In 2013, a blind tasting contest for tannant wines was held in Uruguay. These grapes have become a signature part of the host country’s wine industry — giving them a significant home-court advantage. But, much to everyone’s surprise: the winner was a Bolivian wine.
It was so much of a surprise, in fact, that the judges would not officially award the prize until they had gone to the winery and confirmed it was made in Bolivia. And sure enough, they awarded Bolivia the country’s first-ever grand gold medal.
More often than not, when one thinks about South American wine, they think of Argentina or Chile — two nations that are now among the world’s top-10 wine producing countries — whereas Bolivia has built its alcohol reputation on singani, a grape-based spirit.
But, in recent years, a growing number of Bolivian wineries have been honing their wines and exporting overseas. So what makes their wine so special?
For starters, the altitude. The average vineyard in Bolivia stands at 5,200 feet above sea level — significantly higher than those in Napa and Burgundy, which start around 1,000 feet and 300 feet above sea level, respectively. This means that Bolivian grapes are exposed to stronger sunshine and thinner atmosphere — which create a distinctly different taste.
These conditions have proved especially fruitful for tannants, a thick-skinned grape that originated in France and produces bold wines. Along with its unique flavor, it is also said that thicker grape skins can bring health benefits, like protection against cancer and heart disease.
Before the pandemic, Bolivia was gaining traction as a must-visit wine destination. Wine-tasting tours were bringing in tens of thousands of tourists. And acclaimed restaurants, like Gustu in La Paz and at least nine Michelin-star eateries in the United States, had Bolivian wine on the menu.
However, along with the tourism challenges brought on by COVID-19, the Bolivian wine industry is up against some significant hurdles to its potential international success. In particular, because of Bolivia’s challenging geography, the country’s vineyards cover just 11,000 acres. (For comparison, Argentina and Chile grow a combined 1 million acres of grapes). And, more than half of the harvest is used for singani, white wine, and table grapes — leaving relatively few vines for the highly sought after tannant varieties.
But, creating an international market for Bolivian wine is about more than competing with its neighbors. It is about a country’s pride, as well as its future — which have Bolivian wine makers intent on succeeding. According to an analysis done by Chufly Imports, if just two of every 1,000 bottles of wine imported to the United States was from Bolivia, 1,000 people would be lifted out of poverty. This does not factor in the potential benefits of wine-tourism.
In short: a fruitful wine industry could help usher in a new era for the Bolivian economy. But, for outsiders who are tempted to start their own ventures in the market, beware. While the country has one of the highest levels of foreign investment in the region, navigating its complex tax, legal, and regulatory environment is difficult without local help.
But, wine has been made in Bolivia since the 16th century, and when it finally gets its international due, it will be because of the talent and hard work of Bolivian wine makers.
Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.