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Elevated Elegance: The High Altitude Wine Regions of Bolivia

with Vinos 1750

Bolivia’s Vinos 1750 Cabernet Sauvignon stole the show at this year’s Vancouver Wine Festival

It really did; and the wine professionals couldn’t stop talking about it. Even back at home in Whistler, people were asking, “Did you taste that wine from Bolivia?” It was the festival’s most surprising and buzzworthy pick!

So here is a snapshot of some of Bolivia’s best wine regions. We’ll find that the altitude in Bolivia is what makes this area, THE wine region to look out for! In fact, Bolivia now boasts the highest vineyards in the world!

We’ll also share some travel tips for when you’re there; the must-see cultural stops and places to visit.

Yet, before you go, watch my interview with Francisco Roig in a video below. Francisco is co-owner and founder of Vinos 1750. A tasting note of his unforgettable Cabernet Sauvignon is at the end of this post.

And if you ever wanted the entire South American tour, you can read our other travelogues such as Unforgettable Uruguay, a Journey through Brazil’s Wine Country, or our summary of a panel discussion of two South American heavyweights, Argentina and Chile From Andean Heights to Coastal Delights; A Tale of Two Terroirs.

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Table of Contents

Bolivia

Little, landlocked Bolivia is nestled between Chile and Brazil. 66% of the country is covered by the Amazon forest. 

But the wine regions are not in the low lying plains of the Amazon, but instead rely on the elevation of the high Andean plains. These vast high altitude valleys account for the cooling effects that allow for amazing grapevine production. In fact, Bolivian vineyards are located between 1600m-2850m above sea level making them the highest plantings in the world.

In fact, Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein argues that terroir is translated easier through high-altitude plantings. “The skins of the grapes get thicker and the grapes grow smaller from the increased UV exposure.”  This higher skin to pulp ratio makes for intense flavours that are a direct result of their environment.

Brief History of Viticulture in Bolivia

As with all South American countries, Bolivia has a long history of grape cultivation starting with Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. For two decades, they established vines in Sutó in the Andean foothills surrounding the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (now the wealthiest city in Bolivia, it is usually referred to as Santa Cruz). 

For the wine nerds out there, Criolla varieties were the first planted including the all-important Negra Criolla (Mission grape) and the vinifera variety of Muscat of Alexandria – still important for brandy producers today.  

Truly, Muscat represents 80% of vine production in Bolivia but much of it goes into making the local brandy, called singani. This specialty distillate is known for it’s dried fruit, sweet grape and spicy notes and is made into a variety of cocktails in Bolivia.

Still, some Muscat is reserved for dry wine production. But, back to the history…

 

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Soon, the Spaniards conquered the eastern slopes of the Andes – areas that are higher in elevation. They then moved south into the Tarija region (see below) close to the Argentine border.

But just as in most parts of the world, phylloxera ravaged the vineyards in the 1900‘s followed by a severe nematode worm infestation afterwards. Yikes!

Modern History of Winemaking in Bolivia

Fast-forward to more recently and Kohlberg, (the largest winery in Bolivia) was the first to import modern-day winery equipment in the 60’s. A decade later, La Concepción in Tarija, brought in virus free clones.
 
Indeed, it’s really since the 1980’s that the industry truly began reshaping itself. But whereas previously, wines of quality were only made by the biggest producers (such as Kohlberg and La Concepción), today excellence is seen across the vinous landscape including the artisan owner of 2.5. This includes relative newcomer, Vinos 1750 by Francisco Roig, who I interviewed at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
 

Not only are the wines amazing, we can all feel good supporting producers from Bolivia. It is estimated that with every 25 acres of land planted to grapevines, 10 families are lifted out of poverty.

Cheers to that!

 

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Grapes Grown in Bolivia

Besides the Muscat of Alexandria, Bolivia boasts a wide-range of varieties for fermenting into wine. For example, the aromatically floral white grape Torrontés does very well in Bolivia. 

Additionally, look out for the black grape, TannatTannat is better known as the illustrious grape variety of Uruguay. Yet, not only does it survive in Bolivia, it thrives!

You see, Tannat grapes have 5 pips (seeds) instead of the usual 2 – and producers everywhere have struggled to tame the aggressively drying tannin in the wines they make. And guess what does the trick? All that intense UV exposure in Bolivia’s high altitude wine regions! As Francisco Roig told me, Tannat requires a long growing season. As a result, Bolivian wines made from Tannat also achieve high alcohol levels. 

