Last Saturday, we hosted Francisco Roig from 1750 Vineyards, a cutting edge winery in Bolivia. We packed our communal table to the max, and Francisco led us on an eye-opening journey through the wines of two Bolivian producers.
Francisco was kind enough to not only present his wines, but also three from another producer, Aranjuez. In total, we sampled six Bolivian masterpieces. We literally sold every bottle from each we had in the store afterwards!
Before we dig into the wines, let’s run through some of the things that make Bolivia unique, and special, in the wine world.
First, you cannot understand Bolivia without understanding the interplay between altitude and latitude in grape growing. Bolivia starts growing grapes where the rest of the world stops, because it lies so close to the equator. The lowest vineyards in Bolivia sit at 1,600 meters (5,250 feet).
What does this mean? Well, grape vines need a temperate climate, with seasons, to produce fruit worthy of wine production. Specific to Bolivia, high altitude leads to lower temperature, which, in the winter months, creates low enough pressure to pull even more cold air from the plains of Patagonia. This combination creates a winter cold enough to force the vines to go dormant, an absolute necessity to growing fine wine grapes.
This high altitude has other advantages. For one, the intensity of the sunlight, much like Mendoza in Argentina, allows grapes to ripen more quickly during the day than they would at the same temperature at a lower altitude. On top of that, the temperature drops so quickly, and so low, at night, that the grapes essentially shut down. This combination preserves acidity, without sacrificing the complexity that comes from good ripeness.
All this boils down to an interesting paradox: despite being located in a relatively small country with some of the hottest weather in the world, Bolivia is also an exceptional (though undiscovered) cold-weather winegrowing region, akin to places like the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Itata region of Chile, Burgundy in France, or Piedmont in Italy. Pretty good company to keep, if you ask us!
In addition to its low-latitude, high-altitude, cold-weather phenomenon, Bolivia is also special for other reasons. For instance, we learned from Francisco that Bolivia has grown grapes for a very, very long time. Few regions in South America have been at it longer, in fact. Also, Bolivia’s total area under vine pales in comparison to even the Napa Valley, a tiny region in its own right. While Napa boasts 18,200 hectares (45,000 acres) - which on accounts for .4% of California’s total vineyards, by the way - Bolivia has only 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres). Its production, as you’d expect, is therefore tiny.
Ok, the big question: does all this add up to great wine? Though we only got a small sample, if the wines Francisco brought out are any indication, the answer is a resounding “YES!” All of them exhibited a striking brightness and ripeness on the nose, followed by bone dry palates full of minerals and exotic fruits. The reds in particular spoke to their cool climates, with herbs, peppercorn, tart fruit and perfect acidity. The tannat and syrah from 1750 in particular stole the show. Below, you’ll find brief tasting notes for all six of the wines sampled. We urge those of you that were unable to make it last week to get your hands on some of these. You will not be disappointed!
Aranjuez Torrontés & Muscatel Blend 2016
A beautiful straw yellow wine reminiscent of lightly brewed tea, this blend is intensely aromatic. You’ll find lychee, white flowers, coconut and tropical fruit on the nose. The palate is fully dry and rich, with a balancing tartness and refreshing minerals, with a heavy focus on tropical fruit.
Aranjuez “DUO” Tannat & Merlot Blend 2016
Tannat and merlot play beautifully together as a rule, and this wine is no exception. The first thing you’ll notice - and this speaks to the cooler climate - is how elegant, fresh and delicate the wine is compared to similar blends from Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. Inky dark, the wine smells like cooked dark fruit, specifically blackberry, blueberry and raisin. Intermingled are aromas of dark chocolate, pie crust, fresh bread, and cinnamon. The palate offers the same notes, with the addition of touch of rosemary, dried rose petal, and flint. The best part of the wine, however, may be its lingering, fruity, minty, slightly sweet finish.
