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In search of Bolivia's beautiful wines

Vineyards from the Andes make fine bottles with smooth tannins and eclectic aromas

A wine from Jardin Oculto, (Image: Jardin Oculto, Facebook)
A wine from Jardin Oculto, (Image: Jardin Oculto, Facebook)

At almost 2,000-meters above sea level, Bolivian wine-growers are continuing a centuries-old tradition started by Jesuit missionaries in a bid to capture a niche market with their unique product.

In the southern Tarija department in the foothills of the Andes mountain range, the little known Bolivian vineyards find themselves dwarfed between the two regional wine-growing giants: Argentina and Chile.

Those two countries are respectively the seventh and eighth largest wine producers in the world and share 200,000 hectares of vineyards.

The 5,000 hectares of vineyards in Tarija benefit from a temperate climate with intense sunshine during the day and humidity at night, with the region protected from strong winds from the north.

"The altitude means that we have less ozone layer filtering the rays, which means there's more ultraviolet rays at higher altitudes ... which produces a response from the plant," said oenologist Nelson Sfarcich.

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That in turn produces thicker grape skins and a higher content of resveratrol, a chemical that is believed to help protect against cancer and heart disease.

Maria Jose Granier, owner of the artisanal Jardin Oculto vineyard, says that "the altitude allows the vines to enter dormancy in winter, sprout in summer and have a better reproductive cycle."

- 'Smooth and strong' -

Bolivian wine production is mostly concentrated between 21 and 23 degrees latitude at 1,600 to 2,000 meters altitude.

But there are some crops in hot Andean areas up to 3,000 meters.

Helmuth Kohlberg, a wine-grower, says that wines from vineyards at altitude "are very different" to others due to "an interesting concentration of aromas" and unique color.

"The tannins mature very smoothly and we end up with grapes that have very ripe and soft tannin seeds. It's really quite striking."

Granier says these Bolivian offerings appeal to those that "like elegant wines. They're wines that don't have a very high alcohol content, but rather they have smooth aromas and flavors that are strong at the same time."

The independent sommelier Carla Molina Garcia says that the well-known Muscat of Alexandria grape, used in 70 percent of wine crops grown in Bolivia, produces "sweet wines that are quite aromatic."

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- 'Distinctive' -

Wine, mostly from Spain, was first grown in Bolivia by Jesuits that arrived in the Potosi region that neighbors Tarija in the 17th century.

They were attracted to the area, like many lay people, due to the rush to exploit gold and silver mines.

In 1625, Potosi was one of the biggest cities in the world with around 165,000 people.

With barely eight million hectoliters, mostly sold within the country, Bolivia's wine production is dwarfed by that of Argentina or Chile.

A few bottles of sparkling wine are sold to China and the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Tannat and Port are offered by wine merchants in the United States, and occasionally even France and Japan.

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And it is the aromatic nature of these high altitude wines that is pushing viticulturists to target a niche, high-quality market.

The growing popularity of the wines has coincided with a gastronomic boom in La Paz, heavily reliant on local flavors.

"There's no great potential for (physical) expansion, but in terms of quality there is room to do a lot," said Garcia.

"In a few years time, hopefully Bolivia will really be known as a wine-growing country. Small, of course, but with distinctive wines."

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