Sitting in the Hotel Rosario del Lago, having lunch while enjoying a view of Lake Titicaca, my companion and I sipped a Franc Colombard from Bolivian winery Campos de Solana. In that moment, it occurred to me that the world would not associate wine—let alone good wine—with Bolivia. Bolivia wine = oxymoron? Well, no. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Let’s put some thought to this South American wines question. Yes, Chile—with big money from France—has long made huge inroads into the world wine market. However, in the past, to sip the best of Argentina required going to the city of Mendoza, in the Cuyo Region, hiring a taxi for the day and visiting three wineries per day for three days running. The result was a saucing that was well worth the education.
However, the experience leaves you with the determination to return next year to taste what you missed.
Argentina, the fifth-largest wine producer in the world (little known, because the Argentines drink it all), is now exporting some truly amazing reds (i.e. Malbec, Carmenere etc.). Also, Argentina now produces wonderful espumante and cavas— sparkling wines in the traditional methode champenoise style. Chandon is the biggest player. Bringing bubbles to Latin fiestas, these bottles are happily clacking around in South America and are making their way into the United States, England, Northern Europe, Brazil and Japan.
Over the years, the planting of grapes just east of the Andes Mountain range has extended farther north, coming ever closer to Bolivia’s wine-growing region of Tarija (just 230 miles north of Argentina’s wine center, Salta). Bolivia has some of the highest-altitude vineyards on the planet— between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. This physical characteristic, coupled with its proximity to the equator, assists in providing Bolivia with the warm days and cool nights that are so important in growing grapes with the potential of producing world-class wines.
Fifteen years ago, when I was first exposed to Latin American wines, they were young, ample, fresh wines meant to be drunk immediately. Many were available in Tetra Pak (litre juice-carton-size) or in the 5-litre demijohn. They were perfect for weekend parrilladas (South America barbecue). But much has changed since then. Representatives of Bolivia’s major wine families have studied oenology at UC Davis and in France. The soil and climate have been analyzed while the grape varieties have been identified and imported from California and elsewhere in South America.
The apt description of the “highest wineries in the world” speaks to the advantage shared by all of Bolivia’s wine producers. It is widely held that the high altitude and the unfiltered Bolivian sunlight create a healthful wine, packed with antioxidants and complex, intense flavors. The world’s wine aficionados are predicting success through focusing on the unique nature of Bolivian wines. Being as the region is small, the vintners will need to concentrate on niche wines of super-high quality to win acclaim worldwide. Every year brings yet more improvement to an already enjoyable tipple.
Currently, Bolivian wines are primarily exported to Switzerland, Germany, England, Peru, Japan and Hong Kong, while the United States benefits from importation principally to the Bolivian community around the Washington, D.C., area.
In the world of wine, there is much information to absorb, but I am not one to quibble. Suffice it to say the bottle of La Concepcion Cabernet Sauvignon Cepas de Altura 2007 opened tonight at dinner was enjoyed immensely. And I look forward to tomorrow and the Bolivian wines it might bring.
Longtime traveler and food enthusiast Mick Huerta lives in Utah and writes about his favorite topics at MickHuerta.blogspot.com