Visiting Tarija: Bolivia’s wine country.

The one and only time I went wine-tasting was a couple of years ago in France. I ended up drunk because I refused to spit the wine out. I know you’re not supposed to swallow it, but to me it seemed like a waste of perfectly good wine. Although I didn’t know that Bolivia produced its own wine until I was in the country, I thought that tasting here might be a little more relaxed.

To find out, I headed to Tarija, a city near the Argentinian border which is the hub of Bolivian wine. My first impression of the city when I arrived was that it was an affluent place. There was none of the poverty you saw in La Paz, with fancy cars, a brand-new bus station and market (both sparkling clean, which I’ve not seen anywhere yet in South America), and even a farmers’ style market. It really felt like being back in Europe. Or it would if it weren’t for the arid desert surrounding it, also different from the mountains and the altiplano that I’d got used to in my first week and a bit in Bolivia.

Oh, and of course Tarija is home to the world’s biggest wine glass – on a hill overlooking the city, giving a view of the centre and the surrounding Valle de la Concepción. Unfortunately, the wine glass was completely empty. There wasn’t even a bar. Someone was definitely missing a trick there…

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The world’s biggest wine glass.

To get a better idea about Bolivian wine, booked a 4-hour tasting tour that would take me into the valley and the areas around Tarija, taking in 3 industrial, and 1 artisanal winery.

Something that I learned about wine on the tour is that although you’re shown how it’s made, how the grapes are ground down into a pulp, how the alcohol is heated and extracted and all of that stuff, no-one really cares about any of that, and they just want to get to the tasting rooms at the end. So, assuming that if you’re reading this you feel the same way, I’ll skip all the bits about how wine is made. And that’s not because I couldn’t really remember after quite a few free glasses.

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Since you can’t taste the wine, here’s someone putting grapes into a big machine.

One thing I do remember is that the first thing we were invited to try was not wine, but the Bolivian national drink, singani. Similar to Italian grappa, this grape-based alcoholic drink had a volume of 40%. Bolivia now exports it to the United States as the film director Steven Soderbergh fell in love with it on a trip to La Paz a few years ago. It’s also available in a select few places in London, but other than that you can’t get it outside of Bolivia, which is a real shame!

It was very smooth and made up part of a delicious cocktail popular across Bolivia. Peru has the Pisco Sour, and Brazil has the caipirinha as their national drinks, and Bolivia has chuflay. Chuflay consists of singani, lots of ice, lemon, and topped up with ginger ale. A really refreshing drink for a hot and sunny day.

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Making chuflay.

After one of these cocktails, with a very generous measure of singani, it was time to try some actual wine at the next vineyard. Again, we were shown the process of how wine was made (there were some barrels thrown in at this one, but still everyone was waiting for the tasting). When our patience was rewarded, what a beautiful view we had. The garden looked out over a vineyard and the mountains, dotted with cacti. Here, we learned the right way to hold the glass, sniff the wine etc, and drink it. Apparently downing it in one isn’t the way to go. And it certainly doesn’t get you a second glass. There were a few different cheeses and hams to compliment the wine, and it there were notes of… well probably berries or something. I’m not a connoisseur but I’d have definitely have it again.

I’ll skip the third winery, which was modern and industrial and served sparkling wine. It was alright, but nowhere near as good as prosecco, champagne, or possibly even Babycham.

The final bodega was the one I was most excited about, as it was a small artisanal one, where we were promised lots of tastings. Being greeted by a human, a dog, and a cat just made things better. Unfortunately, inside the tasting room we’d only be tasting sweet wines (which I hate), but it was here I learned that Bolivia even makes its own port. I thought that it could only be called port if it was from Porto, but clearly not.

All of the wines here were very sweet. Some would go as far as to say sickly, including me. However, it was the friendliest place we’d been all day, and the views of the Valle de la Concepción were fantastic. Also, by this point, I’d had enough glasses of wine and singani to care very little about how nice the wine was.

I didn’t spend long in Tarija, and the wine tour was pretty much the only thing I did, other than taking a walk around the centre. Although there wasn’t loads to the city, I enjoyed it, and I also had an absolutely cracking steak on my last night. If you’re into food and wine, it’s definitely worth spending a few days here on a trip to Bolivia.

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Vineyards at twilight. 

 

 

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