Vuelta a Espana 2016 – Part 2: Galícia’s Got More Than Albariño!

1024px-Mirador_de_Cabezoas_Cañon_del_Sil

River Sil in Ribeira Sacra by SanchoPanzaXXI (creativecommons.org via Wikimedia Commons)

 

While the opening week of the 2015 Vuelta saw the peloton roaming through the hot, arid climate of Andalucía in southern Spain, the first week of this year’s race looks completely different.  If you’ve been watching the coverage of the 2016 Vuelta, you’ve no doubt been impressed with the magnificent scenery of Galícia, in far northwestern Spain:  slow-flowing rivers cutting through cordons of granite; dense pine forests that cloak the hills in velvety green; and remnants of medieval architecture that dot the landscape.  Truth be told, Galícia looks more like Ireland and Scotland than it does the rest of Spain.  Its wines are different too, made from grapes that we’re more likely to find in neighboring Portugal than in places like Rioja or Ribera del Duero.  In my last Vuelta post I zeroed in on the lovely wines of Rías Baixas, paying particular attention to Albariño, Spain’s (deservedly) most famous white varietal wine.  Today I’m widening the focus a bit, to talk about a few other regions, equally worthy of a wine lover’s attention.

 

The Wines of Ribeiro

Traveling northeast from the heart of Rías  Baixas, you will reach the DO Ribeiro.  This region boasts a long history of winemaking, stretching back to the Middle Ages, when it began exporting wine to England.  A thriving business was interrupted when the English set their sights on the fortified wines of Porto, directly to the south.  The death knell sounded with the arrival of phylloxera, and vineyards in this corner of Spain were abandoned or converted to other crops.  For many years, the craft of winemaking languished.  When local vignerons turned back to growing grapes, it was to replant their fields with Palomino, the grape of Jerez, which was not well-suited to the terroir.  Eventually winemakers forged a new direction, resurrecting the region’s indigenous grapes and taking advantage of modern viticulture and vinification methods to produce world-class wines.

Today, Ribeiro is best known for its cadre of aromatic white wines made from the likes of Albariño, Loureiro, Treixadura, Torrontés, and even some Godello.  But the real energy in the region is directed at red wine production.  Winemakers here have dedicated themselves to commercializing indigenous and largely forgotten varieties such as Brancellao, Caiño Redondo, Carabuñeira (aka Touriga Nacional), Ferron, and Alicante Bouschet.  It will probably be much easier to find an example of Ribeiro’s luscious white wines, but if you come across a bottle of one of these rare red birds, by all means, buy it.  (And please, jot a tasting note in my comment section – I’m all ears!)

 

Ribeira Sacra – A Region on the Rise

Get back in your virtual tour bus and head east again, this time to the DO of Ribeira Sacra, and home to some of the most dramatic hillside vineyards this side of the Mosel. Grape growing here is a true labor of love, given the difficult terrain.  Vines must be tended by hand, situated as they are atop steep slate terraces that tower over the Sil and Miño Rivers.  And the wines of the region reflect both the dramatic topography and the tender loving care of their pedigree:  they are full-bodied but well-balanced, an hour of melodrama in a five-ounce glass.

Godello is the queen of white grapes in Ribeira Sacra, giving rise to aromatic wines of complexity and structure.  Compared to Albariño, which gives off notes of peach and apricot, I find Godello to be more floral, with aromas more akin to honeysuckle.  It’s also got a bit more weight, and the mouthfeel is more silky.

800px-Uva_Mencia
Mencía Grapes by SanchoPanzaXXI; wikimediacommons

 

As for red grapes, Ribeira Sacra specializes in one grape:  Mencía.  Oh, how I love Mencía!  It is so lovely and fragrant, with notes of cherry and red berries, with an herbal undertone.  If you enjoy Cabernet Franc (one of The Derv’s favorites!) you will probably like this as well.  In fact, it was once believed that Cab Franc and Mencía were the same grape, or at least genetically related.  Not so!  While they share many of the same descriptors, they are two different grapes.  Mencía, it turns out, is identical to the Portuguese grape known as Jaen.

