South America’s Best Kept Secret: The World of Venezuelan Wine
A couple of years ago, Venezuela made headlines when a government-mandated restriction on alcohol sales, prompted the local Catholic church to proclaim a wine shortage. According to a Church spokesman, they only had two months’ worth of wine to be used for masses, and that their only supplier was having difficulties with wine production. Though the issue was eventually resolved once the country’s Dry Law let up, the incident spoke highly of the state of wine in the country.
Like most everyone else in the world, Venezuelans do enjoy the occasional tipple. The problem lies in the people’s choice of drink. Beer, rum, and whiskey still lead the list of the people’s preferred alcohol. But there’s a slow ‘wine lifestyle’ revolution brewing in the south, and we might just see the conversion of beer guzzlers to wine drinkers in the future.
A History of Viticulture Five Centuries in the Making
Venezuela’s earliest attempts at vine growing can be traced back to 1515, when a number of Franciscan monks decided to set camp on the banks of the Manzanares River. There, they began planting winemaking grapes. Unfortunately, this initial effort at viticulture was immediately thwarted when the monks had a violent run-in with the country’s indigenous tribes.
Some historians report that as early as the 17th century, vineyards already existed in the Barquisimeto highlands and the El Tocuyo valley. Towns like Colonia Tovar, Galipan, and Meridan, were also thought to have started making handcrafted wines early on. Despite this progress in the art of winemaking, commercial wine production pretty much stayed under the radar until the 1980s.
Some viticulturists believe that the growth of the industry was stunted by the country’s soil conditions. As a tropical country, Venezuela’s soil composition worked best with specific grape variants, making early large-scale wine production a problem. This was all about to change at the establishment of Bodegas Pomar.
Establishing the Venezuelan Wine Trade
In the 1980s, Venezuela experienced a rise in interest in local viticulture. Up until this point, the wine industry was importing concentrated must and using it to create sangria and wine. Though this is still an accepted practice today, the 1983 wine production experiments in the Lara and Zulia states proved that local grape production was not only possible, but also profitable.
Jumping on this opportunity to improve the local wine trade, Empresas Polar, the country’s biggest consumer company, entered into a partnership with French corporation, Martell. Together, they founded Bodegas Pomar in 1985. Countless fieldworks, meticulous research on vine growing, wine logistics, and wine warehousing, and acquiring the latest winemaking technology, made it possible for Bodegas Pomar to create award-winning wines from homegrown grapes.
In 1992, Bodegas Pomar entered its white wine, Viña Altagracia Blanco, at the World Wine Congress in Brussels. There, the wine received a gold medal. From that point on, the wine company has accrued even more medals for its wide selection of premium quality rosé, white, and red sparkling wines.
Today, Bodegas Pomar is joined by the Viticulture Center in Zulia and the Institute of Grapes in Lara as the major homegrown wine producers in Venezuela.
Some Grapes Like It Hot: Exploring the Venezuelan Wine Regions
As of 2010, the country’s vine area was already at 330 hectares—with 230 hectares in the state of Zulia, and another 100 hectares in the state of Lara. In Zulia, daily temperatures range from 25-33 degrees Celsius. While vines enjoy a slightly colder climate in Lara, where temperatures run from 20-32 degrees Celsius.
Now, there’s a common belief that wine grapes are hard-pressed to grow in a tropical climate. But the secret behind Venezuela’s success in wine production lies in the location of its vineyards. Most wineries are placed at a certain altitude, which allows optimum variation in temperature levels in the daytime and at night. Come night time, it becomes cool enough for the grapes to attain the ideal sugar content needed to make good wine.
Another factor that works for Venezuelan wines is that the soils in the vineyards vary from clay to sandy. The deep sandy soils, in particular, are found to be rich in magnesium and calcium, thereby ensuring great drainage. And lastly, the fact that Venezuela does not have a winter season allows for two harvests a year—one in March, and one in September.
The very factors that were once perceived as disadvantageous for vine growing became the incredible advantages that Venezuela had over other wine countries. Today, the country cultivates a number of grape varieties. For reds, vineyards grow the Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, and the Syrah. For whites, they have the Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Moscato Bianco, and the Macabeo.
A Taste of Local Wine
Although not primarily known for its local wine industry, Venezuela is still an excellent destination if you’re planning on expanding the contents of your wine cellar. Here are some of our recommended local wines:
Petit Verdot – Petit Verdot is a highly concentrated and aromatic red wine grape characterized by its heavy tannins, strong flavors, and dark color. Because of its intense flavor, this grape is usually used to bring robustness to Bordeaux blends. When used as a varietal, it’s bound to have dark fruit notes reminiscent to black plums, blackberries, or black cherries. The varietal wine’s aroma may also range from the sweetness of bananas or vanilla to the solid smell of tar or pencil shavings.
Tempranillo – Here’s another red wine for your wine vault. The Tempranillo is a smooth wine that offers a good hit of tannin upon first sip. When oak is aged well, expect bold notes of cherry or plum, mixed with a touch of vanilla or leather. This savory drink has been likened to the well-loved Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sauvignon Blanc – The Sauvignon Blanc is a popular white wine distinguished by its fresh aroma, light fruit flavors, and oftentimes spicy finish. On your first sip, you can easily taste its base fruit taste, whether it’s green apple, white peach, kiwi, or lime. Aroma, on the other hand, could range from green bell peppers to wet concrete, and jalapeños to lemongrass. Depending on its oak-aging, flavors like cream, nutmeg, pie crust, and vanilla can also be added to the liquor.
Chenin Blanc – And lastly, we have the Chenin Blanc. With its delicate taste, this white wine is usually likened to other light-bodied wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. This wine can be made either dry or sweet, with medium to high acidity levels. Its underlying fruit flavors include apples, pineapples, lemons, honeydew melons, and tangerines. When oak-aged, the Chenin Blanc usually has hints of lemon curd, butterscotch, and sweet almonds at its finish.
Discover what makes Venezuelan wine South America’s best kept secret. On your next getaway, consider a wine tour in this beautiful Latin American region.