The arrival by bus from Peru was calamitous with a 32-hour journey driving on roads one more chaotic than the other!
Having arrived in La Paz, the capital, which rises up to 3 660 meters above sea level, it was impossible for me to breath normally. My head was going to explode. I had to stay in bed for two days in the dark to recover… Acute mountain sickness is not fun at all !
Healed, we took the direction of the central valley of Tarija (1) to the south, where 2,400 hectares of vineyards, cultivated at between 1,600 and 2,150 meters, were awaiting us. A unique wine topography named Vinos de Altura by Wines of Bolivia for their promotional campaigns of communication – because all the vineyards in the country are cultivated at between 1,600 and 3,000 meters above sea level !
Therefore – and even if the vines are located between the 17º and the 22º parallels, south to the equator – the climate is temperate, semi-arid and allows for the production of quality wines.
Also a boon for the development of wine tourism in the region, through hikes and excursions coupled with visits to wineries.
We were invited for a walk in the vineyard of Casa Real – one of the six major players in the country (2) – by José Luis Aguirre, Managing Director of the family estate.
Facing us, ancient lakes from the Jurassic period, extending to the horizon, gave way to lunar areas of a rare beauty.
"In Tarija, viticulture is heroic", José Luis explained. Because soil erosion is an important factor and the working conditions are harsh. Both for man with the oppressive heat and the fragmented topography of the land and for machines, which are struggling to make their way.
Be aware, he added, that the brightness is such in this region of the world that resveratrol (3) is found in greater concentration here in the red grapes than usually found in Pinot Noir (supposed to be the variety that contains the most!).
As a result, the estate has focused on the production of high quality sparkling wines, such as Altosama NV, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Xarell Lo, that we had the pleasure of tasting at lunch.
The wine history of Bolivia goes back to 1548 with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and is reminiscent of its South American neighbours (4). Far away from the sacramental wines of the old days, the country is now producing fine wines which sometimes age very well. As at La Concepción estate, where Claudia Morales, the owner, arranged a wine tasting of the 2006 vintage for us in the vineyard.
"Here, the terroir is wonderful and it has all the ingredients to make great wines. The only problem is the theft of grapes at night during the harvest. We must be vigilant since we could lose up to 50% of the crop because of this plague!", said Claudia.
If there is a vineyard where we you would love to settle down for the weekend, it is at Sausini, a boutique estate owned by Mario Hinojosa Antezana, an hour far away from Tarija. Like a conqueror, Panama on, neatly trimmed beard, in an impeccable white linen shirt, cigar in one hand and cane in the other, Mario was waiting on the porch of the family house, adjacent to the winery. "The place is rustic and we are farmers", he said smiling.
Just a few steps to go from the vineyard to the garden, where we met with two beautiful parrots, both talkative and curious.
After the visit, we were invited to enjoy an aperitif. A sacred word that rhymes here with Singani (5), a traditional spirit made from the distillation of Muscat of Alexandria wine, featuring flavours of orange peel.
Served in several cocktails at lunchtime, in Chuflay (with ice and ginger ale or Canada Dry) and in Singani Sour (with lemon juice and bitters), take care not to abuse of this delicious drink that is better than whey.
Or you will have to enjoy another local custom : a short but saving nap…
Thank you to Sergio Prudencio Navarro from Wines of Bolivia for his help and great organization of our stay, as well as Casa Real, La Concepción, Kohlberg, Aranjuez, Campos de Solana and Sausini wineries for their warm welcome.
(1) With a total of 3,000 hectares, Bolivia has many valleys where wine is produced: the Tarija Central Valley with 2,400 hectares of vineyards (1,600 to 2,150 meters above sea level) ; Los Cintis Valley with 300 hectares (2,220 to 2,414 m); Santa Cruz Valley with 100 hectares (1,600 – 2,030 m) and various valleys in Potosí, La Paz and Cochabamba, with nearly 200 hectares between 1600 and 3000 meters.
(2) The country has hundreds of small wineries, including 6 major players.
(3) Resveratrol is a polyphenol from the stilbenes class, present in some fruit like grapes, blackberries and peanuts. Significant amounts are found in wine where its presence was evoked to explain the beneficial health effects of a moderate wine consumption.
(4) See previous articles on Mexico and Peru
(5) Singani spirits from Casa Real, La Concepción and Sausini estates are particularly delicious.