A unique voice from South America is materializing as the caliber of Bolivian wines rises. Ten years ago, Bolivian wine was unknown even within the continent, overshadowed by the wine-producing giants of Chile and Argentina. The wines, limited with just 7,400 acres planted, have long been consumed almost entirely domestically, meeting the expectations of a local consumer base that preferred semi-sweet, simple, and inexpensive blends.
But today, a younger generation of winemakers and proprietors are distinguishing their style—one of elegance, fresh floral aromas, ripe tannin, and electric color. Most notably, the country’s Vinos de Altura, or Altitude Wines, offer a serious, refined expression. Bolivia has the highest altitude vineyard surface in the world, and the best winemakers are harnessing its potential.
As in much of South America, vines were first brought to Bolivia in the 16th century by Spanish colonists. The most prominent varieties were Muscat of Alexandria and Misionera (also known as Mission, Negra Criolla, Pais, and Criolla Chica). In 1545, silver was discovered in the city of Potosí. This brought a swarm of European settlers, and by the end of the 16th century, Potosí was the world’s largest industrial complex; it would remain the largest city in the Western Hemisphere through the 17th century.
Potosí’s mining industry provided incredible wealth to the Spanish colonists. To quench the thirst of the wine-drinking European population, vines were planted in the valleys around the city. But living at over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), the people of Potosí wanted a stronger beverage to warm the cold mountain nights. Locals began distilling Muscat of Alexandria to make singani, a clear brandy similar to pisco. The region’s high elevation offers both significant ultraviolet exposure and lower temperatures, resulting in thicker skins and increased phenolic development, leading to heightened aromatics. Singani was left unoaked to preserve its heady floral aromatics. The popularity of the spirit continued to grow after independence was won from the Spanish and the Republic of Bolivia was declared by Simon Bolivar in 1825. But as European influenced declined, so did wine consumption.
After a politically devastating battle with Chile in the late 19th century over Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Coast, the country lost its connection to the ocean, and thus to the international export market. Bolivia spiraled into economic instability. The average Bolivian came to prefer inexpensive singani or chicha, a local fermented beverage derived from maize. Fine wine was reserved for the elite.
Singani remains popular, with some brands—such as Los Parralas, pictured here—making both wine and the spirit (Photo credit: Alexander Terrazas)
The blends for simple table wines were comprised of Criolla Chica and Spanish grapes until the 1960s, when Don Julio Kohlberg Chavarria brought wine technology from Argentina to the department of Tarija. Slightly lower in elevation than the valleys around Potosí, Tarija enjoys a milder, sunnier climate with low rainfall and cool nights, ideal for grape cultivation. French grapes were planted and introduced as single-variety wines. Kohlberg also implemented temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and 225-liter barriques. For the first time, dry Bolivian table wines began appearing on supermarket shelves and at restaurants. Although the average consumer still preferred semi-sweet blends from Muscat and Criolla grapes, Kohlberg paved the way for a new generation of winemakers. Campos de Solana and La Conception, two of the area’s most influential operations, were founded in the early 2000s. Bodegas Kohlberg remains in operation, the oldest and largest winery in Bolivia.
In 1992, a Denomination of Origin was created for singani in the Central Valley of Tarija, the Valleys of Cinti, and the regions of La Paz and Potosí. The city of Tarija was later named Bolivia's National Capital of Grapes and Wine, and a law was created identifying “elaboration of artisanal wines in the provinces of Avilés and Méndez (Tarija) as ‘Cultural Patrimony.’” However, no Bolivian wines have yet been awarded a DO.
