The Valleys of Santa Cruz
Hidden in the misty mountain valleys of Santa Cruz...
at the foot of the Andes mountains are some of the most beautiful vineyard sites in South America. These valley are the home of over 450 years of Bolivian viticulture, and in recent years this region is experiencing a wine renaissance. A handful of winemakers are working hard to show Bolivia and the world that this region holds a wealth of potential for high altitude winemaking. As plantings and quality increase, these Valleys are set to become an internationally recognized winemaking region filled with beautiful vineyard sites and breathtaking natural beauty.
A Little Context
Bolivia has about 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of vineyards, most of which lie in the region of Tarija. About 93% of the wine grapes produced in Bolivia come out of the Central Valleys of Tarija, however, the Valleys of Santa Cruz are slowly increasing their production. These valleys include the towns of Vallegrande, Samaipata, and Chilón, all of which have long traditions of winemaking. The Department of Santa Cruz has been producing wine for more than 450 years, though much of the region has been dedicated to cattle ranching for generations. Still, almost every home in Samaipata or Vallegrande has at least a small arbor dedicated to grapevines. Growing small quantities of grapes for family consumption, whether eaten or used to produce wine, is a tradition brought from the Old World.
in 1561 Ñuflo de Chaves, a Spanish conquistador, founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the capital of the Department of Santa Cruz. He arrived in the territory of what is now Paraguay about 20 years earlier to explore the region, traveling up the Río Paraguay and the Río Pilcomayo and eventually making his way to the Andes Mountains. Ñuflo de Chaves was responsible for establishing what is considered the Eastern portion of Bolivia, making way for migrants and shaping the region of Santa Cruz. This region is filled with a variety of different landscapes including the rainforest to the North, the prairie land in the South, and the transition zones, each contributing to the agricultural bounty of Bolivia. Here Europeans were able to plant productive crops of sugarcane, corn, wheat, sorghum, rice and others. In modern times this region has become the agricultural export power, focusing on these crops as well as soybeans and sunflower seeds.
The area around the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was the first to receive plantings of wine and table grapes. The climate in this area, however, is far too warm for producing wine grapes of good quality or yield. With a growing population and the demand for sacramental wine for the church, colonists began to look elsewhere to establish vineyards. In 1586 the King of Spain, Felipe II, granted rights to the region, Mizque, to Álvaro de Chaves, son of Ñuflo de Chaves, for successfully conquering the lands after long campaigns fighting the Guaraní tribe. With the arrival of Álvaro de Chaves, several families began establishing properties in this village, and in 1595 one can see the appearance of the first documentation of a nascent wine industry. For most of the colonial period the region around Mizque belonged to the diocese and the provincial government of Santa Cruz, so it was here that the Jesuits established vineyards creating a very productive wine industry.
The Chiriguana Frontier
An important element to consider in the colonization of the Valleys of Santa Cruz, as we as the growth of wine production, is the existence of the Guaraní tribes. These areas were not simply abandoned and ready for the Spanish to come and settle. The Guaraní had already lived in these valleys after having migrated inland from the area around the Río de Plata around the 14th or 15th centuries. The women in their tribes typically tended to fields of maize and cassava while the men hunted and fished. They occupied thatched house settlements that would need to be relocated every five or six years due to their practice of slash and burn agriculture. The Guaraní were known for being extremely aggressive in the defense of their lands, so the arrival of the Spanish meant conflict.
The Colonists established towns on the border with the Guaraní tribes, and constantly fought to extend their territory. During the second half of the 16th century the war between the Spanish and the Guaraní intensified. As land became available, the Spanish established forts, and eventually villages. As their reach expanded, more and more vineyards were planted increasing the production of wine in these regions. Many important wine producing towns and regions were established in this manner, including Tarija, Mizque, Vallegrande, Tomina, Chilón, Samaipata and Paspaya.
The climate of the Valleys of Santa Cruz is much more closely related to the temperate climate of Europe, though located at tropical latitudes. It is sometimes referred to as a tropical mountain climate, meaning that the valleys are located in tropical latitudes, but their temperature is greatly affected by the altitude of the region. The climate is also greatly influenced by the ‘Surazos’, or southern winds, that blow up from Patagonia. These winds bring cooler temperatures during the winter months (June-August), bringing temperatures to the range needed to help grapevines achieve dormancy (0º-7ºC, 32º-45ºF). This is extremely important as it allows the vines to rest and prevents them from budding twice during the year, which would greatly affect yield and quality.
