Discover Bolivia's Wine Region

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For Wine Club this month, we have the distinct pleasure of showcasing one of our absolute favorite regions, southeastern Bolivia. It only has a tiny amount of land capable of growing grapes, but we cannot stress enough how special those grapes are.

Bolivia’s ability to grow world class grapes is a perfect example of the marvels of nature. Due to a combination of factors - super high altitude, optimal latitude, wind patterns from the south, high exposure to sun rays during the growing season, to name a few - Bolivian grapes can range from something akin to Willamette’s bright fruit flavor and high acid, to the richness of Chile’s Central Valley.

Located within a larger climate system that includes Cafayette and La Salta in Argentina, South Eastern Bolivia has a series of grape growing oases. Despite their proximity to the equator, which would normally create a subtropical climate, Bolivia’s winegrowing regions of Tarija, Cinti, and Valles Cruceños (Samaipata) have seasonality. In other words, they have a winter, a key to growing quality grapes.

They have this winter because of a wind patter Bolivians call “Surazo,” or “big winds from the South.” Starting around March, these winds careen off the Patagonian Steepe over the Chaco plains, bringing with them dark clouds and cold fog. The winds come in spurts, with each blast progressively cooling the region until frost forms in June. This frost cues the vines that it’s time to go to sleep. They hibernate until August, when the winds die down and the temperature rises. During this time, grape growers prune as they would during any winter in the rest of the world.

Tarija, Cinti, and Valles Cruceños all sit on the southeastern corner of Bolivia. Above them is Amboró National Park. To illustrate just how unique Bolivia’s southeastern corner is from a climate perspective, above Amboró is Bolivia’s coffee growing region. This marks the only place in the world where the wine-belt and coffee-belt border each other. The reason is, coffee cannot have a frost, but grows well in cooler climates, whereas grapes need a frost. A mere half hour drive separates the two!

Bolivia’s grapes grow at altitudes rarely seen in the grape growing world. But this is just one piece of the puzzle. Plenty of places in the northern part of South America have climates with temperature low enough to support grape growing. And some now do, thanks to advances in technology. It’s southeastern Bolivia’s exact convergence of factors, though, that makes it so special. It truly is one of the best examples out there of the concept of terroir.

The Wines

1750 Torrontes 2017 - Francisco Roig, owner and winemaker at 1750, is a true friend of Grand Cata. You can thank his wealth of knowledge about not only Bolivia, but the world of wine generally, for this blog piece. This wine highlights the special ability of Samaipata to grow grapes with full ripeness and exceptional acidity. The wine has wonderful notes of melon, white flowers, apricots, and lychee. It’s the perfect wine for spring.

La Concepción Syrah 2018 - Syrah is a grape that Bolivia does exceptionally well. Unlike other parts of the world, where you have to choose between a Syrah with intense fruit and bold texture or herbal notes and acidity, here you get both.

We look forward to Sunday! The release starts at 1pmn and goes until 7. See you there!



How High Altitude Makes South America Special

Picture courtesy of Francisco Roig from Viñedos 1750, Bolivia.

Picture courtesy of Francisco Roig from Viñedos 1750, Bolivia.

Many factors affect how a grape grows, and the wine that results from it. In South America, for example, altitude plays a huge role.

Slight changes in altitude can have drastic effects. Just a couple hundred feet in elevation change micro climates, thereby changing the expressions of the same varietals. However, what makes South America special in the wine world is the extreme altitudes at which grapes grow.

In the Northern Hemisphere, few grape growing regions exist above 2,500 ft, with most hovering from a few hundred feet to 1,500 ft. In South America, there are areas in Chile that sit below sea level, and there are places in Argentina that have vineyards higher than 6,500 ft!

One little country takes the cake, though, when it comes to growing grapes at altitude, and that is Bolivia. If you want to get to know Bolivian winemaking and grape growing, check out this recap of a Master Class we hosted and taught by Bolivian winemaker Francisco Roig. In short, Bolivia starts growing grapes where the rest of the world stops. Being so close to the equator, if Bolivia’s grape growing areas weren’t so high up, they wouldn’t be able to produce grapes suitable for wine.

When he was here in the Fall of 2018, Sebastian Zuccardi dropped a nugget of knowledge when he explained that, ‘the plant’s job is to protect the seed in the grape. At high altitude, the grapes are subjected to more intense UV rays. They form a thicker skin to combat this. This means wines from altitude therefore have a more intense color."

Altitude can also create a wider “diurnal range,” if the region in question is relatively far north, or closer to the equator. This means that it gets very hot during the day, and very cold at night. The temperature can swing as much as 50 degrees in the super high altitude region of Valle de Uco in Mendoza, for example. This leads to grapes that retain more natural acidity without sacrificing ripeness, a common problem in warm climate regions.