So you’ll be treated to Tannat of all styles in Bolivia, from deeply purple, intensely-flavoured black fruit styles to the Vinos 1750 style of aromatic red fruits, refreshing and somewhat ethereal and light on its feet (despite the elevated alcohol!).

But those aren’t the only wines you’ll find when you go to Bolivia! Try wines based on Pedro Gimenez (white) Syrah and certainly the Cabernet Sauvignon‘s like the one I tasted from Vinos 1750 below.

 

Climate of Bolivian Wine Regions

Strangely enough, Bolivia’s wine regions are generally united by their similar climate, despite the distances between them. In fact, all of the regions below are high-altitude areas which experience the full 4-seasons necessary for great wine production. 

These places are semiarid or fairly dry which keeps disease pressure low. Moreover, due to their close proximity to the sun, the grapes experience intense sunshine during the day and cool nights to keep the wines fresh.

In fact, one Argentine wine producer told Christopher Fielden that it was Bolivia that was capable of producing the best wines of South America. They simply lacked the experience and equipment to get it done. (Fielden published ‘The Wines of Argentina, Chile and Latin America‘ in 2001.)

But no longer is this true!

Today, the main challenge is finding a bottle of Bolivian wine. When you do, snatch it up, my friends! It will repay you in dividends!

Next is a quick snapshot of very best of Bolivia’s wine regions.

 

but now, a moment for some shameless self-promotion…

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Bolivian Wine Regions

Tarija, Bolivia

According to Francisco Roig, Tarija is the center for high quality, large-scale winery production. In fact, this region represents a whopping 78% of Bolivian wine produced! Heavyweights Kohlberg and La Concepción are here.

Resting between 1600-2150 meters (5280-7050ft) above sea level and close to the Argentine border, Tarija is known for high diurnal temperature fluctuations where both hail and frost are regular hazards. It also means that red grapes can produce high alcohol levels and ripe black fruits while at the same time yielding refreshing mouthwatering acidity levels as well. The region is considered both tropical and continental with plenty of rainfall throughout the growing season to support the vines (300-500 mm/year).

 

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This means that – despite what you may be thinking – the area is capable of producing lean, crisp wines from white grapes as well.

Cinti, Bolivia

This smaller region is one you should look out for. It sits 300 meters higher than Tarija – making it one of the highest in the world for vines.

Filled with mostly small-scale producers, Cinti is close in climate to neighbouring Tarija and represents just 10% of production.

Wine Map of Bolivia

map of bolivia @winesofbolivia
map of bolivia @winesofbolivia

Santa Cruz Valley

This is the historical heartland of Bolivian wine which sees the most tourism year after year. The region is a series of valleys that sit between 1600-2030 meters elevation.

Most of the commercial activity is due to its proximity to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, one of Bolivia’s wealthiest. But with only 100 hectares of vines servicing the Santa Cruz population, almost all the wines made in the Santa Cruz Valley are consumed within Bolivia.

Then, within Santa Cruz are 5 subregions. We’re going to take a look at just one – the subregion of Samaipata, where Francisco Roig’s Vinos 1750 winery resides.

Samaipata

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Samaipata sits within the Santa Cruz Valley. It’s pretty much as far east as you can travel to see grapes in Bolivia along the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Samaipata is influenced by the surazos (cold winds coming from Patagonia) that whip into the Chaco and Santa Cruz plains during the winter months. It means that although Samaipata is in a southern latitude, it experiences the full 4 seasons.  High quality grapes LOVE getting a ‘rest’ in the winter season when they are dormant. It readies them for great wine production during the summer. 

 

 

Then warm winds from the north dominate the Santa Cruz plain during the summer. Both these winds are fantastic for preventing fungal diseases!

The soils are a mix of slate, limestone, sandstone and clay that reflect light back onto the vines at night.

Only 30 minutes drive from Samaipata, the temperature warms and coffee plantations abound.

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Traveling to Bolivia's Wine Regions

Language

Spanish is the language of Bolivia. And although you’ll find plenty of English speakers in the tourists zones, learning some key Spanish phrases or carrying a translation book/ app is a not a bad idea!

Best Time of the Year to Travel to Bolivia

Weather is variable depending on what elevation you are at. The low valleys are more tropical.
 
So, in general, the best time to travel to Bolivia is between May to October – before the heavy rains come in November and some access roads are blocked.
 