As with most of Bolivia, the summer months (December - February) in the Santa Cruz Valleys see more rain than in the winter, averaging around 100mm (4 inches) more per month. The warm summer rains increase the chance of botrytis, mildew and other fungal rot, though the risk here is not as high as in other Bolivian growing regions. Measures must be taken to prevent fungus, and often curative treatments must be applied after heavy rains. Many local producers are experimenting with natural methods for combating fungus, rather than using modern anti-fungal treatments, wishing to protect these precious lands.
Mesoclimates here are extremely important to vineyard sites. In the valley of Samaipata, for example, elevation, slope and orientation can greatly affect the microclimate. Rain and fog are more prevalent in lower portions of the valley, while higher elevations can be much drier and warmer. A difference of as little as 250 meters in elevation (850 feet) can have pronounced effects on viticulture, requiring site specific varietal selection.
The Santa Cruz Valleys are a unique expression of Bolivian Terroir. Of course, altitude plays a large role in the quality of fruit and style of wines made here. The higher UV exposure at these elevations create wines with great color and intensity as the plants protect themselves and their fruit from damage. Samaipata lies at about 18 degrees of latitude, which is a tropical level of latitude. This also contributes to the high UV exposure as it is closer to the equator, and provides relatively consistent hours of sunshine for the vines. In January, at the height of the summer, the vines will receive about 13 hours of sun, which is just a bit shorter than many traditional winemaking regions.
The valley also experiences big swings in temperature, typical for higher altitude climates, with warm summer days and cool nights. This effectively stops the ripening process at night, allowing the plants to rest, which allows the fruit to maintain higher levels of acidity. This allows winemakers to make wines of great structure without having to always rely on oak barrels or additives. Many of the varietals that were traditional to this region are known for being quite aromatic, especially those of Muscat of Alexandria, Pedro Giménez, and Torrontés (all contain high levels of terpenes). Aromatic wines made from these grapes can often times be flabby, lacking the structure to match the intensity of the aroma profile. Here in these valleys, the higher acid levels keep aromatic styles fresh and balanced, allowing the floral and fruit intensity to shine.
Soil types vary by site, but many of the best vineyard sites have a combination of clay and sand. Some site can have large concentrations of rock, which can affect the vines by reflecting light and absorbing warmth from the sun to later release it at night. The soils in general in these valleys are acidic, with a pH of 4 to 5.8, which can make it difficult for the vines to properly ripen their fruit. These soils tend to be rich in micronutrients such as copper and manganese, while being poor in macronutrients such as potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium. This requires the vineyard managers to incorporate organic matter, such as compost, into the soil to raise the pH to the desired 6 or 7.
The Santa Cruz valleys have a slightly different mixture of grapevines when compared to the other Bolivian regions. The terroir here is quite a bit different from the Valleys of Tarija or the Cinti Valley. The Santa Cruz Valleys tend to be a little bit cooler, which helped reduce some risk of fungus like mildew and botrytis during the rainy summers. This allows the colonists and missionaries to plant varietals that were less resistant to fungus. In the other valleys, Molle (Pink Peppercorn) trees were planted to train grapevines so that they could take advantage of the anti-fungal properties of their resins. Growers in this area trained their vines up arbors built of the local Tajibo wood in order to promote airflow and prevent any rot during the summer rains.
Traditional Spanish favorites were certainly planted in these valleys, such as Muscat of Alexandria and Misionera (aka Negra Criolla, País), however a wider variety of creole varieties became popular here. Two aromatic favorites here include Torrontés and Pedro Giménez, both of which have high levels of terpenes, aromatic compounds that give these grapes intense floral characteristics. This Pedro Giménez is not to be confused with the classic Spanish grape, Pedro Ximénez, which has been shown not to be genetically similar to the one found in Bolivia. Cereza is another grape that was planted here, which is understood to be a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Listán Negro, a red varietal popular in the Canary Islands. This grape has a darker pink color, much like some Gewürtztraminer or Pinot Gris, adding plenty of aroma and color to still wines made in the area.
During the 19th and 20th century immigrants to the region began bringing in a wider variety of grapevines, including more Spanish varietals like Garnacha and even some Lebanese and Croatian varietals. The Miletta family, a Croatian man who married a woman from Santa Cruz, was the largest producer of wines in this region. They owned vineyards and purchased grapes from local growers to produce most of the wine for the Catholic church in the region. The second larges grape producer in the region was the Tuma family, which was the marriage of a Lebanese immigrant man with a local woman. Other families still produce wines for personal or local consumption throughout the Santa Cruz Valleys, but these larger family business have mostly disappeared.