The technology brought to Tarija in the 1960s promoted a shift toward cleaner, higher quality wines, which encouraged wine drinking in Bolivia. By the latter half of the 20th century, the planting of French grapes was on the rise, though most winemakers admit this was due to the reputation of the grapes, not insight into regions or vineyard sites. But as a younger generation from family-owned wineries in Tarija were trained in wine regions such as Napa Valley and Chile’s Maipo Valley, they returned with both the education and drive to make world-class wine. They first mimicked the wines of these New World regions, pushing for Bordeaux grapes and plenty of oak, but as time went on, they paid more attention to which grapes performed best in individual regions. Crucially, winemakers observed that intense UV light transformed tannic grapes into plush, aromatic wine. Grapes such as Tannat, Petit Verdot, and Malbec became the darlings of Tarija. Winemakers began highlighting these in single-variety bottlings, such as the Juan Cruz Tannat from Aranjuez and the Esther Ortiz Petit Verdot from Campos de Solana. In 2013, Bolivian wine received its first international gold medal when the 2012 Juan Cruz outperformed wines from Uruguay at the Tannat al Mundo competition. The wines of Bolivia have continued to perform well in international competitions, piquing international interest. London and China are currently the biggest importers of Bolivian wine.
Experiments continue with new grape varieties and everything from appassimento to Charmat and barrique to botti. Ongoing investment from Holland’s Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries has allowed for further research on vineyard sites, grape selection, and winemaking technology. And enthusiasm in the local industry is high. “We want to refresh the game,” says Helmut Kohlberg of Bodegas Kohlberg. “We need show the world the potential here.”
Bolivia is a landlocked country, with Peru and Chile to the west, Argentina and Paraguay to the south, and Brazil to the east and north. It is about the same distance from the equator as Mexico, but without the mitigating forces of a major body of water. Bolivia’s wine regions are semi-arid with a mild continental climate, with most rain during the summer months. Hail can be a threat, so much so that in 2005, a law was passed enforcing all vineyards to adopt systems to mitigate the effects of hail.
Notably, 99% of Bolivia’s vineyards are located between 1,600 and 3,000 meters (5,200 to 9,840 feet) above sea level, with all major wine regions within the Altiplano, the high plain of South America. No other country in the world can claim this percentage of vineyard surface under extreme altitude. Wines of Bolivia reports that, due to altitude and slope, the country’s wine grapes are 100% hand-harvested. The high altitude has a variety of other impacts. It increase thermal amplitude, heightening the freshness and acidity in the wines. Ultraviolet exposure promotes photosynthesis, heightens the development of phenolics, and improves stem lignification, resulting in riper tannins. Research also suggests that higher altitude wines contain more resveratrol, the heart-healthy antioxidant found in red wine, than lower altitude wines.
Many of Bolivia’s table wines are made with international grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, due to the popularity of the grapes and earlier waves of planting. Today, however, many winemakers are interested in the expressing the character of the Vinos de Altura (a marketing, not legal, term), rather than replicating a cookie-cutter international style. The strength of the UV exposure calls for thicker-skinned varieties; red wines make up 77% of the country’s production. With Argentina as a neighbor, it is no surprise that Bolivia is a good home for Malbec. In its native home of France, Malbec is a hard, tannic grape that is difficult to ripen. But at high altitudes, the UV exposure encourages ripe tannins and alluring floral aromatics.
Producers are also excited about the potential of Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tannat, and, surprisingly, Ugni Blanc. While usually a more neutral grape, elevation increases the organoleptic characteristics of Ugni Blanc. As demonstrated by Kohlberg’s lightly oaked Stelar Ugni Blanc, the grape displays ripe stone fruit and red apple aromas with a creamy texture. Tannat takes on a magenta hue with velvety tannins and a dried cranberry aroma. Bolivians generally showcase Tannat with less oak than is typical in Uruguay. Ancestral vines from the Spaniards are still common as well, especially in Los Cintis, including Muscat of Hamburg, Misionera, Vischoqueña, and Rubby Cabernet, varieties that perform well in dry climates like this one. These old vines produce wines that are concentrated and complex due to low vigor.