But Tarija and Samaipata experience winter and the full 4 seasons. Harvest season here is from February to March. One site recommends visiting either from late February to early May or from mid August to early January to catch the warmer months.

Either way, best you check in with a travel agent when you’re ready to go.

Start your journey by flying into Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the commercial center of Bolivia. Finally, slow down and take it easy in sleepy, but beautiful, Samaipata. Still thirsty? Take a flight to the wine capital, Tarija

Santa Cruz de la Sierra

Viru Viru International Airport (VVI) is the largest international airport in Santa Cruz. 

Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s commercial center with 1.8 million inhabitants. As a result, it’s jam-packed with interesting shops, world reknowned restaurants and of course, tons of opportunities to taste the local wines.  Take one of the city’s tours to catch the full flavour of Spanish cathedrals and indigenous roots. Use it as a base camp before heading to one of Bolivia’s wine hubs below.

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The Stockton Winery4
Aerial view of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the commercial center of Bolivia
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You'll have a chance to visit many historical sites. Here is the Cathedral Basilica of St Lawrence

Getting Around When Your There...

Hire a taxi, take a bus or rent a car from Santa Cruz. Either way, there are inexpensive taxis readily available throughout Samaipata, Tarija and obviously in the great mecca of Santa Cruz.

Note that the buses are fairly unreliable as far as time schedules go. Although this traveller recommends the collectivos (small busses). I’ll let you explore their first-hand travel tips for the area.

Getting to Tarija

Tarija is the region which boasts 78% of wine production and where many of the large wineries are. To get to Tarija, you fly from either the cities of Santa Cruz de la Sierra or Cochabamba in Bolivia or from Salta in northern Argentina. All of these flights last under 1.5 hours.

For example, you may choose a flight from the Viru Viru International Airport (VVI) in Santa Cruz to Capitan Oriel Lea Plaza (TJA) in Tarija. It takes only 1 hour and costs just $64 CAD.

Other Things to Do When You're in Tarija...

Tarija is a city of 330,000 people and is the epicenter of Bolivia’s wine production. Both Kohlberg and La Concepcion are here.

Tarija hosts fantastic wine events such as the Fiesta de la Uva (Festival of the Grape). Held on fairgrounds in the industrial district, Ciudad Rodriguez, it takes place over 3 days in March or April. Visitors are welcomed with live music, games and races.

Did you know that Bolivian’s are great dancers! Whether it’s at any of the many festivals, or in the cities’ nightclubs, be sure to check out the locals’ dance moves. Luckily for us, this isn’t hard to do.

 

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Tarija offers something for everyone! 

See what the area, fauna and animals looked like in prehistoric times at Museo de Arqueologia y Palentologia. Later, take a tour at the Casa Real distillery (the largest) and find out how the local Singani is made. Need more refreshment? Head just 6 kilometers to Repressa San Jacinto and explore the areas many walks along the shores.

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Getting To Samaipata

Not one for the crowds? Neither am I!

To get to Samaipata, a colourful town with a small town vibe, you can take a taxi from Santa Cruz – it’s only 120 km (75 miles) from the city. Or, check local flights into Samaipata Airport ( (ICAO: SLIP).

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Other Things to Do When You're in Samaipata...

 

Head to El Pueblito hotel in Semaipata and stay right next to Vinos 1750! Hang out at one of many trendy cafe’s while there. This area is nicknamed ‘Little Switzerland’ where colourful houses dot the landscape and German sausage is available everywhere. There are tons of European expats living in the area too.

Slap on sunscreen and head to El Fuerte, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of pre-Columbian origins. Make sure you hire a guide as the history of the place is far more interesting than the ruins suggest.

Rent a bike and venture to La Cuevas, a park just 20 minutes from Samaipata. Here you’ll find a variety of cool waterfalls to freshen you up and prepare for the trip back. But why stop there? La Cuevas sits at the entrance of Amboró National Park, one of the most bio-diverse parks in the world!

There are many local tour guides who provide great historical and cultural context while visiting. 

Love your coffee in the morning? Fear not, coffee plantations abound just 30 km away from Samaipata and offer tours as well.

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Did you know?

There are many aged-old wine customs still practiced in Bolivia today.

You may see grapevine tentacles wrapped around the native pepper trees. 

They may also use the espalier training system (pictured right) where the fruit hangs below the canopy promoting air flow. This system helps to prevent fungal diseases during the early-season rains.

