Welcome to Colombia, an unusual wine destination full of surprises, with only four small producers at present. We went to meet the pioneer, Marqués de Puntalarga, a 3 hours drive north of Bogotá, the first project of sustainable viticulture within a tropical climate in the world(1).
Meeting Dr. Marco Quijano Rico, the owner and founder of Marqués de Puntalarga, was a touching encounter, filled with humanity. Without a doubt one of the highlights of the project. Joie de vivre embodied, of great simplicity, Marco is above all a scholar with a passion for science. He is doctor in chemistry and he speaks seven languages fluently, including French. He spent 20 years in Europe before returning to his country, where he headed the research center of the Colombian Coffee Institute for 22 years.
Since childhood, he has always nurtured the dream of growing grapes in Colombia. Everything started on the day in 1944, when his father took him to Fira Vitoba (15 km from his current vineyard), to let him taste his first wine. There, in front of a vine planted in the garden of one of the houses of the village, his father handed him a glass of a great sweet Sauternes, a Château d'Yquem, and said to him: "taste that my son, this wine comes from a vine, like the one you see in front of you". The child that was Marco at the time had magic in his throat and stars in his eyes.
All his life, Marco maintained this dream. In 1982, he could buy a piece of land, culminating at 2570 m above sea level, after having studied this land that would soon become the future Marqués de Puntalarga winery for three years.
Yes, Marco is a scientist and a rational man above all and he doesn’t leave anything to chance. He planted 35 grape varieties, to see which one will adapt best. That was the beginning of a beautiful story.
Admiring the view from the top of the hill of Puenta Lungo, we were captivated by this vineyard of 3.8 hectares planted with hillsides, majestically enthroning over the valley. Here, Riesling, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir ripen well. These three varieties have shown the best results from the beginning, producing fresh and elegant wines. Enough to proudly register Colombia on the list of wine producing countries in the world.
An incredible choice of grape varieties for this region of the world, located between the 4th and 5th parallel north, and yet, as the tasting proved, the wines are delicious! "The terroir effect has an additional factor here : brightness. We have six times more UV radiation intensity than in Bordeaux, for example. This is due to the combination of two parameters: altitude and proximity to the equator", Marco explained. Adding : "In our red wine, we measured the levels of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant. It is the largest in the world".
To drink the Pinot Noir of Marqués de Puntalarga is therefore a cure for the preservation of youth, if one believes, like we do, in the French Paradox(2).
And that's not all. The unique microclimate of the Puenta Lungo hill also allows sustainable viticulture: the first of its kind within a tropical climate. Everything here is done manually (including weeding) and no chemical treatment is necessary. A real feat. "The daily wind which blows here naturally dries the grapes", Marco said.
It is true that with sunny and temperate days all year (24°C maximum), coupled with cool nights – during which it is not unusual for temperatures to drop to around 4°C – conditions are ideal for viticulture.
Add to that daily morning mist, which keeps some freshness until mid-day. The equation is perfect.
Marqués de Puntalarga consists of a total of 14 hectares, of which 10 hectares are spread over 33 small plots in the region. Each of them belongs to a farmer who manages the cultivation. These small vineyards are located between 18 and 140 km around the winery and between 2200 and 2700 meters above sea level. Each of these vineyards is the initiative of Marco, who literally boosted viticulture in Colombia in the mid-90s.
Two reasons led him to this approach : first of all, the curiosity of doing research on other terroirs of the valley ; and also to ensure a stable production, while controlling the quality of the grapes before purchase. It is also Marco who set the purchase price of grapes, (around 3USD), taking as a basis the price of table grapes (0.60USD) and valuing the sugar level.
In the beginning, one challenge was how to approach the farmers from the region and convince them to plant vines on their land, when they had other crops and had never grown wine grapes before. Clever as he is, he began by inviting the farmers' daughters to participate in the wine festival that he organized every year since the creation of the estate, so that they compete in the election of the Miss of the event.
Marco is definitely full of resources. "I always need to be involved in several projects. If I retire, it's the end", said this young man full of enthusiasm, who will celebrate his 85th year in August. We can only be full of admiration?
During our last meal together, Marco shared, not without sadness, that the vineyard around his estate was seriously ill and doomed to disappear soon. Analyzes revealed that the vineyard was poisoned. Surely an act by someone who is jealous. Pathetic. Marco does not feel the strength to replant this vineyard. Despite this, he keeps smiling.
With emotion in the eyes and a glass of Riesling in hand, we toasted this beautiful encounter, around a delicious dish of seafood spaghetti that Marco lovingly cooked for us, deglazing even the sauce of the dish with the same Rielsing bottle that we savored. A timeless moment.
Thank you to Docter Marco Quijano Rico, founder of Marqués de Puntalarga, for his warm welcome and availability.
(1) It is the application to viticulture of the concept of reasoned agriculture, ie global operations management approaches that aim, beyond compliance with regulations, to reinforce the positive impact of agricultural practices on the environment and to reduce their negative effects, without jeopardizing the economic profitability of farms.
(2) Resveratrol is a very potent antioxidant polyphenol of the stilbene class. It is found in significant quantities in wine where its presence has been mentioned to explain the health benefits of moderate consumption of wine ; more commonly known as the French Paradox.