Boozing in Bolivia
15 May, 2016 | Anna Grace
Sampling Some of the Best Alcohol Bolivia Has to Offer
Photo: Anna Grace
South America does alcohol well. Think Chilean Merlot or Argentinean Malbec and you are bound to find your mouth watering and your taste buds tingling. Chileans and Peruvians both claim pisco originated in their respective homelands, and everyone who has enjoyed a caipirinha knows the worth of Brazilian cachaça. Bolivia, seemingly, is nowhere in sight. Yet maybe we should be enjoying a glass of Bolivian red with our steaks, and sipping a cocktail made from singani on nights out.
I pass neat rows of healthy, green vines bathed in the light of a pleasingly strong sun as a golden, heat-baked track winds down towards a factory-style building. Only a short ride from the city of Tarija, in the heart of Bolivia’s prime wine country, this is the site of the new headquarters of Kuhlmann Vineyards.
‘The world is full of wine connoisseurs. They know quality.’ I am speaking to Franz Molina, the manager of Kuhlmann. ‘They try our wines and they are surprised. It’s the same with singani,’ he says. ‘It’s different, exotic, elegant.’ The company has been producing singani – the subtle yet strong grape-based spirit unique to Bolivia – for years. The Tres Estrellas line is targeted towards the east of the country, and Los Parrales to the west, I am told. The company’s youngest and most pioneering venture is Altosama, the world's first high-altitude sparkling wine. Launched in 2011, the wine is still a newcomer, but Franz is confident that it will find its place. ‘Little by little we are introducing the culture of sparkling wine in Bolivia,’ he says. Fruity, bubbly and good fun on special occasions, Altosama is sure to be a hit.
As we speed down the main road connecting the country to the city, I discover the brains behind the naming of their sparkling wine. I already knew that alto means ‘high’, but sama? I didn’t have much of a clue. Franz points out a green cordillera surrounding the valley. ‘That's Sama,’ he informs me. ‘Without Sama, Tarija would be desert, and the land infertile.’
Later in the day, I head towards a very different sort of winery, trundling down narrow streets and past small town squares. Chairs are scattered outside village stores, unoccupied save a single white cloth – a more traditional yet less transparent version of the Sí hay pan signs seen in shop windows across the country. This place is called Valle de Concepción, and now we have left the city much farther behind.
Entering Casa Vieja, an old Jesuit house turned winery, Julián Lazcano ushers me into a low-ceilinged, wine-bottle-lined room. Julián’s family started producing wine here 40 years ago, and I am told to help myself to a glass of red. Whilst I enjoy my late afternoon tipple, a group of Bolivian tourists enter for a wine tasting, and I am to join. We are instructed to form a crescent-moon shape. None of the ‘taste and politely spit out’ nonsense here – as a group we are to finish a glass of each wine amongst ourselves. As fortune has it, I find myself at the farthest tip of the moon. ‘You have to drink everything that is left in the glass. Seco. It’s a Casa Vieja tradition,’ the leader of ceremonies informs me.
Amid introductions of each new trago, jokes and plenty of laughter, we make our way through dry and semi-sweet wines, a few ports and, last but not least, a full-strength singani. ‘We offer wine tasting to everyone who comes here,’ Lazcano tells me. ‘Visitors have the chance to taste some good wine and afterwards to sit down in the restaurant and have some good, typical food.’ The rustic house, paved with its uneven, coffee-coloured stone slabs and backed by rows of picturesque vines, is certainly worth a visit.
‘This is an artisanal vineyard; everything is done al patero, by foot,’ Lazcano explains. ‘There's no machinery here.’ Thinking back to the high-tech machinery seen in the large production room behind Molina's office at Kuhlmann Vineyards, the two manners of turning grapes into alcohol seem worlds away. Yet Kuhlmann has achieved a 96 percent eco-efficiency rate, meaning the company is highly sustainable. The only waste produced is inevitable. It seems that both Molina and Lazcano have, in their own ways, a natural, green-friendly mode of production at heart.
Next on my enjoyably extensive tour of Tarija’s vineyards comes Campos de Solana. Owned by the Granilla family, who also own the singani brand Casa Real, Campos de Solana is one of the newest members on the Bolivian wine scene. If I had become more versed in the commercial side of Bolivian wine and singani at Kuhlmann, and more expert in the tasting of said wine and singani during my time at Casa Vieja, my trip to Campos de Solana taught me more about the process from vine to bottle.
Grapes here are ready to be picked from February through early April. The process is done by hand, early in the morning to avoid excessive heat. It’s good for the grapes but less so for those picking them – a fiddly, tiresome business to be undertaking at such an ungodly hour. The grapes are then sorted – again, by hand – to pick the good from the bad. This stage over with, the machines are allowed to do the work. The uvas are put into the molienda which separates the ground grapes into juice, peel and seeds.
Now comes the technical part. Red wine, the deepest, richest and arguably best of them all, uses all components. The juice, peel and seeds of the purple grapes are fermented at a temperature of between 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. Rosé and white wines use only the juice and are fermented at lesser temperatures.
Afterwards, the wine is filtered of impurities; no one wants poisoned customers. The wine is then left to age in wooden barrels. Ageing can take from a few months up to two and a half years – the longer the ageing process, the better the wine.
I realise that, no matter how ‘industrial’ the company, the rustic is always present, be it in the beautiful grape-filled vineyards outside the office at Kuhlmann or the dependence on manual labour at Campos de Solana.
As for Casa Vieja, I’ve yet to see where the industrial part lies. Producing 80.000 litres per year, this business is ever-growing but has yet to lose its personal feel. I head to the restaurant to share a jug of semi-sweet wine with two local girls. A jug filled to the top and a sole glass between us, it seems that the Casa Vieja traditions extend further than the tasting room. My companions greet various friends as they pass and tell anecdotes of ‘Valley Life’. We laugh at stumbling clients and bumbling tourists. I could get used to it here.
Yet life is not all rosy in the world of Bolivian alcohol production. High taxes on internal products and an increase in imported wines and spirits spells a tricky future for those producing nationally. Back at Kuhlmann, Molina shakes his head, lamenting, ‘Bolivia doesn’t know the treasure it has. Singani should be the pride of the country.’ He explains how Bolivians often choose Argentinean fernet, Russian vodka or Caribbean rum over their own national drink.
The same goes for wine. ‘You go to the supermarket and 90 percent of the wines are imported,’ Molina points out. ‘You don't see that happening in any other wine-producing country in the world. They protect their market.’ Maybe, I think to myself, it’s time Bolivians start to protect theirs.