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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
High hopes for Bolivian wines
Bolivian grape picker
In Bolivia's Andean foothills, wine has been produced since the early 17th century
By Andrew Enever in Bolivia

South American wines have been making their mark on the European and US markets for over a decade.

Bolivian wines can compete with any wines in the world, they can rub shoulders with the best

Marķa Isabel Mijares, wine expert
Now Bolivia hopes to emerge from the shadow of its giant neighbours, Chile and Argentina, and establish a small but unique place for its wines - grown in the highest vineyards in the world.

The beautiful area of Tarija, in Bolivia's Andean foothills near the Argentine border, has been producing wines since the early 17th century.

But it was only over the past 35 years that pioneers such as Julio Kohlberg and Luis PinedoVidal started to bring new grape varieties and techniques to Tarija's central valley.

Decades of work maturing vines and modernising equipment came to fruition in 1990 when the Pinedo and Prudencio families, which run the La Concepcion winery, produced their first varietal wines.

High altitude, big taste

The Kolhberg winery was working on the same lines, and following a number of excellent harvests the wine growers noticed that wines from certain properties excelled.

Bolivian vineyard
Tarija has good soils and a fine Mediterranean climate

"They had this concentration of aromas that were different from Argentine and Chilean wines and we were asking ourselves, how come?" said Sergio Prudencio, Production Manager at La Concepcion.

Tarija clearly had good soils and a fine Mediterranean climate, but the big difference from the world's major wine-growing regions was the altitude. Nearly all of the world's vineyards are below 500m but in Tarija they lie at anything between 1600m and 2850m above sea level.

It has been a long process to have these unusual qualities and the altitude factor recognised in the wine world.

Bolivian wines - surely not?

And no one knows more about this struggle than expert enologist and Master of Wine Marķa Isabel Mijares who has been working with the Bolivian producers for more than 15 years.

"I have tasted Bolivian wines in the most important international contests, where between 1,600 and 2,000 wines are tasted from bottles which carry no identification.

"One time we chose a wine with a fantastic character and when we discovered that it was Bolivian the rest of the judges said 'this wine doesn't exist, Bolivia is not a producing country'."

Areas under cultivation
- Argentina 208,137
Chile 83,000
Bolivia 2,000
1999 figures
Wine produced
litres (global market share)
Argentina 1267.3 m (4.9%)
Chile 547.5m (2.12%)
Bolivia 6m
Wine exported
Argentina 108.9m
Chile 229.8m
Bolivia 30,000

This lack of awareness is slowly changing. Kohlberg and La Concepcion wines have now won a number of international medals for amongst others, their Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties, and small quantities have been exported on a one-off basis.

But getting a long-term commitment from a distributor has so far eluded the producers.

For Sergio Prudencio an important step in achieving this goal will be to set Bolivian wines apart from the other South American producers.

"We are next to two wine-growing giants - in Argentina and Chile - who produce and export huge amounts. We don't have the land to compete with these large quantities," he said. "We need to establish a niche for a high priced wine in small quantities."

Niche player

There is no underestimating the importance of these long-term plans for the central Tarija valley. Grape growing is already the most important employer in the area and with its beautiful climate and scenery, hopes are high that Tarija's wines can also become a major pull for tourism in the area.

The next key step will be to establish a reputation for high quality Bolivian wines.

Forming a partnership with an established producer would certainly assist in this aim and could unlock the potential that those who know Tarija have already tasted.

"Bolivian wines can compete with any wines in the world," said Marķa Isabel Mijares, "they can rub shoulders with the best."

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Americas
Timeline: Bolivia
13 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bolivia
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