Ribeira Sacra’s affinity for growing complex and extremely aromatic Mencía has turned it into something of a sensation.  Producers from other parts of Spain have opened facilities in the region, and many of the best examples of varietal Mencía wine come from here.

 

Monterrei

Along the border with Portugal lies Monterrei, Galícia’s warmest and most mountainous region.  Modern winemaking has lagged behind here, compared to nearby regions but, just as in Ribeiro, growers have rediscovered indigenous varieties.  Matching local grapes with modern winemaking techniques has resulted in the resurgence of unique wines made from grapes like Monstruosa, so named for the large size of its berries.  Mencía and Tempranillo also grow here, Monterrei being the only part of Galícia warm enough for the latter to ripen.

 

Valdeorras and Godello

bodegas-a-coroa-godello-valdeorras-spain-10366772By the 1970s, winemaking in northwestern Spain had all but disappeared, except for high-yield crops of Palomino that were uninteresting to drink.  Many of the indigenous grape varieties tottered on the brink of extinction, including Godello, the hallmark white wine of Valdeorras.  Diligent farmers worked to reestablish Godello plantings, believing that it was uniquely suited to the terroir there.  Boy, were they right!  These wines, less well-known than the Albariños from Rías  Baixas to the west, exhibit a racy minerality juxtaposed with full, ripe fruit.  These wines, some of which are barrel-aged, have weight and alcohol and complexity, to boot.  While their star is on the rise in wine markets the world over, they remain relative bargains.  Jancis Robinson sums them up this way:

“The more I taste this north-west Spanish white wine variety, the more I love it. .  [It] combines the structure of white burgundy with the finesse of a juicily mineral grape. . . Godello is a variety that is well capable of making wines that improve with age.”

I couldn’t agree more!

While Valdeorras is clearly white wine country, a little red wine, mostly from Mencía, is made.  And, as with Monterrei and Ribeiro, there is new-found interest in cultivating indigenous Galícian grapes like Merenzao (aka Bastardo.)

 

So, Back to the Vuelta . . .

I’ve been watching the recap show of each day’s stage and, thus far, I’m finding it a little disappointing.  Why?  Much as I love the climbing stages, when I marvel at the seemingly impossible feats accomplished by the tiniest members of the peloton, I miss the big sprint finishes.  The big personalities of Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel, and original gangsters like Fabian Cancellara.  Day in and day out, not much changes in the standings.  But on the bright side, we’re getting to know some of the up-and-comers of the cycling world:  the guys who will drive the sport forward for the next decade.

Et4. Tour SanLuis 2014
Darwin Atapuma by flickr.com/photos/nuestrociclismo

One of my favorites is Darwin Atapuma, currently in the red jersey of the overall leader.  He’s from Colombia and can climb like a . . . well, you know!  It’s been fun watching him stand atop the podium each day, receiving his bouquet and new jersey from the Amazon gazelles (podium girls) who tower over him.  And how cool is his name?  If I had a kid, I’d name him Darwin Atapuma.  Hell, if I had a dog I’d name him that.  His countryman, Winner Anacona, has a pretty good moniker, too.  What a way to send your kid into the world!  For those who say that a name is destiny, what do you think of Winner?  Now that I think about it, the Colombians have brought a lot of flash to the Vuelta, most of it surrounding the estimable Nairo Quintana.  As yet, he hasn’t made a big splash but tomorrow the peloton breaks into the mountains, where they will remain for approximately two months (I’m kidding – sorta) until the next sprint stage in Madrid.  That’s Nairo’s milieu, so I’m expecting him to emerge and kick some butt.  I hope Spain’s Alberto Contador will be in the mix – he’s such a tough competitor – but he was involved in a crash yesterday that looked eerily like one he experienced in the Tour de France, and caused him to abandon the race.  Fuerza, Alberto!

So forget what I said about the Vuelta being less-than.  It’s about to get “real in the field,” as Snoop Dogg says.  The mountains await.  Pour yourself a glass of Galícian wine and pull up a chair.

It’s August 25th – Celebrate with Saints Louis and Genesius!