Currently there is a bit of a revival of wines in the valleys, especially in Samaipata, which has a tremendous potential for wine tourism. Here a few newer Bodegas have appeared and each year more and more hectares of vines are being planted. Samaipata is home to a wide mixture of varietals, with many of the traditional vines still grown in the valley, with a lot of newer, international varietals being brought in. Plantings of classic French varietals have done well, with Tannat, as in other regions of Bolivia, showing a lot of promise. Some of the newer bodegas have experimental vineyards, and are planting everything from obscure French varietals to well known Spanish varietals. Caladoc, a French varietal that is a crossing of Grenache and Malbec has provided a lot of positive results in the areas in and around Samaipata. As with many new world regions, future experimentation will likely continue and future successes may change the current landscape of varietals.
For much of the history of these valleys, the Jesuits were responsible for most of the production, primarily to fulfill the demand of the Catholic church. Most other production was very localized with families and communities producing for their own consumption. Though there is production in areas of the Santa Cruz Valleys, such as Vallegrande and Chilón In the last few decades there has been some investment in Samaipata, increasing the quantity and quality of wine produced in this small valley.
Bodega Uvairenda - Vinos 1750
Bodega Uvairenda, owned and operated by a small group of partners from the region of Santa Cruz, has focused on experimenting with planting different varietals in the valley of Samaipata. Head winemaker and founder Francisco Roig went searching in Bolivia for a unique terroir where he could plant grapes that would make styles he preferred. After a long series of soil studies, climate research, and comparison with other wine regions, the plots of land were selected based on the idea of producing cool climate wines. In Samaipata they could take advantage of early morning summer fog, cooler average temperatures and an elevation from 1,750 to 2,100 meters (5,740 - 6,890 feet) .
The vineyard was set up with experimental plantings of international varietals such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Tannat and others. The Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon proved very successful, both being quite adaptable, reflecting the unique terroir of the region. The most interesting wines, however, came from Tannat: a grape that has been mostly forgotten in France, but has thrived in Uruguay. The grape seemed apt for this environment with its thicker skin and dark pigment, making it naturally more resistant to the increased UV exposure. The wines also benefit greatly from the additional acidity typical for cool, high altitude regions, providing a great counterpoint to the rich fruit flavors and earthy aromas.
Francisco believes in the importance of taking care of the land, and for that reason Uvairenda practices organic viticulture. Instead of spraying their vines and soil with chemicals, they find ways to take care of the vines that will create health instead of just treating disease. For example, by understanding the pH and the soil composition, their viticulturist Roberto Aguilar, uses compost and cover crops to find the balance that the plants need to thrive. They have also found natural ways to prevent and treat mildew and fungus, using citrus oils and other organic compounds. This attitude not only appeals to the growing demand for organic products, but also protects the soil for continued abundance in the vineyard.
Uvairenda sells wines under the label 1750, which reflects their altitude and the impact it has on their wines. They seek to balance ripe fruit with the fresh acids obtained here in this slightly cooler region. Very few of their wines are oaked, relying more on grape tannin and acidity in the wine for structure rather than on oak aging. Maria Eldy, Uvairenda has always focused first on making wines that they enjoy and appreciate, rather than crafting wines specifically for what the market demands. That made sales of their wines difficult at first, as many people in Bolivia prefer fruity, oaked, easy-drinking red wines and sweet white wines, but persistence and solid winemaking eventually won over the locals. Uvairenda now exports to a handful of countries including the Chile, United States, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and France.
Wines of Note
1750 Torrontés - The Torrontés grape has been long cultivated in the Santa Cruz Valleys, prized for its adaptability to the high altitude and for it’s aromatic intensity. This wine showcases the aromatic intensity of this grape while adding about 15% of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pedro Giménez to provide some elegance, balance, and texture. Think pineapple, coconut, passionfruit, and fresh green herbs. This wine is bone dry with the high altitude acidic backbone that keeps it fresh and inviting even when paired with richer, spiced foods.
1750 Syrah - Syrah is known for its versatility in a wide variety of growing environments, and it has no problem adapting to the cooler, mountain climate of Samaipata. This wine is completely unoaked, showcasing the ripe red fruits, herbs, and a strong mineral quality while the acidity keeps the wine fresh and well structured. This is not your ripe, jammy Australian shiraz, but more like an elegant, yet expressive French Syrah.
