A hidden high-altitude treasure

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.

Wine production figures are hard to come by here, but Kohlberg and Campos de Solana, two of the biggest outfits, produce several million liters per year between them. Export levels are unsteady, however. Figures released by the Bolivian Foreign Trade Institute show that exports have fluctuated dramatically in recent years.

During the first half of this decade, Bolivian wine exports averaged about $120,000 per year, with wines going to Denmark, the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany and Canada. In 2007, wine exports were valued at just $32,500, and went mostly to Finland. The figure dropped to almost zero during 2008 — a time of significant social unrest in Bolivia — but have increased during the first five months of this year to almost $50,000. This year, most wine exports are going to Bulgaria.

Locals say the issue is politics and bureaucracy. Foreign distributors say it has more to do with Bolivians’ attitudes about commerce. These views likely reflect two sides of the same coin: it’s very hard to sign contracts and plan ahead when upheaval is the rule of the day. Recently the U.S. government dropped Bolivia from its list of preferred trading partners due to the country’s poor record on fighting illegal cocaine trafficking. Exporters throughout the country have been badly hurt. “We don’t know whether to invest or not,” said Luis Granier Ballivian, the patriarch of one of two families that operate the Campos de Solana winery outside Tarija. It and Kohlberg supply the bulk of the national market, and their wines are commonly available in local restaurants and shops, as well as those in La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Campos de Solana began exporting to Germany in 2001. The firm has 200 hectares (494 acres) in cultivation and buys grapes from smaller growers. “We hope to arrive at 300 [hectares], if the political situation allows,” Granier said.

Steve Noblitt, co-owner of True Vine Imports Inc. of Ashville, North Carolina, said he’s been working for several years to import Kohlberg and Campos de Solana wines to the U.S. market but has run into bureaucratic and other obstacles. Tarija wines are still listed on True Vines’ website as “coming soon.”

Today natural gas remains by far the Tarija region’s main export. Despite the hardships caused by politics and the economy — and occasional damaging freezes and hail storms — Tarija growers look to a future when grape will be king.

“When there is no longer gas, the grape will still be here,” said Humberto Vacaflor, who has a small vineyard called “La Escondida” near the banks of the Rio Camacho, one of three rivers that run through the valley. He and a caretaker also operate a small “falca,” or homemade still, brewing singani from sweet white muscatel grapes.