Whenever I want to dash off a blog post but am unsure what to write about, I pull out my copy of Drinking with the Saints:  The Sinners’ Guide to a Holy Happy Hour.  Whether the date calls for observance of a Pagan festival like Lammas Day or the celebration of a patron saint, it’s always good fun.  Today I wanted to write, but wasn’t in the mood to delve back into the Vuelta a España, and the idea of forging into another lengthy wine essay didn’t thrill me either.  So out came DWTS!

Saint Genesius
Saint Genesius

Technically, August 25th belongs to two saints:  the aforementioned Saint Genesius and Saint Louis who, frankly, scares me a little.  First, he was a Crusader, which I think is pretty bad-ass (although he succumbed to illness during his second tour.)  Second, he was a king (Louis IX).  The famed orator and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet called him “the holiest and most just king” to wear the crown.  Doesn’t sound so scary, you say?  Well, hear me out.  Louis adored his mother, Queen Blanche, who instilled in the future king a fundamental hatred of sin.  She reportedly told him that she’d rather see him dead than know he had committed a mortal sin.  Ouch!  Thanks, Mom!  Louis carried that sentiment with him into adulthood, no doubt winning friends and influencing people along the way.  A philosophical argument with a friend left them debating the dubious choice of suffering leprosy or committing a mortal sin.  His friend, in a moment of truth and venality, suggested sin might not be as bad as leprosy.  Louis chastised his friend for such a foolish answer, saying that while sickness ends with death, mortal sin lives on Chambord_Liqueur_Bottle,_Oct_2014indefinitely.  Bet he was a blast at parties . . . .  DWTS suggests honoring this man of moral rectitude and badassery over a cocktail made with Chambord, the raspberry liqueur bottled in what looks like a glass crown.  Raspberry Kir Royale, anyone?

While it seems that Saint Louis was a bit of a buzzkill, not so his co-honoree.  Saint Genesius was an actor/notary whose magnum opus involved taking the stage (in front of the Emperor Diocletian, no less) and mocking the rite of baptism.  Apparently his goal was to point out the folly in the beliefs held by Christians by pretending to take the sacrament himself.  But, lo and behold!  In the midst of his most convincing performance (one that ultimately put him in a spot of bother) he had an epiphany.  Cue the angels on high, the dramatic organ music, the steep intake of breath in the audience.  In the very throes of satirizing one of Christendom’s most sacred rites, Genesius experienced spontaneous conversion!  He immediately professed his undying love and belief in Christ.  Lovely story, you say?  All’s well that ends well, you intuit?  Not so fast.  As Genesius came back down to earth, Diocletian ordered soldiers to seize and imprison him.  Despite serious torturing (and we know how seriously the Romans took their torturing) Genesius stood by his new-found faith.  That earned him a beheading and martyrdom.

So how should we best celebrate Saint Genesius, patron saint of actors and notaries?  DWTS suggests raising a glass of Bordeaux.  Not just any Bordeaux, mind you, but Chateau Saint Genès Rouge, a lovely concoction of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s made on the right bank of this fabled wine region by Chateau Thieuley, just between the towns of Creon and La Sauve.

Thieuley Vineyards
Château Thieuley

Château Thieuley itself is interesting because it’s owned by two women, groomed by their father to take over the family business.  Marie and Sylvie Courselle, upon their father’s encouragement, both studied agricultural engineering and enology.  They further enriched their experience by working at wineries in Australia, California, Italy, Spain as well as throughout France, including establishments in Languedoc, Burgundy and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  At Château Thieuley, they share the workday responsibilities:  Marie manages the vineyard and wine making, and Sylvie runs the business side of things.

Saint GenesIn addition to the ChâteauSaint Genès Rouge, which is crafted specifically for export, the Courselles make two rosé wines under the Château Thieuley label from Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Also bearing the Château Thieuley label are two red wines:  the regular Bordeaux Rouge (70% Merlot; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Reserve Francis Courselles Rouge (80% Merlot; 10% each Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.)  They make two Château Thieuley whites, the first 35% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Sauvignon Gris, and 50% Sémillon.  The second, Cuvée Francis Courselle Blanc, is oak-aged and more complex, with a blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Sémillon.

Howsabout we pour ourselves a glass of Bordeaux something-or-other to fête the two Saints of the day?  Red, white, or rosé, whichever tickles your fancy.  But let’s raise our glasses and toast to these two martyrs as DWTS recommends, with the following words:

“May we choose Death over Sin!”