So next time you sip on something from Argentina or Bolivia, remember that without the Andes, those wines wouldn’t exist! And they certainly wouldn’t be so incredible!



Our Three Favorite Ways to Make Sparkling Wine


We love burbujas at Grand Cata! In our opinion, sparkling wine is too often reserved only for special occasions. There’s plenty of reasons to imbibe some bubbles all throughout the year!

We’d like to use this piece to take a closer look at the main methods of producing sparkling wines that we work with at the shop.

Pet Nat / Ancestral Method

Until recently, this type of sparkling wine was known to only well traveled wine lovers with a taste for the esoteric. Slowly but surely, however, it has become more common and easier to find.

Pet Nat stands for “pétillant naturel,” French for "natural sparkling." It gets this name because the process happens naturally, with less input or guidance needed by the winemaker. Don’t confuse this with “easy!” Pet Nat’s can have a mind of their own, so while there may be fewer steps to take, messing any up will ruin the wine.

Pet Nats use a method called “méthode ancestrale,” or the ancestral method, the oldest way of getting bubbles into wine. As wine ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If you ferment in a sealed environment, like the bottle itself, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine, giving you bubbles. In the case of the ancestral method, winemakers start the fermentation in a vat (now a days a tank), then wine transfer it to the bottle before the initial fermentation finishes. This means lighter bubbles, and funkier flavors.

Originally, the method was discovered because the temperature in some years would get so cold so quickly after harvest, that fermentation would stall. Winemakers would bottle at this point, only to find that come spring, the warmer temperatures reactivated the fermentation. Bottles weren’t always strong enough to hold the pressure, so many would burst, like mini wine bombs!

Today, the process is much better understood, and less risky. Winemakers will intentionally stall the fermentation at a specified point, transfer the wine to bottles sturdy enough to hold up against the pressure created by trapping the carbon dioxide, and then bring the wine up to the appropriate temperature. The results are less predictable than the other two methods we’ll discuss below. When done right, though, Pet Nats have a width of flavor and character, as well as freshness, that makes them irresistible.

Champagne Method

Méthode champenoise, often called the traditional method, is actually the direct evolution of the ancestral method. A monk named Dom Perignon got tired of having to walk around the cellar on eggshells, worried that the bottles around him would explode. He also wanted more consistency of quality in his wines. So, he set about studying and experimenting until he developed what we now call the champagne method, as he did his work in Champagne.

This method brings more flavors to the party, particularly ones associated with sur lees aging and picking specific yeast strands that best suit the winemakers needs. Sur lees means “on the yeast.” After the yeast have exhausted all their fuel (sugar), or the alcohol reaches a level they can no longer survive in, they die and fall to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. When making most styles of wine, the wine would be racked off and the yeast discarded. With the champagne method, however, winemakers deliberately leave the yeast in contact with the wine, sometimes stirring it to impart even more flavors.

What really separates this method from the ancestral one is the introduction of a second fermentation. First, the winemaker fully ferments the wine, then ages it, then transfers it to a bottle designed to hold much greater pressure than the ancestral method. New yeast and either sugar or unfermented grape juice get added as well, and the bottle is sealed with that classic cork and cage.

As with all three of the methods we’re discussing, the bubbles get into the wine because the fermentation happens in a sealed environment. Again, fermentation naturally gives off carbon dioxide. Trapping it forces it to dissolve into the wine.

(Psst! If you’re interested in a deeper dive into these next two styles, jump over to the piece we wrote for New Years 2017.)

Charmat Method

By far the youngest method, you’ll see this most often with Prosecco, though winemakers all over the world use it.

From a flavor standpoint, with both of the first two methods we looked at, the flavors, aromas, and textures of the resulting wines have as much to do with the method as the grapes used. With charmat, the grapes shine. This is because less of the wine spends time in direct contact with the yeast, and the fermentation happens at a much larger scale.

Like the champagne method, the wine goes through a second, sealed, fermentation. This time, however, this happens in a large, temperature controlled tank. Once the wine reaches the desired bubbles, bottles get filled from the tank. All of this means greater control, less funky and yeasty notes, and more emphasis on the flavors of the grapes.

Which to Pick?

The short answer is, they’re all great! Reach for a Pet Nat on a hot day with some soft cheese and fleshy fruits. Grab a champagne method sparkler if you want to dazzle your palate, and pair it with a spread of sardines, mustard, green apples, your favorite cheese, and a baguette. For brunch, a picnic, or just while watching Netflix, you can’t beat Prosecco, or another style made using the charmat method. Just remember, there’s no wrong time to drink sparkling wine!


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