“It’s extreme viticulture,” admits Nelson Sfarcich, a winemaker who works with high-altitude grape growers in southern Bolivia.
Just 26 kilometers from the city of Tarija lies the Valle de la Concepcion, the heart of the Tarija wine region. Vineyards sit at 1,700 to 2,500 meters above sea level, in the foothills of the Andean mountains close to the Argentine border.
This high altitude, combined with a warm, dry climate and chalky soils, is conducive to grape growing, but it has taken time to discover what varieties are best suited to the climate. “We have undertaken many years of study and micro-vinifications in order to find out what varieties are best adapted to our conditions,” says Sfarcich.
“Cot [malbec] and merlot are the best performers," he adds. "Tannat also works very well, along with petit verdot. Our sites give wines with powerful aromas of red fruits, blueberry and plum. Our white wines go towards the pineapple and citrus spectrum."
A lack of oxygen could be a problem at these altitudes, but the local producers report that it’s not a problem below 2,500 meters. However, such locations can have a significant effect on the grapes. Over the border, Argentina’s Bodega Colomé, which owns some of the world’s highest vineyards, explains that the sun’s ultraviolet rays are more intense. This generates thicker skins, giving greater color – and tannin in red wines – as well as a higher concentration of aromas and flavors.
While the Bolivian wine industry is starting to attract interest, wine is not yet an integral part of the local culture. Grape growing was first introduced to the region during the 17th century by Spanish Jesuit missionaries but levels of wine drinking are still minuscule. The annual per capita consumption of Bolivia’s 9.7 million people is less than 300 milliliters; in comparison, the neighboring Argentines imbibe more than 23 liters of wine each year.
“Bolivians have only been interested in wine for a short time, but consumption is rising little by little and our challenge is to incorporate wine into the diet of our countrymen,” says Sfarcich.
Bolivian wine producers also see the potential for increasing sales beyond their borders.
Jose Luis Porcel, the president of the National Association For Grape and Wine-Producing Industries, is confident about the future. “We have already exported our wines to Spain, the United States, Canada and France, but in small volumes. It’s about raising our profile. The response has been positive and we are sure that in the medium term, we will be able to consolidate our exports.”
The high altitudes could also set Bolivian wines apart from their competitors.
“We mustn’t forget that our grapes are produced at around 2,000 meters above sea level," says Porcel. "We can speak of our altitude wines, which gives us a marketing niche that we haven’t yet exploited.”
There’s also an opportunity to raise the profile of the Tarija region through its wine industry, according to local guide Javier Castellano. “Tarija has never been a destination for tourists," he explains. "But today, the main tourist attraction in the region is wine tourism. It’s thanks to wine that the number of affluent European tourists is rising strongly."
Should Bolivian wine take off, Porcel says Tarija's wineries have the capacity to increase production. Currently, they are turning out around 5.5 million liters of wine from 2,500 hectares of vines.
In total, Bolivia has 5,018 hectares of vineyards – just a drop in the ocean compared to Argentina's 228,000 hectares. Bolivia is less than a third the size of its larger neighbor, but even so, vines occupy just a tiny proportion of the country's available land.
Currently, the Bolivian wine industry is said to be worth around 35 million euros ($45m) per year, with some 4,000 families involved in running wineries.