For, as we’ve learned from the story of Saint Genesius, whichever we choose, we all end up dead anyway.  I, good atheist that I am, plan to sin quite a bit and drink as much wine as possible, before then.  Bottoms up!

Vuelta a España 2016: Part One – Galícia: A Trip through Green Spain

Dende_a_Garita_de_Erbeira_01
Galícia: Photo by Froaringus; wikimedia commons

Well, the Rio Olympics have come and gone and I, for one, am sad.  Brazil’s happy, lilting national anthem is running through my head on a loop, making me want to samba.  Or learn how to.  Instead of driving me crazy like NBC’s ubiquitous Olympic theme music, this tune makes me joyous, full of the Carioca spirit.  Listen for yourself if you don’t believe me . . . .

NBC’s crazy-quilt of coverage (strung out over a hundred channels) notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed watching America’s finest athletes compete in preliminary heats, semi-final races, and gold-medal bouts, while learning virtually nothing about the sports stars of Other Countries.  Sure, I’m kidding, a little.  It wasn’t all bad.  And truth be told, I miss it.  The Closing Ceremonies and their paean to Brazil’s multi-ethnic culture, left me with a lump in my throat.  (That, and realizing it will be two years before the next Olympic events hit our TV screens.)  But we move on, setting our sights on the next big thing.  For me, that is the Vuelta a España, or the Tour of Spain.  The Vuelta picks up where the Tour de France left off: the world’s best cyclists competing against formidable conditions and each other, this time in Spain.  Mountain stages, sprint finishes, crashes, doping accusations – all the familiar attractions of international cycling.  The 2016 Vuelta has 21 stages, just like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.  All three of the grand tours put the peloton through torture – hailstorms, cross-winds, cobblestones, marauding fans, for example – and feature treacherous climbs into the Alps and Pyrénées, often with precipitous descents.  But this year’s Vuelta is meaner, harder, more exhausting than any other race.  At least in my opinion it is.

Of the 21 stages, there will be one team time trial (Stage One) and one individual time trial (Stage 19) both relatively flat races that will allow the speedsters in the bunch to shine.  And the last day of racing, largely ceremonial, will be another opportunity for the sprinters to stand atop the podium.  But most of the remaining 18 stages involve at least a little climbing; 11 of them have summit finishes, meaning the peloton actually races to the mountain top.  Given the dearth of potential rewards for the sprinters, it’s not surprising that so few of the usual suspects have shown up in Spain for this race.  Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel, Tom Dumoulin, Marcel Kittel?   You’ll have a better chance of finding them on the beaches of Marbella than hauling themselves over the Pyrénées.  Why suffer for three weeks in the mountains for one measly chance at glory on the Gran Vía?

While I will miss the big personalities and the fearless, gladiator-worthy antics of the group sprint finishes this year, I say, Bring on the Climbers!  Alberto Contador is back.  So is Chris Froome.  And Valverde, Vangarderen, and Quintana, oh my!  I’ll be on the edge of my seat as those mountains loom closer, savoring every minute of the battle for the red jersey.  Oh, and I will be enjoying some totally delicious Spanish wine in the process!  Week One takes us to the northwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula to Galícia, sandwiched between Portugal to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west.  Do you remember that skit from Sesame Street, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others?”  Well, in comparison to the other regions of Spain, that’s Galícia.

 

Galícia – The Other Spain

Horreo-Gonzar-Galicia-2010
Ancient hórreo: photo by Bjorn Torissen, http:/bjornfree.com

