COSTA Rica’s jungle-covered slopeshardly resemble the rolling hills of Franceor northern California, so few visitors herewould expect to find locally made wineamong the bags of gourmet coffee and macadamianuts at gift shops. But starting lastweek, that is just what they may discover.While the conditions of Costa Rica’sclimate and soil may not make it the bestplace for vineyards, it does produce amighty fine maracuya (passion fruit), andthree longtime Costa Rica residents haveturned the tropical fruit into what theybelieve will be a mighty sellable wine.After a year of production, and accoladesfrom wine-makers and -tasters hereand in the United States, the Costa Rica producedAwapa Wine made its debut Nov.11 throughout the country.The demi-sec wine has all the semblanceof a traditional wine in taste, lookand production techniques, but instead ofbeing made from grapes – nearly impossibleto grow in Costa Rica – it’s made frommaracuya.IT was some 30 years ago whenbotanist Roy Lent first picked up a passionfruit in Costa Rica and thought that with itsflavor and aroma, it had wine potential.“I just smelled it and said, it’s not highin sugar, but this would make a nicewine,” said Lent, who was also one of thefirst to grow the fruit, known as parchitathen, on a large scale.“At the time, I did an experiment withan old winemaker named Muñoz, who islong gone. Nothing much came of it. Weall enjoyed it, but he was convinced thatthere was no market in Costa Rica for agood wine,” Lent continued. “And perhaps25-30 years ago, there wasn’t a market; butnow there is.”That market will begin with tourists.Lent, along with collaborator Ivar Zappand businessman Gary Luedke, are introducingtheir wine in hotels, restaurants andgift shops. They also hope to get it on theshelves of supermarkets using a local distributor,also convinced the wine will be asuccess. Awapa will later be exported tothe United States.LIGHT and fruity, the white wine hasa strong aroma of passion fruit.“It doesn’t compare to any wine madeto date in Costa Rica. The comparison wemake is with California wines. It has beentested and tasted by wineries there and theyhave told us we have a fabulous freshwine,” Zapp said, conceding that somepurists will say it has to be called somethingother than wine.“But if we don’t tell you what it is, ittastes like grape wine,” he continued.The wine is fresh, served after three to sixmonths in the bottle, although Lent is testingaging techniques. The Awapa-makingprocess is similar to that of traditional wine.It is made in the western San José suburb ofEscazú by, and in the facilities of, a traditionalwinemaker who usually makes wineby importing grape extract from abroad.The golden passion fruit – egg-shapedwith a yellowish-green skin and a brightorange flesh around seeds inside – is harvestedfrom plantations throughout theCentral Valley, particularly in Puriscal,southwest of the capital. The juice is thenextracted from the pulp and put to fermentwith yeast in a tank. Sugar is added for flavor,because of the low sugar level of thefruit. The wine ferments in the tank forthree weeks to a month before it is filteredand bottled and continues fermentation forat least three months.Despite the addition of sugar, Luedkesays the wine is “hangover-free.” A lab at anorthern California winery analyzed theAwapa and concluded it has relatively fewchemicals – some sulfites, but overallhighly recommendable, he said.THE new winemakers say their wine isnatural not only in flavor, but also in spirit.The name Awapa is the plural for medicineman in the indigenous language of CostaRica’s Bribrí people, and ¢50 ($0.10) fromeach bottle – which they expect to sell forapproximately ¢4,000 ($8.30), dependingon the venue – will be donated to help children’scauses, particularly indigenous relatedorganizations.So far, the winemakers have made 6,000 bottles and are producing about1,000 a month, which they believe will besufficient to start. Because the winedoesn’t age for years and isn’t dependenton seasons, as is wine made from grapes,production can easily increase, Luedkeexplains.Luedke represents a group of investorsbased in the U.S. state of Minnesota whooriginally hoped to tap the gourmet coffeemarket in Costa Rica. While still movingforward with their original idea, theinvestors took one taste of the wine anddecided that is where they should placetheir main bet.“All I had to do is pop the cork andeveryone was on board,” Lent says.LENT, Zapp and Luedke are breakingground on several fronts, personally and inthe field. None has ever been in the winebusiness. Lent, a 40-year Costa Rica resident,is a botanist, translator and Webdesigner; Zapp, a 33-year Costa Ricaresident, is a professor, designer and artist;and Luedke came to Costa Rica 10 yearsago to manage a hotel, fell in love with thecountry and has started a family here.Wine making is not common in CostaRica, for obvious reasons. The handful ofproducers here use imported grape juice.Nor are wines made with fruits other thangrapes common, although a few exist,including a few maracuya-based wines inNorthern Australia.If Awapa is the success the teambelieves it will be, a rose wine could follow.“We have a few very interesting wineson the back burner,” Lent said.For more information about the wineand where to find it, e-mail [email protected], or contact its distributor,Canashil, at 239-2571.