Bolivian wines? Really? This is probably what most people think when I mention the subject. In fact, it did take us a while to work our way through some distinctly ordinary wines, but, finally, Bolivia revealed her secrets with bodegas whose wines were excellent and compared well to the better Argentinian and Chilean examples we had tried.
We were very pleasantly surprised to find that our wine journey didn’t come to a screeching halt when we left Argentina and Chile. It had actually started in Uruguay at the beginning of our trip, where the best known grape is Tannat and we came across a few good examples. Unfortunately, as we were only in Uruguay for a short time, we were not able to do a comprehensive study! Southern Brazil also produces some wines but once more our time was limited. I have been told that some of them are good but I didn’t manage to find anything particularly special in my limited sample size. Peru, where we are now, has the oldest vineyards on the continent, some large grape growing areas, but only a handful of major wine producers. I’m afraid that I have rather given up on them, as it is really is all about the pisco here (which we will talk about in a future blog).
So now we come to Bolivia. Most people who visit the country will come across a couple of widely distributed wineries (Campos de Solana and Aranjuez), whose cheap ranges are a bit dodgy but get a bit more drinkable at the higher end (around £5 – £8, or $7 – $11). Given the choice between these two, I would always go for Aranjuez. The more expensive reds are often blends of two or three grapes, which generally work better. Although the Aranjuez Tannat (2013), which has won some awards, is served at Gustu (La Paz’ leading restaurant) and does need to breath for a while to let it soften, but is very drinkable.
The vineyards are generally found in the south, in Tarija, not far from the Argentinian border and they are at altitude. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they can make some decent wine with the conditions being quite similar to that of Salta in northern Argentina. There is also a new winery (Uvairenda) in the east near Samaipata on the edge of the Andes, which is breaking new ground, but more of that later.
Something the Bolivians do differently to their southern neighbours is that they often age the wine. This can make a very big difference. In Sucre we found a supermarket that had lots of Chilean wines that were five to seven years old (probably bin ends) – we drank as many as we could! It was here that we came across the bodega La Conception, whose higher end wines, aged a few years, were pretty good. Indeed we came across a 2007 Reserva Chardonnay we kept going back for, which was a beautiful yellow colour and had the complexity often found in old French whites, all for the princely sum of £5.20 (about $7.50).
It was when we went to La Paz that our eyes were really opened up by visits to Gustu, Hallwright’s (the ‘highest’ wine bar in the world, where we chatted to the new owner for a while) and an excellent bottle shop on Plaza Humbolt in the posh area of town, near the embassies. The new (to us) wineries were Sausini, Casa Grande, Magnus and Uvairenda and they were a revelation. The first three are all aged, and of the ones we tried, Sausini’s Merlot (2011) and Cabernet Sauvignon (2010) varietals were quite special. Our Christmas lunch red was the Casa Grande Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (2005), which gives the 2005 Bordeaux vintage a run for its money. In contrast, Uvairenda, the vineyard from Samaipata, with their 1750 varietal range (the vineyard is at 1750m above sea level) need to be drunk young (we were told not to think about the 2012 vintage) and are lovely wines. The Torrontes in particular is as good as the best Argentinian ones from Salta (with a slight sweetness that I prefer in Torrontes).
However be warned, to sample these wines, you are going to have to spend a bit of money. First of all you need to go to Bolivia as they are extremely difficult to find outside the country. There is a move to start exporting them (see www.winesofbolivia.com) but the best vineyards don’t seem to be involved in this initiative. Once in Bolivia, they are difficult to find outside La Paz and they range from about £8 – £15 ($11 – $21) a bottle. Whilst this is not particularly expensive for us in Europe, it is extraordinarily expensive for Bolivians, where the average annual salary is around $3,000, the lowest is South America. Perhaps the local market will remain quite small for these higher end wines.
There is also one more product that all the vineyards seem to do – Singani. This is brandy like spirit distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes and is the Bolivian version of pisco. It has quite a lot of fruit in it’s flavour and to my mind is actually superior to the Chilean piscos, although there isn’t the range that is found with Peruvian piscos. Unfortunately it is also hard to find outside Bolivia…
So all in all, once we had spent some time there, Bolivia revealed her best wines to us and I for one have become an advocate!