Américas / May-June 1996
By Larry Luxner
CARACAS -- Traditionally, the need for big temperature variations and exacting soil conditions has always limited the large-scale production of fine wine to locations at least 30 degrees north of the equator, or at least 30 degrees south of the equator -- but never in between.
No more. Distribuidora Pomar C.A., a division of Venezuela's Polar conglomerate, is using the latest in high-tech irrigation and growing techniques to prove that wine can be a tropical product as well.
Francisco González, general manager of Pomar, says his company has spent $20 million over the last 10 years developing a wine industry Venezuela can be proud of.
"Many years ago, Polar began to think about getting into a new industry," said González, interviewed recently in his Caracas office. "Pomar began 10 years ago as a joint venture between Polar and Martell. Polar's food division has other products such as flour, corn oil, ice cream and pasta, though it was always against the philosophy of the company to produce hard liquor."
Although Pomar's $2.5 million in annual wine sales amounts to only a tiny fraction of Polar's overall beer business, it's an area González says has strong growth potential.
"We began to distribute in Isla Margarita about six months ago," he said. "We are getting a very favorable response, especially from foreign tourists, not only in Margarita but also in Puerto La Cruz. Many tourists look for typical wines from that country, and that has helped us."
In Margarita, a case of Viña Altagracia costs 7,000 bolívares ($41) -- a bargain for French or Italian tourists used to paying $10 for a single bottle of similar wine at home.
According to González, Pomar developed its vineyards based on years of research by two Venezuelan educational institutions, the Centro de Desarrollo Vitícola Tropical in Zulia state, and the Grape Institute of the Universidad Centro Occidental Lisandro Alvarado in Lara state. Finally, after grafting French and Spanish grape varieties onto local Caribbean rootstock with the help of French experts from Domaines Cordier, Pomar selected six varieties of red wine for commercial exploitation -- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux), Syrah and Mourvedre (Cotes du Rhone), Tempranillo and Garnacha (Rioja) -- and five varieties of white wine: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (Bordeaux), Chenin Blanc (Val de Loire), Macabeu (Penedés) and Molvoisie (Languedoc Roussillon).
The first label Pomar came out with was Viña Altagracia (rosé, white and red). It then introduced Pomar Reserva -- which is aged in oak barrels for a little over a year, and in bottles for another two years. Pomar plans to start selling its 1993 vintage wine sometime early this year (1996).
At the moment, Pomar markets close to 100,000 cases of wine annually (including about 800 cases of sweet Moscatel wine used by the Catholic church for consecration services). Five distilled and three sparkling wines are produced at two bodegas nestled in the foothills of Venezuela's Sierra de Baragua mountains: Altagracia, containing 80 hectares of vineyards, and Bucarito, containing 45 hectares. At peak season, the company employs between 500 and 600 people.
"The area is 400 meters above sea level and has an extremely good acquifer," said Donald DeVost, chief financial officer for Polar. "There's more than 30 degrees' variation in temperature between day and night. Because it's arid, we have no fungus problems, and the soil drains well. One of Pomar's unique properties is that it's one of the few vineyards to have two harvests a year -- our wines are dated March and September."
Explains González: "Practically all countries at least 30 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator are wine producers, but in between those [extremes] you'll find only Venezuela. These days, with the discovery of stainless steel, you can theoretically produce wine in many countries because you have better chamber control. In summer, the temperature hits 35 degrees Celsius, making it impossible to control fermentation without air-conditioning. At night, temperatures in the Sierra de Baragua drop to 22 degrees. This is necessary to fix the sugar content of the grapes."
"We have it determined perfectly," continued González, who spent 19 years in the marketing department of Seagram's. "In October, we have big showers, but they last only a few days. During this time, grapes are hibernating. With the control of water, we can produce a false autumn and get two crops."
Pomar, which has already won two gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal in wine-tasting contests in France, now constitutes 23% of Venezuelan wine consumption, employs two full-time enologists -- one French, the other Venezuelan. This year, for the first time ever, the Italian-language "Slow Food Guide to Wines of the World" includes Venezuela among its 2,000 listed wineries, 6,500 tasting notes and 174 top wines.
"We already have capacity to produce 150,000 cases," says González. "Now we are waiting for the grapes."
Just how big can Pomar grow?
"We feel we still have some growth ahead of us," said DeVost. "We can take this project up to 200,000 cases. We know it'll never become an export commodity, but our project has helped to create a consciousness for wine that didn't exist before."