Tarija, Bolivia: The Lowdown on Bolivian Wine

While the people of Tarija, Bolivia will keep you hanging around, it’s the wine – surprisingly drinkable and made with grapes grown at an elevation of 6,000 feet — that Tarija is best known for.

Bolivian Wine Tasting - El Valle, Bolivia
Bolivian wine tasting.

Bolivian Wine-Tasting for the Adventurous

The town of El Valle in nearby La Valle de la Concepción (Concepcion Valley), a sleepy little place tucked into the canyons, features several small family vineyards and wine bodegas where you can partake in the local vintage.

Bolivian Vineyard - El Valle, Bolivia
Bolivian vineyard in La Valle de la Concepcion near Tarija.

These are not fancy affairs. So don’t think Napa Valley or Bordeaux. Think something like Sideways goes south of the border.

At La Casa Vieja, an artisanal vineyard, we joined ten Bolivian engineering university students visiting the region for a national conference. Their bubbling “free wine” excitement reminded us that university student priorities around the world are not that different after all.

The vineyard’s sommelier (a very generous use of the term) quickly washed out several glasses as he gave a brief history of the vineyard and its wines.

We assumed that the glasses were for each of us. But no. After he lined up an almost-to-the-brim pour of a different wine in each glass, we realized that we would be sharing. The H1N1 Swine Flu public announcement poster campaign across Bolivia imploring people to not share glasses apparently had not yet reached this far south.

Wines Set Up for Tasting - El Valle, Bolivia
Wines set up for tasting…and sharing.

Although we considered dropping out, our curiosity got the better of us. So we tasted: a tannic red, a sweet white, a less tannic red, a light white, then a grape infused with sangani, the local grappa. Ten wines in all, in no discernible order, all at light speed. A hapless sampling at best.

The wines were simple — nothing particularly refined or exceptional, yet nothing too terribly offensive either.

Although the university students were thrilled with the tasting, we decided to move on and picked up the dirt road toward the town square. Although most roads in El Valle are not yet paved, the town appears as though tourism development has been on somebody’s mind. But for all the signs and buildings on the mend, the place retains a bit of ghost town secret splendor.

We visited Hosteria, an eclectic mishmash of a place: one part vineyard, another part curiosity. Its proprietor, Jesús Romero, gave us a tour of his “museum” – an odd, dusty collection of artifacts from the area featuring everything from fossils and bones to old suitcases and random stills.

Jesús uncorked a bottle of his latest vintage for us to taste and sat down with us for a chat. He was proud of his eight year-old Sangiovese vines from Argentina and Chile. His wine: strangely effervescent. His demeanor: contagiously positive.

Family Vineyard - El Valle, Bolivia
Jesús and his family vineyard.

We figure that someday when the throngs make their way, Jesús and his compound will be at the center of attention in a venue that fittingly defines the region.

Bolivian Wine-Tasting, Bodega Style

If you are serious about understanding Bolivian wines, we highly suggest a stop at La Vinoteca at 731 Ingavi Street in Tarija. You can taste any of the dozens of Bolivian wines they carry. They’ll open any bottle and pour a single glass – for about $1.50. They can talk about each of the wines and vineyards and offer comparatives like “though Kohlberg is the oldest, Campos de Solana has the best quality and overall value.”

Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe not.

To figure it all out, order a plate of picados — a tapas-like appetizer plate of olives, cheese, ham, and pickled onion bits — and go slowly.

When we began our wine-tasting, we asked for some recommendations but focused on unfamiliar varietals (like Tannat) and sprinkled in a few of our well-known favorites (like Syrah):

  • 2008 Aranjuez Tannat: Tannic, but juicy; a bit too much of an alcohol finish. ($4.00/bottle)
  • 2005 Concepcion Cabernet Sauvignon (Reserve): Dry and smooth, with hints of peppers and berries, but unexceptional given the price. ($11.50/bottle)
  • 2007 Kohlberg Syrah (Reserve): Good body, dry. A solid wine, particularly for those desiring a bit more of a tannic finish Syrah at a reasonable price ($8.00/bottle)
  • 2008 Casa Grande Trivarietal Reserva (Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon): Smooth, balanced. Nice fruit, and a pleasant finish. ($10.00/bottle)
  • 2005 Magnus Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon: Rich, smooth and very drinkable right out of the bottle. ($6.50)
  • 2008 Kohlberg Malbec (Reserve): Perhaps the best of the tasting group, all around. Drinkable, nice fruit. ($8.00/bottle)

Our bill for six glasses of wine plus a picados plate substantial enough to serve as dinner: just over $10.00.