Sure, you’ve been to Barcelona and embraced the Catalan culture, with its Gaudí architecture and cooler than thou tapas bars.  You might have trod the streets of Madrid, stopping by the Museo del Prado to visit a Goya portrait or two.  And many of us have followed temptation to Andalucía, hearing the staccato rhythms of Flamenco in our hearts.  But I’m betting only a few of us have inhaled the fresh Atlantic air of Northwest Spain, a place that resembles no other part of the country.  It’s green!  And its roots trace back to the Celts, known here as Gallaeci, who left behind evidence of their culture (yes, there are bagpipes) but not their written words.  Celtic was a spoken language that had no written counterpart, leaving little behind for linguistic scholars to study.  In fact, the local population speaks a dialect called Gallego, which closely resembles Portuguese.  Not surprising since Galícia occupies the far northwest corner of Spain, just above Portugal; much closer geographically and culturally to that country than to most of the rest of Spain.  Perhaps the most striking reminders of Galícia’s Celtic past are the unique cabins called hórreos that dot the landscape.  Sturdy structures made of wood and stone, hórreos served as granaries and were constructed atop granite pillars to keep the grain safe from hungry rodents looking for a snack.  Testament to their durability, some of these rectangular silos date back to the 15th century.

If you’re a cycling fan and have watched the first few days of the Vuelta a España, or Tour of Spain, you’ve had a birds-eye seat to some of the most striking scenery the country has to offer.  The first four stages of this year’s race cover Galícia, otherwise known as Green Spain.  For wine lovers that means the regions of Rías Baixas, famous for the white grape Albariño; Ribeira Sacra, which makes heavenly white wines from Godello and lip-smacking reds from Mencía; and Ribeiro, also focused on white wines made from Albariño and other indigenous grapes like Loureira and Treixadura.

We’ll get to the wine in a minute, but first a condensed history lesson on this fascinating area.  While the Celts were the original settlers of Northwest Spain, this region played host to many cultures over the centuries:  Romans, Swabians, Visigoths, and Moors passed through Galícia before it was annexed into the Kingdom of Asturias  in the ninth century.  In the next 200 years, the local town of Santiago de Compostela would draw thousands of religious pilgrims each year to the shrine of St. James.  The route they traveled, always on foot, became known as the Camino de Santiago, and is still one of Spain’s most-visited tourist spots.  Around the time Columbus was making his way toward the new world, the entire region of Galícia became part of Spain.  It may have been brought into the massive and powerful Castilian tent, but until recently Galícia remained physically, economically, and culturally apart.  And that affected how its wines were produced, sold, and appreciated.  What Happens in Galícia, Stays in Galícia might have made an excellent slogan for winemakers, even 15 years ago.  Lucky for us, things have changed, thanks to a region known as Rías Baixas.

 

The Wines of Rías  Baixas

As we learned earlier, nothing about this region would remind you of the rest of Spain.  Its brilliant green pine forests cover the river valleys and rolling hills, sometimes right next to thickets of eucalyptus trees or tropical palms.  Magnificent estuaries (rías) slice their way through 1,000-foot black granite cliffs, falling as gracefully into the Atlantic as a prima ballerina lands in an arabesque.  The quiet towns that line the coastal ridges look like they could be in Ireland, Scotland, or Scandinavia.  It really is a whole different Spain.

Grapes grown in Galícia are different, too, from those cultivated elsewhere.  The whites, made most frequently from Albariño, are aromatic and floral, and strike that perfect balance between fruit and minerality.  Compared to the super-lean, crisp wines made in other regions, Galícian white wines have a bit more weight to them; some are even aged in oak, giving them additional complexity.  If you’re a lover of Viognier, these wines are for you!

Albarino Grapes

Albariño suits this environment well, hiding behind a thick skin that protects it from the ravages of mildew, always a concern in maritime climates.  Soils are granite and, in addition to Albariño, which accounts for 90% of production, five other white grapes are permitted:  Godello, Loureiro, Torrontes, Caiño Blanco, and Treixadura.   Although not much red wine is made here, six red grapes may be grown, among them Caiño Tinto, Mencia, and Espadeiro.

A perfect match for the climate it may be, but Albariño is a relatively recent phenomenon in Galícia.  After the phylloxera epidemic laid waste to the vineyards of Spain, farmers replanted their vineyards with Palomino, practically synonymous with the world-famous wines of Jerez.  Hoping to cash in on the demand for fortified wines made in the south of Spain, growers overlooked the grape’s fundamental lack of suitability to the region.  Albariño’s fortunes began to rise in the 1970s, when producers were encouraged to reclaim native varieties and given incentives to invest in modern winemaking equipment.  This charge toward the future continued after Spain joined the European Union, a change which fostered the dissemination of modern techniques and brought even more robust agricultural subsidies for growers.  Its bright flavors of apricot and peach are receptive to light oak treatment and result in a wine of medium body that smells like the beach and tastes like sunshine.  Not hard to imagine then, that demand often outweighs supply, often making them more expensive than other Spanish white wines.  (Cost be damned, is what I say!  These wines are worth it!)