A flagship grape has yet to surface, but Muscat of Alexandria (Moscatel de Alejandria) is the most planted and grows well, though most is used for singani. In other parts of the world, yields must be managed to maintain the aroma of this high-production grape. But yields are typically low in Bolivia due to the dry climate and old vines. Muscat of Alexandria is often used as the dominant grape for inexpensive table wines still popular among domestic consumers.
Most likely, tannic red grapes and aromatic white grapes will constitute the bulk of production in years to come.
Two mountain ranges define Bolivia: the Cordillera Andes, which create the South American Altiplano (the plateau on which Bolivia sits), and the Cordillera Real, a primarily granite range running parallel to the Andes in southeastern Bolivia. The vast majority (93%) of grapes for wine production are centered around the southern department of the Tarija Valley, about a seven-hour drive from Cafayate in Argentina’s Salta region. Altitudes range from 1,600 to 2,150 meters (5,200 to 7,000 feet). A cool eastern breeze influences grapegrowing, contributing to the fresh, elegant style of the region. According to enologist Franz Molina, owner of Kuhlmann Wines & Los Parrales distillery, the mountains change the air pressure, bringing rains during the summer months to the otherwise desert-like region. Farmers in Tarija utilize the tributaries of the Tarija River to irrigate their crops. Once a giant lake, the soils are primarily characterized by infertile sandy and alluvial soils.
Bolivia's striking mountain landscape (Photo credit: Alexander Terrazas)
Although no official subregions have been cited by the government, locals have begun to take note of distinct areas within the valley. In some cases, they are listed on the bottle. La Concepción, 17 miles south of the city of Tarija, has fertile soils and a cooler, more humid climate. White grapes perform well here, most famously the kiwi-scented Sauvignon Blanc from La Concepción Winery. Some sparkling wines are made as well, such as Altosama Brut from Kuhlmann.
The Sella region has the highest altitude at 7,049 feet. Santa Ana, with infertile soils and a dry climate, has long been regarded as a grand cru of sorts for Tannat within the Tarija department.
Los Cintis Valley is located just over two hours west of Tarija on the road to Potosí, at a slightly higher elevation of up to 2,400 meters above sea level. The region is known for its 300-year old vines as well as viticultural practices that date back to the Spanish colonization. The vines often grow among the trunks of the local molle trees, pruned to provide adequate sunlight for the grapes. With an output of about 15,000 liters per year, Los Casona de Molina is the largest producer.
Currently, the Valley of Santa Cruz de la Sierra makes just 100 hectares of grapes. However, due to the region’s proximity to Bolivia’s largest city, interest and development are growing. Various plots can be found around La Paz, Potosí, and Cochabamba. Centuries-old vineyards remain in valleys surrounding the Amazons, although these make up less than 1% of total production.
Though no labeling laws have been adopted, producers largely adhere to 90% for vintage, 85% for grape variety, and 100% for a designated region.
Six wineries account for the lion’s share of wine production in Tarija (listed from highest production): Bodegas Kohlberg, Aranjuez, Campos de Solana (winery) and Casa Real (distillery), La Concepción, Bodegas Kuhlmann (winery) and Singani Los Parrales (distillery), and Bodegas Sausini. However, even Kohlberg, the largest of the group, only has 115 hectares under vine. The “big” wineries in Bolivia aren’t making mass-produced wines by any means; they are simply large enough to create quality wine that could reach international consumers.
Most of the wineries are family owned and operated. Typically, several tiers of quality are offered, from everyday blends to impressive, oak-aged single-variety wines. There are also a handful of boutique wineries, such as Resolana in La Concepción, focusing on quality and minimal intervention, although still in the traditional semi-sweet style.
To date, the strongest style to emerge from Bolivia is that of tannic reds with a plush texture and acute floral aroma, produced with fairly minimal intervention.
