Monday, 28 July 2014

Tarija - un poco vino, por favor?

As usual with Bolivian overnight buses, they are expertly scheduled to arrive at your destination in the small dark hours of the morning. And so we're in a taxi at 3:30am, heading for Hostal Casa Blanca, who CP has alerted in advance that we will be arriving at stupid o'clock.

It's a small but well equipped place with 3 dorm rooms which sleep a total of 14 people, so luckily no one is occupying our beds when we arrive and tiptoe our way in for some much needed sleep.

Later on, at a more reasonable hour, one of the guys that works/owns the place sits down with us to run through what there is to do in little Tarija, a small but pretty town that is mostly used as a base for visiting the wineries in the nearby Valle de Concepcion. During this chat he mentions that a 2 day guided tour is available and I nearly pass out. Thankfully he recognises our discomfort and quickly adds "but I don't like doing those either" and goes on to explain the alternatives.

There are 1 day options or half day. Since the only addition extra on the full day is that lunch is organised for you and you visit one extra winery, the dreaded Kohlberg which is at the bottom of the Bolivian wine meritocracy, we agree that the half day should be about right, and we can relax again.

For now though, we borrow the hostels bikes and set off around the quiet streets of Tarija. Almost every street is one way, so getting anywhere invariably leads to riding a block past and looping round or taking 3 left turns instead of 1 right, but it works. The bikes are very shit, but we're not exactly going very far, and it seems to be safe enough to leave them loosely chained to a tree while we meander in the street markets. CP here, on the bikes issue, after about 5 minutes, Rich asks me if I'd like to switch bikes. I ask him why. He says "because mine is f**ked!". You can guess my response...

Tarija is a really pretty little town, we think it's potentially even a city, and has a lovely, relaxed and most import story, warm feeling to it. We spend the afternoon just cruising around, hit the local markets to buy some eggs and avocados for breakfast and the food hall to sample a typically local dish of saise (minced meat, rice and salad). We shared a dish, which is usual, not for price reasons but portion control, as travelling seems to equate to eating...way too much!

I've been pretty much starved of a good coffee since we got to Bolivia, but the guidebook recommends a place on the main square called Mokka Cafe. The main square really isn't that big, but after a fruitless 15 minute search we have to concede defeat... for now.

We stop off at EcoSol, a place that has been recommended by our hostel as a good trek (that's not a guided tour is it..?) of El Valle des Condores. They don't exactly cover themselves in glory with the sales pitch, one person insisting they know nothing about it, another fumbling around to find the brochure, and then eventually writing down the phone number of that same office for us to call. So if we go outside and phone you, will you be less of a mess? I'm not convinced, but CP is keen (she's read all about it on someone else's blog, so it must be great!?), and as I'm aware I've been a miserable bastard for the last week or so I figure that we may as well sign up, I'll either be grumpy sat around here, or trekking up to look at some condors.

In fairness, I have been in a progressively better mood since arriving in Potosi and this has continues in Tarija, as the weather has significantly improved and it feels like we are on holiday again, failed coffee shop search aside, and this will only get better tonight - there's a steakhouse here which is rumoured to be unbelievably good, and while it's more expensive than the average Bolivian meal, it's outrageously cheap by any other standards.

We both shower (!) and put on a fresh set of clothes for the occasion (this must be serious!), and set off on an evening stroll to El Fogon de Gringo - the name would normally be a red flag but this place is sooooo good! Assuming you're going for steak, you choose the cut of meat, choose the size (250g or 400g), and that's it - it will be cooked to your requirements while you avail of the epic salad bar. Oh - and then there's the wine list - all Bolivian of course, but we've had a few recommendations and go for the Campos de Solana, tri-varietal, 2011 Reserva. Yes, there are cheaper bottles on the menu, but in order to celebrate me smiling again, we're going for it - plus we're having Argentinian steaks in the Bolivian wine region, a decent bottle is almost compulsory!

There's probably only been a handful of times in the last 5 years when CP has tasted a wine in a restaurant and not made at least one derogatory comment about it - I now make her taste the wines only as a test to see is she's behaving. CP tastes the wine, and... it passes the test, in that she doesn't make a face. In truth, it's a genuinely good drop, and we're both happy that we've lucked into this one.