Today, Rías Baixas Albariño is grown in five delimited subzones:

Val do Salnés:  the original or classic vineyard area, it is also the coolest and dampest of the zones.  Jancis Robinson labels wines from Val do Salnes as the “purest” expression of Rías Baixas Albariño.

O Rosal:  just across the border from Portugal, this is Rías Baixas’s southernmost outpost, with hillside vineyards that take full advantage of the sunnier and warmer climate.  Wines tend to show less acidity here than in other zones.

Condado do Tea:  situated to the east of the other zones, this is the warmest of all and is known for the power and structure of its wines.

Ribeiro do Ulla:  located just south of Santiago de Compostela, this is the newest and largest vineyard zone.

Soutomaior:  the smallest subzone, this area makes much less wine than the other zones.

 

Wines for Seafood    Albarino Bottle

Albariño makes a great aperitif; but it’s also a natural match for the region’s bounty of fresh seafood.  Galícia is literally swimming in fish: its rivers and estuaries and the Atlantic Ocean provide everything from shellfish and crustaceans to sardines and cod.  However, there is one creature that seems to define Galícian cuisine.  Percebes, or goose-foot barnacles, if you want to get really descriptive, are a local specialty.  They look like enormous, ugly clams.  People tend to love them or hate them, especially given the amount of work involved in extricating the delectable critters from their shells.  Hey, if they’re not your thing, belly up to the seafood buffet and pick something else.  Galícia truly has something for everyone.

640px-Gooseneckbarnacles
Percebes Photo by Tom Page

So, while you’re catching up on the Vuelta or trying to forget about the Olympics, or whatever occupies your time in the last few days of summer, pour yourself a glass of Albariño.  Even if you’re in the kitchen writing out the weekly grocery list you’ll feel like you’re on a tall cliff overlooking the Atlantic.  I swear, you will!

 

Please look for my next post, Green Spain – Part Two:  The Wines of Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras, and Monterrei.  We’ll discuss the other DOs of Galícia and get to know some really delicious red wines that will totally tickle your fancy.  See you next time!

Familiar Grapes in Weird Places – Spanish White Guerrilla Project

 

Guerrilla Gewurz
If my hair did that, I could hold two extra glasses of wine!

Before you start wondering exactly what I mean by “weird places,” let me assure you I’m talking geography here.  For those whose proclivities have already taken them to another track all together, I’ll see what I can do to craft a follow-up post.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . . .

Lately it seems that I’ve been drinking a lot of strange wine.  When I say strange, I don’t mean that the wine itself is weird, but that the grape varieties used to make the wine aren’t normally grown within the region.  Some of my recent experiences, once you think about it, aren’t all that weird after all, say, Albariño from Uruguay, or Tannat from Brazil.  Considering the number of Spaniards that colonized South America, finding a Spanish variety outside the beaches of Punta del Este strikes me as inevitable.  And, having just spent a few weeks researching the wines of Brazil, Tannat from the southernmost reaches of that country is unsurprising.  But what about Gewurztraminer from Rioja?

Are you still with me?  Or have you doubled over with laughter, convinced that I’ve gone off my rocker?  Stick with me, there’s a good story here.  And yes, I really did say Gewurztraminer from Rioja.  That Rioja, the one in Spain.  It’s part of the Spanish White Guerrilla Wine Project at Castillo de Maetierra, the creation of José Miguel Arambarri Terrero, a well-known entrepreneur.  His goal?  To reinvigorate the white wine industry of Rioja by focusing on two major issues: recovering the Muscat à Petits Grains vines that were obliterated by phylloxera 100 years ago, and to bolster production of white varieties not included in the original Rioja DOC.

