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A hidden high-altitude treasure

Bolivia’s Tarija region produces great wines — it's just hard to find them outside the country.

A large vineyard near Tarija uses huge sheets of plastic to protect the vines from possible hail storms in the fall. Hail is the biggest threat to the grapes before harvest, which occurs usually in March, the southern hemisphere’s autumn. (John Enders/GlobalPost)

TARIJA, Bolivia — Even the French will admit that Chilean and Argentine vinos can be as good as they come. But Bolivian wine? Well, just wait. If you haven't tried a fine merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, malbec or sauvignon blanc from this small but expanding wine-producing area in southern Bolivia, you're in for a tasty surprise.

Bolivians long have had a passion for their national drink, singani, a grape brandy distilled from muscatel grapes, but as recently as a decade ago, locals turned up their noses at their own wines, preferring to buy excellent and inexpensive ones from their southern neighbors.

Today, however, Tarija's major winemakers — Kohlberg, La Concepcion, Aranjuez, and Campos de Solana — are supplying the national market and sending their wines abroad, especially to Europe. Their secret: altitude.

The vineyards here are some of the highest in the world, ranging from 6,000 feet to 8,250 feet above sea level. Growers say the intensity of the sun’s ultraviolent rays just north of the Tropic of Capricorn makes the wines taste richer. So, what’s the catch? Why aren’t Bolivian wines more available in the United States and elsewhere? The answer has to do with the political instability and economic disarray of a nation mired in poverty. This is, after all, Bolivia. At the geographic center of South America, Bolivia became independent from Spain in 1825. It has suffered through nearly 200 coups, countercoups, revolts and revolutions since then. Governments have been democratic since 1982, although current president Evo Morales, elected in 2005, led a popular uprising that forced the then-president to resign.

Politics and poverty have not kept the Bolivians from planting vineyards and producing great wines, however.

The Tarija region, in the south of the country near the borders of Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, is known as the “Andalusia of Bolivia.” The climate is semi-arid and very hot in the summer, much like that part of Spain, and while Spaniards brought with them mostly muscatel (English: muscat) grapes when they colonized the continent, other varieties thrive here too.

Bolivia’s modern wine industry began some 40 years ago when Julio Kohlberg and others brought new varietals, mostly reds, to production. Nobody is really sure, but it is estimated that about 4,942 acres are under cultivation in the Tarija region. Producers began exporting about a decade ago but have been stifled by a lack of investment, marketing and stable access to markets.