Grown At High Altitudes, Bolivia's Wines Are Rising Stars : The Salt There's not a ton of room to grow grapes in Bolivia; many of its vineyards are located in mile-high mountain valleys and foothills. The country's wine output may be small, but it's winning big awards.

Grown At High Altitudes, Bolivia's Wines Are Rising Stars

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Chile and Argentina are the giants of South American wine. Neighboring Bolivia is better known for snow-capped mountains than sun-drenched vineyards. But Bolivia is starting to attract the notice of wine connoisseurs. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Gerardo Aguirre takes a half dozen wine aficionados on a tour of the Aranjuez winery.

GERARDO AGUIRRE: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: It was founded by Aguirre's grandfather in 1976 here in Tarija, a city located near Bolivia's southern border with Argentina.

AGUIRRE: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Aguirre describes the lavender and jasmine aromas in the company's signature white wine. Then his guests try it for themselves.

AGUIRRE: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: The visitors seem impressed, with some comparing it to fine French wine. They're not alone. In recent years, Bolivian wines have won rave reviews from wine critics and prestigious international awards. Now Aranjuez and other wineries here are starting to export.

AGUIRRE: They want Bolivian wine in Chile. How is that? Because Bolivian wine is exotic. We're high-altitude wine. We're getting good wine. Here in Aranjuez, we're getting a lot of medals in really serious contests.

OTIS: Winemaking was introduced to South America by Spanish settlers in the 1600s. The industry took hold in Argentina and Chile, which are home to temperate climates and flatlands perfect for vineyards. Bolivia, by contrast, is closer to the equator and is dominated by Amazon jungle and the Andes Mountains. That leaves little space to grow grapes.


OTIS: In places where they have been planted, like on this farm near Tarija where workers are watering grapes seedlings, the land is more than a mile high. That's why Gonzalo Pinedo, part owner of the farm, prefers a grape variety known as tannat.

GONZALO PINEDO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Tannat grapes have thicker skins to resist the intense sunlight of high altitudes and have become a favorite of Bolivian winemakers. Pinedo says tannat grapes produce intense and bold red wines that have impressed sommeliers.

PINEDO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "I think wine drinkers are looking for new things," he says, "and the difference here is the high altitude."


OTIS: The growing prominence of Bolivia's wine industry brings thousands of visitors to Tarija every year.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

OTIS: This bus plays Bolivian folk music as it ferries tourists from one winery to the next. They're a jolly bunch, in part because rather than using spit buckets at the tastings, they simply swallow the wine. Bolivian wine is still hard to find in the U.S. and other countries.

Nearly all of these bottles at the Aranjuez warehouse are being shipped to retailers inside Bolivia, where the economy and wine consumption are expanding. Winemakers are scrambling to produce more for export but are limited by the lack of suitable land. Still, Aguirre points out that it wasn't so long ago that Bolivian wine was unheard of beyond the country's borders.

AGUIRRE: We looked at it like a dream. I mean, like, when would be the day that we have quality wine like they do in Argentina? It was like a utopic dream. But now we are making good wine, man. You know, after these many years, we are in the same quality of Argentina and Chile, and that's only because of the grapes, a lot of learning in the process and, of course, a lot of work.

OTIS: For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Tarija, Bolivia.


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