We opt for the 250g steaks, on the basis that we can try 2 different cuts. When they arrive, it's clear that these are not 10oz steaks... they're enormous. CP immediately declares that she'll be taking some home, but I see it as a challenge, one that I pass, but there will be no desserts. Incredible food, one of the best bottles of wine on the menu, and we still get out of there for less than £30 including tip. The equivalent meal back home would have set us back about 4 times that.

Despite only eating half, it's still too much for CP, and she'll be seeing most of that meal again in the early hours... such a waste!

The next morning, after fashioning a breakfast from the remaining eggs and CPs leftover steak, we're picked up from our hostel by our (English speaking) guide for the morning, and after a quick stop to pick up 2 other tourists (Bolivians from La Paz, on a short holiday in Tarija) we're on our way to Valle de Concepcion and our first winery - which happens to be Campos de Solana, the producer of last nights finest.

After a quick tour of the winery and the processes that they use, it's time for the tasting... it's 10am. The bottle that is selected for our consumption is one of their tintos, or table wines. It's what most Bolivians will drink if they are having wine - generally speaking they don't have the palates for wine, so will drink mostly anything, and the tintos are very basic wines, not made to be kept or aged, as the average Bolivian has no interest in that. In short, it's a bottle of plonk. Which is fine, it's not (too) offensive, CP pulls a face, but it just doesn't really do anything - and so we move on.

Our guide explains that Bolivia doesn't export wine as the export taxes are prohibitively expensive. And compared with Chile or Argentina, they're now so far behind in terms of reputation around the world that it would be very difficult to break into any overseas market - even though their best bottles are available for 150 Bolivianos (£14) after restaurant markup, or 90 Bolivianos cellar door.

One of the highlights of this half day tour is a visit to this winery's sister establishment, Casa Real, where they produce vast quantities of Bolivias signature spirit, Singani. This is made from distilled grapes, and is made in varying levels of quality just like any other spirit.

They are quite proud of the fact that Singani is exported internationally. This is true, but not in the normal sense. When the film director Steven Soderberg was filming Che, he was introduced to Singani, and decided that he liked it so much he would import some to the US. By all accounts, this was not an easy task, and we're given the impression that this is not a profitable venture for him. But yes, technically, Singani is sold internationally.

After a demonstration of the production method, we're invited to the tasting. First, a shot, taken neat, like an Italian grappa, but with less burning and convulsions.

Then, the way Bolivians drink it, mixed with ginger all and a slice of lemon, to create a drink called a Chuflay. This is awesome, and we buy a bottle of their ultra special "Don Lucho" to take home with us. CP insists that some of this remains when she returns to Guernsey 2 months after me... I make no promises.

Theres one final stop on our tour, Casa Viejo (the old house), which looks exactly as you would expect, if someone had taken an old French farmhouse and placed it gently in the Bolivian countryside. All the wine here is made manually, with the grapes being trodden on for hours in order to extract what eventually becomes a rather quaffable and sweet table wine.

This is more of a tasting than a demonstration, and there's a quick fire round of about 6 different glasses that are passed around the group with everyone drinking from the same glass like one massive family. Pretty epic and something we've not done before!

With that done, our guide is keen to push on to one last place, which we think is just a visit to look at a waterfall. We have a better idea, and opt to stay at Casa Viejo for lunch (and a bottle of wine) in the beautiful sunshine before taking a taxi back to Tarija (25km for 5 Bolivianos, less than 50p).

We both loved our little trip into wine country and it felt good to be back amongst the vines again. It's not quiet the French countryside that we both love so much, but it was all pretty familiar as wine is made the same way everywhere in the world...with often the same grapes, or varieties thereof, just different terroir.  In Bolivia, the Tri-Varietal Reserva is the sought after blend of Conception - Cabernet, Merlot and a French grape we had never heard of, but apparently grows well in Bolivia, Tannat. Interestingly, Petit Verdot also grows well in Bolivia, with apparently perfect conditions for it to flourish, unlike in France where it is only be grown in very small quantities, making it a rare addition to French wines. After having our wine tastebuds whet, we even played with the idea of quick jaunt into Argentina, a mere 3 to 5 hour bus trip across the border to the most northern Argentinian wineries, but a $100 visa fee for CP as an Australian, together with limited time, made the option of a two day trip a little excessive, so we talked ourselves out of it.

When we get arrive back at our hostel, CP is feeling a little off colour, so I am sent into town to finally book and pay for this Valle des Condores trip. I'm still not convinced (it sounds suspiciously like a tour...) but I sign us up for a morning pickup, after yet another failed search for the elusive Cafe Mokka...

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