Bodega Landuá is a project of Carlos Landivar, who first planted vines in the Altos del Fuerte area of Samaipata in 2011, which lies a bit higher up than Bodega Uvairenda. The vineyards lie between 1,700 and 1,800 meters above sea level (5,600 and 5,900 feet). This mesoclimate is a little cooler and wetter than lower parts of the valley. The first plantings included Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Syrah, Chardonay, Sémillon, and Malbec. In 2013 land was cleared and planted to a wider variety of grapes including the new Bolivian favorite Tannat, as well as Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Carignan y Sauvignon Blanc.
The The original work on the bodega was done with the help of Josef Marie Chanton, a Swiss winemaker, who helped with vineyard and varietal selection. Eventually Argentine enologists Luis Martinez and Sebastian Parra took over the operation and now are in charge of the winery and operations.
This winery makes wines under two different labels: Parras del Fuerte, named after the vineyard location, and Castilla, named after a region in central Spain. This name can certainly be attributed to Carlos' love for Spanish wines and varietals, which explains the planting of Tempranillo and Cariñena (Carignan), two grape varietals popular in Spain. The Parras del Fuerte line focuses on single varietal expressions of the terroir of the Altos del Fuerte mesoclimate, while the Castilla line showcases blends of the different varietals they grow. The family is aging a selection of Tannat, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in French and American oak barrels, and will release a Reserve line in 2018 with these wines.
Wine of Note
Castilla Tannat/Syrah Blend - The structure and earthiness of Tannat is balanced with the elegance of high altitude Syrah in this blend, finding the right balance between intensity and freshness. This is a food friendly red that can be enjoyed on its own or at any backyard barbecue.
Coffee and Samaipata
It is worth noting that the Santa Cruz Valleys are home to both vineyards and coffee plantations. It is extremely unusual for these two agricultural products to be grown near each other, highlighting the truly unique terroir that exists here. Coffee trees can only be grown grown in the tropics, from the 0 to 23.5º of latitude, and Vitis Vinifera vines are typically only grown in latitudes from 30 to 50º. These zones are referred to as the coffee and the wine belts. Bolivia lies within the coffee belt, being a completely tropical country. However, in the altitude both of these products can be produced almost side by side. The Santa Cruz Valleys are home to some of the southernmost coffee plantations in South America as well as the northernmost vineyards. It is quite a rarity to be able to taste wines at a vineyard, then drive thirty minutes away into a nearby valley and to cup coffee on a plantation.
Bolivian coffee has received international recognition for the quality of its coffees, including from the Cup of Excellence, a program that judges, identifies and shares the best coffee growers in the world. Altitude again is a topic of focus, helping to create the unique terroir for Bolivian coffee, much as it does for Bolivian wine. The coffee tree’s growing cycle is slower in the altitude, allowing for a different style of ripening as well as a well balanced acid profile. Overall, coffee production in Bolivia has been falling, even as interest and demand for the product grows. The major issue is that local farmers are able to earn more by growing coca plants, so many families abandon their coffee plantations and plant coca elsewhere. Hopefully, as recognition and prices increase we will see a return to higher levels of coffee production from these valleys.
The Future of the Santa Cruz Valleys
Wine production has only recent began to grow again in these beautiful valleys. Over the last few decades we have seen a lot of investment, planting, and improvement in production and quality. It is no doubt that this trend will continue during the next several decades. These Valleys have enormous potential for helping the Bolivian wine industry grow. The more well known winemaking regions of the Cinti Valley and the Central Valleys of Tarija have the potential for increasing plantings and production, but there is only a small amount of space with potential for vines. In the Santa Cruz Valleys, there is the possibility to plant several thousand more hectares of vines. The potential is great, but there will be plenty of hurdles along the way. Stay tuned for more updates as more and more wines from these beautiful valleys make their way out into foreign markets, or better yet, do yourself a favor and take a trip to Samaipata and check them out for yourself.
Roig, Francisco. Personal interview. 04 Apr 2018.
Aguilar Jerez, Roberto. Personal interview. 07 June 2018.
Daroca, Marcela Canedo. Vinos De Bolivia: De Los Viñedos Más Altos Del Mundo = Wines of Bolivia: from the Highest Vineyards of the World. Fundación Autapo, 2008.
Roig Justiniano, Francisco. “La Vitivinicultura En Los Valles Sudorientales De Los Andes En Bolivia Durante La Colonia Española.” Boletín: Sociedad De Estudios Geográficos e Históricos De Santa Cruz, no. 68, ser. 2013-2014, Dec. 2014, pp. 89–108. 2013-2014.