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 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.
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.
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.
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.