As we indicated earlier, the 2008 Aranjuez Duo (a Tannat-Merlot blend) became our favorite Bolivian wine. While we found the Aranjuez Tannat too puckering by itself, it softened nicely and added the necessary body when blended with Merlot. At $3.50 a bottle, this wine was a good value.

Final Thoughts on Bolivian Wines

We have a growing body of experience in both bad wines (think Tajik wine and some select Chinese vintages) and good wines (several years attending theFrench Independent Vintner Salon in Strasbourg).

So where do we fall on Bolivian wines?

Although Bolivia’s vineyards boast wine pressed from grapes grown “at the highest altitude in the world,” we don’t expect Bolivian wines to become the next big thing at international wine competitions. However, if you avoid the least expensive table wine options –which are unfortunately what most shops in Bolivia outside of Tarija tend to carry — you just may be pleasantly surprised.

Having said that, it’s difficult for small Bolivian wineries to compete with their larger and more experienced Chilean and Argentinian counterparts on price.

Regardless, if you find yourself in the neighborhood of Tarija, Bolivian wines are worth a try.

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Comments

  1. says

    I don’t know why, but I love that photo of Jesus. He looks like a great guy.

    The part where you described the wines in the hasty tasting as “simple” was interesting. Is that simplicity generally true of Bolivian wines? From living in San Francisco and spending too many weekends in Sonoma/Napa I came to find that I sort of preferred a simpler, calmer wine. Some of them try to get so deep in their flavour that it’s a bit too much. I want a taste I can understand, not a pinata in my mouth. So, I may just have to keep the ole eye open for some Bolivian wines next time I’m in the shops :)

    Really interesting post, thanks!

  2. Pepe says

    I think Bolivian wines are great, very underrated and are not well known outside Bolivia, even in the local markets which are flooded by chilean and argentinian wines, Bolivian are just starting to apreciate and support the local produce.

  3. says

    I never thought of Boliva as a wine place, I guess that is because Argentina or Chile get all the press..interesting article though.

    What are you using for your facebook share icon? I have one but it doesn’t display the F like urs does.

  4. says

    I saw a bottle of Bolivian wine in the supermercado here in Mexico last night but didn’t even give it a second look. Next time I’m there I think I’ll give it a try!

  5. says

    Thanks everyone for your comments and patience. We’ve taken some time off and are re-grouping. Individual responses below.

    @Shawn: Jesus was as indeed as friendly as he looked.
    Regarding Bolivian wines, they are certainly much simpler (by that I mean, quite a bit less complexity in terms of body, fruit, acid, and tannic balance) than their counterparts in Chile or Argentina. The Argentine wines we’ve sampled so far have proven that out.

    I also lived in San Francisco and frequented wineries in both Sonoma and Napa. What you are describing (too many flavors or tastes going on in one bottle) might be a result of aging in various oaks. I don’t think oak aging is inherently good or bad, but it imparts flavor. Whether you enjoy this or not is a function of personal taste.

    Regardless, I’d say Bolivian wines are worth a try just so you can taste for yourself.
    @Pepe: Indeed. I would look forward to more and higher quality Bolivian wines showing up on shelves around the world.
    @Matt: By no means is Bolivia to wine like Napa, France, Australia, South Africa, or Chile/Argentina are. But the point is if you happen to be in the region, it’s definitely worth checking out, particularly since Tarija is such a pleasant place to hang out.
    Regarding the FB share icon, we just used the garden variety fbshare.me code for the full-size icon. Our photo pages use the small FB icon.
    @Agne: You will. Give it time. Either through your travels…or the wine’s travels.
    @Earl: I’d like to know which varietal and brand you saw.
    @Julie: Seems you are not alone.
    @Blake: Thanks. I don’t think of myself as a wine snob (who does?), but proper sequencing of a wine tasting is important. And drinking quickly and out of shared glasses — that was a little bizarre.

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