Let’s get right to it: The number “1750” on the label of today’s wine refers to the base altitude (in meters!) of the vineyard it is sourced from. The grape variety is Tannat, and the region of origin is the Samaipata Valley of Bolivia, nestled in an “elbow” of the Andes well north of the border with Argentina.
If this is a new wine frontier for you, well…of course it is! It’s a new wine frontier for just about everyone, myself included, and it’s a fascinating one. This is some of the highest-elevation viticulture in the world, and the intense luminosity at these heights results in a red of immense extraction and power—ripe and rich, but blessed with a cool-climate freshness at the same time. You’ve likely never experienced a Tannat like this before—not if your only frame of reference is its primary home in Southwest France, where the wines can often have coarse, aggressive tannins. If you are a fan of Argentine Malbecs (or Bordeaux blends) you will be mightily impressed with what 1750 winemaker Francisco Roig accomplished with this 2016. Revelatory wines like this make my job fun, but they also make me think: Even with centuries of grape-growing and winemaking history to draw on, and a world-class terroir besides, Bolivia is still an embryonic wine culture. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
There’s also a story behind this wine that really resonates right now: Winemaker Francisco Roig came to the US at 17 to stay with an aunt in Washington, D.C. and learn English. He wound up going to college here, then getting an MBA, then meeting a French woman (now his wife) who introduced him to the wide world of wine. Wanting to get into business in his native Bolivia, he took correspondence courses at UC Davis and began researching Bolivia’s assorted wine regions, doing extensive climate and soil studies in each. He originally considered the broad Tarija Valley, which runs down to the Argentine border in southern Bolivia (and is also the country’s most populous wine appellation), but eventually drifted further north, to the Samaipata Valley, which is not far from Santa Cruz—now one of Bolivia’s most modern cities but also one that is positioned near a climatic “frontier.” Situated right at a point where the Andes range makes a turn to the northwest, Samaipata is effectively the point at which a cool, “four-season” climate gives way to a tropical one. “Once you get a little north of there,” Roig says, “you’ll find coffee all the way to Mexico.”
Attracted to this viticultural frontier, and equipped with a small amount of investment capital, he and his business partner Peregrín Ortiz planted five hectares of vineyards in 2007, on hillside sites with soils of schist and sandstone interspersed with sand, clay, and gravel. He took his climate and soil research on Samaipata and compared it to Old and New World regions alike, finding the greatest similarities in the “moderate to cool parts of France, especially the Atlantic side.” Tannat, the signature red grape of southwest France, was one of several French varieties he chose to plant, and it flourished (it is also very popular in Uruguay, incidentally). “With the altitude we have, plus the fact that it is a cool, windswept region, we are getting amazing results with Tannat,” Roig exclaims. “We’re able to get full phenolic ripeness while maintaining great acidity.” The image on the wine’s label is a depiction of a native woman of the Guaraní tribe—one of the only tribes in the Americas not to be conquered by the Spaniards, and one in which women were warriors alongside the men (the 1750 winery, by the way, is run by a woman named María Eldy Contreras).
Today’s 2016 from Vinos 1750 is a red of exceptional ripeness and power, without even a hint of the “cooked” flavors that doom similarly rich wines from hotter climates. Roig ferments the wine only in stainless steel, so it is all about fruit purity and mineral expression. In the glass, it’s an opaque purple-black extending all the way to the rim, with tremendous viscosity evidenced by the slow-moving tears coating the sides of the glass. Aromas of cassis, blueberries, mulberries, and violets mingle with more savory hints of leather, rock dust, and wild herbs. It is full-bodied for sure, but the tannins, while serious, have nowhere near the ferocity of some of the Tannats of southwest France, such as Madiran (much like Argentine Malbecs are typically less bitingly tannic than the Malbecs of Cahors). There are surely kindred qualities between this wine and some of its Argentine cousins, but there are also a few nods to polished, powerful Bordeaux reds as well. For all its power, it is not ponderous in any way: Decant it about 45 minutes before serving at 60 degrees in Bordeaux stems with a well-charred ribeye steak. If you really want to get authentic, check out the attached recipes, but either way—get yourself a taste of this wine!
Sandstone & Schist