Production: 32,000 hectoliters
Hectares under vine: 115
The patriarch of the family brought modern winemaking technology to Tarija from Argentina in the 1960s, paving the way for other wineries to create serious, quality-focused wines. As the oldest and largest wine operation in Bolivia, Kohlberg’s wines are the country’s easiest to find. Currently, about 10% of production is exported. Franz Kohlberg and his cousin Helmut frequently travel to promote their wines and learn from other regions. They are currently playing with their version of “Amarone.”
Stelar Ugni Blanc 2015: Aged in neutral French barrel for four months. The mouthfeel is round and creamy. Red apple skin, acacia, and peach pit on the nose. Cinnamon and mineral notes on the finish.
Syrah 2014: The fleshy texture of the Syrah is lifted by fresh acidity and aroma. Ripe blackberry, pistachio, and star anise play on the nose in this pleasantly fruity and uniquely spicy wine.
Production: 28,000 hectoliters
Hectares under vine: 200
Established in 1977, Aranjuez is one of the largest operations in Bolivia and one of the highest quality as well. The blended Terruno line is popular as an everyday wine within Bolivia, and the Tannat wines have received international acclaim, including a Bronze Medal at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards. Made from 100% Tannat, Juan Cruz, named after their most veteran employee, is their top bottling. “In 10 years, Bolivia will be known for Tannat,” asserts owner Gerardo Aguirre Castellanos.
Juan Cruz 2014: The nose is savory, leading with iodine and desiccated violets, but finishing with fig, dried blueberry, and currant. A seductive weight on the palate with ripe tannin and a long finish. Aged for one year in French and American oak.
Tannat Origen 2015: The first single-vineyard bottling in Bolivia, these grapes are selected from a plot within Santa Ana. The color is electric magenta and nearly opaque, and the mouthfeel is unexpectedly bright and playful. Aromas of potpourri, cranberry, and cinnamon.
Production: 27,000 hectoliters wine, 13,000 hectoliters singani
Hectares under vine: 80
Winemaker Nelson Sfarcich trained in Napa Valley at Pine Ridge. The family that owns the winery has been making singani at Casa Real since 1925 but only opened the doors of Campos de Solana in 2000. The whites are impressive, although their reds receive the most attention.
Riesling 2016: The texture is round without lacking acidity. Explosive aromas of passionfruit, papaya, and citrus blossom dominate the nose, but the palate remains dry.
Trivarietal 2014: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec, 10% Tannat. Although the wine is made in an international style, the aroma is led by fruit, not oak. Blueberry and plum skin lead into smoke and clove, with the classic violet note of Malbec apparent on the finish. An elegant and balanced wine.
Production: 500 hectoliters wine, 800 hectoliters singani
Hectares under vine: 40
Owner Franz Molina (also president of Wines of Bolivia) studied enology in Sacramento and brings a scientific approach to his wines and singani. This includes a state-of-the-art distiller that utilizes “bubble plates,” a more precise method of removing the hearts of the spirit. The family distillery has been in operation since 1930. Molina is one of the few producers to produce high-altitude sparkling wines via his Altosama line, which utilizes the Charmat method. In 2017, the Los Parrales singani received a double gold medal at a spirits competition in San Francisco.
Altosama Brut NV: Made from Parellada, Xarel·lo, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc in the Charmat method to preserve the freshness of aroma. The attitude of the vines provides fresh acidity from the cool nights, mirrored by the soft floral and peach aromas. Six grams per liter of RS.
Kuhlmann San Patrono Copla 2017: An unoaked blend of Pinot Blanc and Muscat from Santa Ana. The nose carries a floral note, followed by white peach and subtle banana aromas. The palate is clean, dry, and elegant.
Import Intelligence Study: Wines of Bolivia. Holland: CBI Ministry of Affairs, 2017.
Clarke, Oz, and Margaret Rand. Grapes and Wines: The Definitive Guide to the World’s Great Grapes and the Wines they Make. London: Websters International Publishers, 2007.
Goldstein, Evan. Wines of South America: The Essential Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Great read Aubrey, thanks!