The Secret Garden of Bolivian Wine

This week’s intimate wine tasting with a producer was one that was completely new to me. I’ve been labeled as someone who revels in all the weird little niche regions–like I started ringing the bell on Virginia wine years ago when everyone still thought nothing of it, and I recently had an eye-opening experience with Texas wine–but I will admit that this is a place I did not have on my radar as a wine-producing country, for obvious reasons.

Bolivia certainly does not come to mind as a country of fine wine production, despite the fact that wine has been produced here for 400 years. It all started with the Spanish explorers as much of the Americas began winemaking traditions, first with the church. You may not think of Bolivian wine because this country is located right north of Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, close to the hot tropical climates surrounding the equator. The winemaking regions here are located between latitudes 17.00º and 21.53º, which is hardly grape-growing territory. When I think of Bolivia, I think a lot about salt flats and desert land. Admittedly, I’ve never been, but I have traveled across a lot of the northern parts of Argentina, so I had my ideas.

Photo Courtesy of Jardin Oculto

What Bolivia does have when it comes to the ability to grow quality vinifera grapes is altitude, and this is the secret sauce that gives this country the necessary cooler climate in certain areas to cultivate viable vines. Vineyards are planted anywhere from about 1600 to 2400 meters above sea level. In total, there are close to 10,000 acres of vines spread across three main grape-growing regions that allow for the successful maturation of high-altitude vineyards.

The three regions are: Central Valley of Tarija, Valley of Cinti, and Valleys of Santa Cruz, found in three different sections of the country.

The largest region where the largest wineries are located is Tarija (6,000 acres of vines), which is where you will find 93% of the wine grapes grown in Bolivia, while smaller Cinti (740 acres of vines) is home to the beautiful Red Canyon areas south of La Paz. Valleys of Santa Cruz (740 acres of vines) is closer to the Amazon, and therefore has more humidity and rain and is home to many of the up-and-coming wineries. Most of the operations across the country are smaller producers with limited exportability.

Photo Courtesy of Jardin Oculto

Grapes of Bolivia

You can find many different Vitis vinifera grapes growing throughout Bolivia’s vineyard regions, but the most planted and most popular is Muscat of Alexandria. Tannat is another popular variety, along with Negra Criolla (Pais or Mission grape). Perhaps one of the most unique of the grapes is the native variety, Vischoqueña, thought to be a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Negra Criolla. It’s a black variety that is often used to make aromatic still and sparkling wines.

Jardin Oculto Wines

My tasting this week was with the founder of the winery, Jardin Oculto, Maria Jose Granier. Her operation’s winemaking is under the direction of consulting winemaker, Nayan Gowda, originally from the U.K. Maria explained some of the various ways that vines grow that are unique to the regions of Bolivia, as well as introduced us to three of her wines and her family’s production of the signature spirit, Singani, which is made by distilling Muscat of Alexandria.

Snaking their way up red pepper trees, vines in Bolivia have found a way to stay safe from pests such as phylloxera, and most of them, even the ones in the ground, remain ungrafted. Many of the vineyards thrive on biodiversity, with plants and trees of various fruits and flowers growing next to one another; truly a secret garden vineyard.

Maria sources her grapes from the Cinti Valley region in a place where Muscat vines grow next to Negra Criolla vines, and it takes an expert to properly harvest when appropriate. Viticulture in Bolivia is a labor-intensive quest, requiring intimate knowledge of which grape is which in an untamed vineyard garden.

We had the honor of tasting Jardin Oculto’s Muscat of Alexandria, Vischoqueña, and Negra Criolla wines, all of which are made in a natural style with no fining or filtering and very low intervention.

The Vischoqueña was labeled as a Blanc de Noirs, and it was supposed to be a sparkling wine. However, the bottles were delayed in getting to the winery from Chile due to COVID lockdowns and restrictions, and therefore, the wine was not produced using the traditional method, as it was intended. Instead, we tasted a beautiful still white wine– with aromatic qualities that included flowers, honeysuckle, peaches, and other stone fruits. A lovely perfumed nose and complementing palate.

The Negra Criolla had “Pinot-like” qualities, and actually reminded me a lot of a natural style Pinot Noir from say…Oregon. Lots of fresh strawberry aromas and flavors, and a black peppery palate. Light in style, it was made using whole bunches, half destemmed, to add extra tannins, with no oak influence, and only one rack before bottling.

The Muscat wine was floral and green, with a signature musky finish. No residual sugar, no fining and filtering, and only true grape expression. It was a delight to try!

There can certainly be more to say about Bolivian viticulture and these wines. My hope is to one day visit this country and the beautiful secret garden vineyards with vine-hugged trees. Until then, cheers to Jardin Oculto, Maria, Nayan, and these Bolivian wines.

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