Grapes hanging below the canopy in espallier training
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About Vinos 1750 (formerly Uvairenda Winery) in Samaipata, Bolivia

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Francisco Roig holding a bottle of his Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Samaipata, Bolivia

Founder Francisco Roig

 

I first met Francisco Roig, proprietor of Vinos 1750, at the Southern Exposure masterclass at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. 

Wow, what a treat!

Francisco is a native Bolivian. His mother and aunts were adamant he take SAT tests and helped him prepare for the strenuous exams. And he did it! He passed. He was accepted to an American university and moved there to study economics. He’s now a full-time banker, part time eonologist and co-owner and founder of Vinos 1750.

But that’s not all, while attending university he fell in love with a French woman. And not just any French woman – a true Bordelais. 

Yes, you guessed it…it was this very woman that got him hooked on wine. Yet, we’re not talking about any fermented grape juice, mind you – Francisco’s palate formed from wine in its most revered source – from Bordeaux, France.

So after studying oenology and many travels tasting French wine, he decided that the best thing he could do for his country is to build a winery. 

 

You know, as one does.

Perhaps this photo of ‘professional’ Francisco in suit and tie may not reveal how funny and approachable this guy is! To this end, you’d better watch my interview of him below!

Vinos 1750

The winery is named for the elevation of the vineyard which is 1750 meters above sea level. So although the valleys down below experience a tropical climate, Samaipata experiences 4 seasons and rarely passes 27 degrees Celisius on a hot day. For oenophiles, that translates to fresh mouthwatering wines with lifted aromatics!

This is the southern hemisphere so it’s northern aspects that get the most sun. Gravel and sandstone reflects a lot of light back to the vines.
 
The winery produces an array of wines – we’ll just have to visit to try them all. Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Merlot join the fun with Torrontés, Sauvignon Blanc, Pedro Giménez and Chardonnay adding to the mix.

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Tasting Note:

Vinos 1750 Cabernet Sauvignon, Samaipata, Bolivia 2021

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Elevated aromas on the nose reminiscent of ripe black cherries with mint leaf, blue spruce tree and orange citrus! Grilled green peppers add an intriguing element.

The acidity is medium-plus. Even though this wine is fresh and fragrant, the body presents as full, with a wonderfully plush and round mid-palate. Medium balanced alcohol and the tannin glides smoothly across the palate.

Look at the quality here: the length of the finish is long and with some layers of complexity finishing with red sour cherries and juicy cranberries that leaves you wanting more! 

91 points

In the US, Chufly imports distributes Vinos 1750. But to find Vinos 1750 in your area check this link

Sadly, these wines are not yet available in Canada [insert crying here]. But if you’re an importer, why don’t you contact Francisco now!

VIDEO - Full Interview with Proprietor Francisco Roig here!

In this video, I sit down with Francisco Roig, founder and co-owner of Vinos 1750 in Bolivia. We discuss the culinary delights of Bolivia, delving into the fascinating landscapes of Tarija and Samaipata wine regions. We explore what renders the local climate and Roig’s wines truly exceptional. Furthermore, we examine the distinctive flavours and characteristics that define his Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat wines. At the end, we’ll provide valuable insights on accommodation options and activities to consider when exploring the enchanting Samaipata region of Bolivia.

Summary

Truly, my one taste of a Bolivian wine has made me thirsty for more! 

From the economic hub of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the bustling wine center of Tarija, or the colours and quiet streets of Samaipata, Bolivia has it all. So if you want to sample the regions wines, taste the local Signani brandy and visit a place where wineries thrive alongside coffee belts, Bolivia is waiting!

 

Before you go to Bolivia, you should sign up to one of my WSET online wine courses!

This will give you the knowledge and tools you need to fully enjoy the region’s wines. 

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References

Southern Exposure‘ trade seminar at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on April 27, 2023 moderated by Evan Goldstein MS. Panelists included Rafael Boscaini, Marina Castillo, Salome Hopkins, Martin Kaiser, Aurelio Montes Jr., Francisco Roig.

My interview and video with Francisco Roig, on April 27th, 2023 at Coal Harbour in Vancouver, BC Canada.

‘The Wines of Argentina, Chile and Latin America’ by Christopher Fielden. Published by Mitchell Beazley, an imprint of Octopus Publishing Company, 2003. Chapter on Brazil.

The South American Wine Guide: Bolivia‘ website and guides published by by Amanda Barnes, retrieved April, 2023.

‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ Fourth Edition edited by Jancis Robinson. Oxford University Press 2015. Entry on Bolvia.

* See also links within the text above

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