Aranjuez Tannat 100% 2016
Tannat is fast becoming a star throughout South America, and for Aranjuez, it shines. On the nose, look for black fruit - a tell-tale characteristic of tannat - alongside dulche de leche, warm milk, cream of coconut, tropical fruit (rare for a red, and quite a nice touch), fresh tarragon, charred herbs, licorice, and charcoal. Rich to the point of decadent on the palate, with perfectly silky tannins and exceptional acid, this wine is truly on point.
The flavors of the wine are decidedly less fruit driven than the nose would suggest, instead focusing on herbs, charcoal, and blood orange. That last note, blood orange, is rare. You generally find it in Portuguese reds that include touriga nacional.
To finish, the wine gifts you flavors of citrus peel and herbs wrapped in tingly tannins. Simply an excellent wine.
1750 Torrontés 2017
85% torrontés, with the other 15% comprised of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and Pedro Ximenez, this wine’s a treat. Light honey colored, aromas of bubbling mountain spring water, pineapple, fresh green herbs, coconut and canned corn jump out of the glass. The extremely dry palate offers flavors of herbs, banana, and pineapple. The finish is medium length, very herbal, and quite dry. Find yourself some grilled red snapper served with plantains and a fresh corn, cherry tomato and onion salad and dig in!
1750 Syrah 2016
It’s a toss up between this and the next wine as to which is the best of the bunch, but one thing is clear with both: the terroir in Bolivia, and specifically Sampaita where these vineyards lie, is special. On it’s label the wine says clearly, “this is a true cold weather syrah,” and it does not lie. To fully appreciate this wine, you have to remember this fact as you sip.
It shows its cool-climate roots off the bat with an exceptionally floral nose. Hidden beneath those flowers, however, are peppercorn, chocolate, eastern spices like cumin, grilled meat, marjoram (if you don’t know what this smells like you can find it fresh in most grocery stores, or dried and powdered in the spices section), raisin, and cooked cherries. On the palate, the degree to which this is NOT an Australian shiraz becomes completely clear. This wine has a tension, freshness and texture that makes you think of a taught bow effortlessly run across a finely tuned violin.
Flavorwise, this wine has droves of that black pepper flavor that makes cool-climate syrah famous. Sprinkled in are little hints of tart cherry, herbs, and iron. It finishes off slightly bitter, the way nice coffee does, with herbal tones and a touch of tartness. This wine is exceptional, and a steal for the price.
1750 Tannat 2016
Having to show itself after the last wine would seem unfair to this tannat, were it not so self-confident. On the nose, you can smell that the wine has some tartness, sort of the same way you can tell cranberry juice is tart (strangely, the wine neither taste or smells like cranberries themselves). Aromas of blackberry, dark cherry, dark chocolate, charred herbs, lime rind sour cherry and yogurt and dance around to give the wine’s nose an uncanny similarity to a saute pan right after use.
The wine is superbly structured, to the point that it’s hard to believe it has not spent time in oak. When asked about this, Francisco let us in an amazing winemaking technique he uses. Since the end of the growing season is mild in Sampaita, he can get away with leaving the grapes on the vine for longer than most cool-climate regions. This leads to thicker, woodier stems. After harvest, he de-stemms the grapes, but saves the stems. He then goes through, by hand, and chooses the thickest, woodiest stems, then adds them to must. This gives the wine a texture akin to strongly brewed black tea.
For flavors, the wine relies on a healthy does of earthy spices, such as peppercorn, charcoal, black fruit, and tea. It then finishes tart, with strong herbal notes, seared meat, and mushroom. Lay this wine down for a few years if you want to tame it. It will go from exceptional to other-wordly
As a special treat, Francisco poured some Singani, a Bolivian brandy named after an exceptional vineyard that produced a spirit of serious note. Fruity and rich, Singani must be made with wine of a certain quality. For any Pisco lovers out there, give this stuff a shot!
Phew! We know that’s a lot of info to take in. Believe it or not, we actually left out some details. Francisco is a fountain of knowledge and passion, and you can taste it in his wines. We’ve restocked after the class, so we have all of these wines available on our shelves. Come discover what Bolivia has to offer!