with a high iron oxide content favoring red varietals, while the east side of the river is much more alluvial favoring white varietals. The Cinti Valley also receives most of its rain during the summer (488mm/19.2in per year) and has an average low of 13.5ºC and high of 26ºC.

The Valleys of Santa Cruz are high altitude mountain valleys located a few hours drive outside of the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. There are vineyards spread throughout several valleys including Samaipata, Vallegrande, and Chilón. These valleys represent the northern most frontier of South American wine, as well as the southern most frontier of South American coffee. This region is unique in that you can have a wine producer who is located just a short drive from a coffee grower. This area really helps to narrate the unique terroir of Bolivian wine since it is technically a tropical country, but here in the altitude one can also achieve quality wine production. Samaipata is known for producing quality wines and is located at 1,750 m.a.s.l. (5,740 feet), though the valleys can reach further up, closer to 2,000 m.a.s.l. (6,560 feet). The soils here are primarily loamy clay, though some small plots may also be quite rocky. The climate is a bit cooler here ranging from an average low of 14ºC to 26ºC during the peak growing season (57ºF to 79ºF) with the majority of the rain during falling during this period (560mm/22in per year). In general Samaipata and the Santa Cruz Valleys are a bit cooler, with a little more rain, representing a cool climate growing region. Samaipata, for example, often is covered in fog and clouds in the morning, but as the sun burns off this cover the temperatures will rise allowing the grapes to ripen while maintaining high acid levels.

Wines are produced in the Valley of Luribay, located in the Department of La Paz, at 2,550 m.a.s.l (8,360 feet), but unfortunately this area has suffered from disease and economic depressions over the last several decades so wine production has decreased significantly. Wine is also being produced in the Department of Cochabamba, both near the city of Cochabamba and in the mountain valleys near Mizque, but these areas do not represent significant production for the country. In Cochabamba much of the wine that is consumed is a young wine that doesn’t finish fermenting, so is quite sweet and low in alcohol. There is one small winery, Marquéz de la Viña, that has a long history in the area and has recently been increasing fine wine production by buying fruit from the various valleys in Bolivia. The wines vary from sweet sparkling wines (favored by locals) to fine table wines, including a barrel-aged Muscat of Alexandria that is unique and reflects their interest in pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be traditional winemaking in Bolivia.

Modern Wine Production and Consumption

Bolivia currently has about 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of grapevines planted, most of which is planted to Muscat of Alexandria, and most of this production is used to distill Singani. Other notable white wine varietals planted in Bolivia are Sauvignon Blanc, Pedro Giménez, Riesling, Franc Colombard, and Torrontés. Red wine is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Malbec, with Tannat drastically rising in popularity. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot both have shown potential as red wine varietals with a future, as well as traditional creole varieties like Misionera and Vischoqueña

Almost all wine produced in Bolivia is consumed in Bolivia, with locals preferring sweeter bulk wines (averaging around $2-3 per bottle). The fine wine market in Bolivia has been developing as the middle class develops and the economy improves. More wineries are prioritizing the production of middle ($5-15 per bottle) and high end wines ($15 and above), especially focusing on Tannat and other international varietals. We are also beginning to see a resurgence of traditional varietals such as Vischoqueña, Misionera (aka País or Negra Criolla), and Muscat of Alexandria as smaller producers, especially in the Cinti Valley and Luribay, reconnect with their heritage. Much experimentation is still needed with these varietals to understand their place in the wine market, but there is great potential in unfiltered, rosé and extended skin contact (orange) wines.

Singani still takes the lion’s share of Bolivia’s grape production with over 4 million liters of Singani produced annually. This production is dominated by a handful of larger distillers like Casa Real, Rujero, Los Parrales, and San Pedro, but there is certainly room for the growth of boutique and premium production at a smaller level. Most Singani is consumed domestically, typically mixed in simple cocktails like the Chufly (or Chuflay), a mixture of Singani, ginger ale and lime served on the rocks. Domestic Singani consumption is evolving as local restaurants and bartenders are pushing more creative preparations, embracing international cocktail trends and combining them with local flavors and ingredients.

I will go more in depth on many of the topics covered in this article, so stay posted for updates on StrongSomm, as well as short stories and links on Instagram (@strong_somm).


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