In a country producer of rum and beer, whose tropical climate favors the consumption of cold drinks; it seems hard to think of wine as a big business. However, the cultural influence of the great Spanish, Italian and Portuguese immigration in the mid-twentieth century and the very nature sybaritic of the Venezuelan come together to make the wine an unique option when sharing in a social occasion or simply enjoying a relaxing drink at home. And fortunately for enthusiasts, Venezuela counts on climatic conditions and soils that make it a potential producer of high quality, comparable to masters in the region, such as Argentina and Chile.
Some towns -mainly Merida, Galipan and Colonia Tovar- traditionally have a long history of making handcrafted wines, but commercial exploitation of the drink was quite recently launched in the country. It was an initiative by Empresas Polar, one of the largest consumer corporations in Venezuela, which, in alliance with the French house Martell, founded Bodegas Pomar in 1985 and since then the brand has been dedicated to the production of wine out of its own grapes.
For such purpose, the lands of Lara state were selected to install the vineyards because of characteristics that enable the optimal exploitation of more than 90 hectares. “Altagracia has ideal conditions and the secrecy required to obtain wines of exceptional characteristics. Temperatures between the warm breeze of the day (up to 32 º C) and cool night (up to 18 º C) affect sugar accumulation in grapes, and promote the efficient synthesis of fragrances,” says Vanessa Gomez, spokeswoman for the Communications Department of Empresas Polar.
Geographical conditions ideal for the wine industry are located to the west. With deep soils of sandy texture, rich in calcium and magnesium and provided with good drainage, Altagracia, located just minutes from the town of Carora, is among the best grounds in the country for growing grapes, followed by small vineyards in Tarabana (15 hectares) and Tocuyo (40 hectares ), also in Lara state, worked by the Universidad Centroccidental Lisandro Alvarado’s Institute of Grape for research and local commerce , and a center of wine development in Mara, Zulia state, where Corpovica also develops wines, grape juices and mineral water at small scale.
Venezuela has the capacity to produce red, white, rose and sparkling wines, thanks to a climate that offers 365 days of sunshine and to the infertile soils of the West, that allow precise control of vine growth. Of all the strains that have been tested in the country those better adapted are chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc for whites and syrah, tempranillo and petit verdot for reds. The latter grape, originally from France, reaches maturity in arid lands as the Lara state and produces one of the country’s Premium varietal, known for its intense color and aroma and ideal to match red meat.
For Bodegas Pomar two harvests are possible in the months of February-March and August-September. Under strict control procedures developed over the past 30 years, “the harvest is done by hand, one by one, then bunches are harvested in special baskets and quickly transported to the winery where they are vinified immediately,” says Gomez. Product of the work by 178 employees in the vineyards of Altagracia, it is possible to provide the domestic market with about 65 thousand cases a year, but for now, the export is not planned.
However, for Gabriel Balbas, columnist for the newspaper La Region specialized in wine, rum and chocolate, Venezuelan wine has novel features which would open the doors to foreign markets. “In the world of wine there is much snobbery, there are groups of enthusiasts who are always looking to try ‘novelties’. It is these groups that make wines from Israel, South Africa, Morocco and Lebanon, among others, come to America and Europe, so it is not unreasonable to think that there will be interest in the Venezuelan wine outside our borders,” he says.
Balbas, who describes himself as a “gourmet backpacker “, also notes that the excellent reputation of sparkling wines produced in the country is a key to internationalization: “Many are unaware that in Venezuela the Pomar sparkling wines are made with the traditional method, meaning the same method from through the champagne is made, a hard work process that gives to sparkling its differential characteristics.”
Indoors, although the interest of Venezuelans for the wine culture were going in crescendo year after year, the tough economic situation has affected the drinking , leaving dwindling options for lovers of the good life. Balbas notes a reduction of activity in terms of tastings, as a result of devaluation and inflation.
“To learn about wine you have to test, and testing has become quite expensive. Ordering a bottle in a restaurant is now a luxury that one can only have on special occasions. The sellers have decided to import only the bestsellers, therefore Californian, Lebanese and South African wines disappeared from our shelves,” he says.
However, adversity could become an opportunity for domestic production and also a chance for Venezuelans to recognize their own strains, above Malbec from Argentina and Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile, that are so popular in the country. Perhaps because of this, the award-winning Petit Verdot from Venezuela could finally become a new icon of this land. Why not?