Maetierra muscat-wine-white-libalis

Shaking Things Up in Red Wine Territory

His approach is novel (or heretical, if you happen to be slavishly devoted to the status quo.)  After watching white grape plantings slide downward for twenty years, along with Rioja’s share of the white wine market, José Miguel decided to shake things up.  His project takes a market-based approach, with an eye toward crafting wines that customers want – which often means fresh, aromatic, and fruity wines that can be drunk young.  He believes that the best way to accomplish his goal is to expand the range of grape varieties available, making it possible to offer a broad portfolio of wines of all styles.  Taking his cue from winemakers who made the first Super Tuscans (defying DOC regulations on approved grape varieties) he began blending these “outlier” grapes with the local Viura and Malvasía.  José Miguel described his venture as “defending the quality of Spanish white wines.”

So in his vigorous defense of Spanish vino, he began planting non-native varieties like Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling and, yes, Gewurztraminer.  And he brought in grapes that had already found comfortable homes in other parts of Spain – Albariño from Rías Baixas and Verdejo from Rueda – and planted them, too.  Working with the regional government of La Rioja, he launched the Vinos de la Tierra de Valles de Sadacia, specializing in white wines only, and covering four of the seven valleys of Rioja:  Iregua, Leza, Cidacos, and Alhama.  But perhaps more important, for purposes of his experiment, are the unknown villages where he has put down stakes, many of them not included (or subject to) the regulations of the Rioja DOC.

Thus far, Castillo de Maetierra, has produced wine under three labels:

libalisrose2013Libalis – three wines based on Muscat: a sweet white, a dry white, and a dry rosé that is a blend of Muscat and Syrah.

Melante – the first sweet, white wine from Muscat produced in Rioja; and Melante Colección, a vin doux naturel fermented in French oak, and produced only in exceptional years.

Spanish White Guerrilla – white varietal wines based on grapes atypical of the region, such as Riesling, Viognier, Verdejo, and Gewurztraminer.  To date, Viognier, Verdejo, and Gewurztraminer have shown much promise, delivering aromatic wines with lively acidity.

 

Values

In addition to shaking up the type of white wine made in Rioja, Castillo de Maetierra takes its responsibility to local farmers and producers seriously.  Its website and press kit lay out the following guiding principles that spring directly from the values they hold dear.  I’ve summarized them below:

  1. Produce innovative wines that are young, fresh, and dynamic and that will broaden our customer base.
  2. Uphold the local interests of people living in La Rioja.
  3. Remain open and pluralistic, supporting entrepreneurs, farmers, and winemakers, inviting all to participate in crafting the vision of the future.
  4. Maintain a focus on quality products by staying agile and efficient in how we do business. This includes fostering sustainable viticulture practices wherever possible, using native plant species to limit erosion and soil compaction, and to replenish the organic matter throughout the vineyards.

I find myself rooting for this team, hoping that they can build a solid business model atop their idealistic foundation.  Who’s with me?

 

gewurztraminereng
Gewurztraminer – the “Ginger” of Grapes!

Tasting Note

2011 Maetierra Spanish White Guerrilla Gewurztraminer (12% alcohol; retail price about $11)

Right off the bat I noticed the wine’s deep golden color; it reminded me of a dessert wine.  Even my husband, who’s not so into wine, remarked on it.  Then the seductive aromas began to emerge: white pepper, honey, candied citrus, and a spicy floral component I can’t put my finger on.  When I describe Gewurztraminer to people who are new to wine, I ask them to imagine Ginger from Gilligan’s Island in vinous form.  That’s Gewurz!  Well, this particular wine didn’t disappoint, on the nose at least.  A sip left me a little puzzled: where were all those voluptuous aromas and flavors I was expecting?  While delicious, it seemed much more restrained than I wanted it to be.  That probably had more to do with its age than anything else, but still.  I wanted Ginger!  All in all, this wine was pretty, and it still had enough acidity to pair really nicely with fresh swordfish topped with pineapple, tomato, and jalapeno salsa (below).  Bottom line:  If you see a bottle of Guerrilla Gewurz in your local shop, don’t hesitate to invite it to dinner.  You’ll be in for a fun adventure!

Swordfish
Swordfish with Fresh Fruit Salsa

Part 3: The Road to Rio – The Future of Brazilian Wine

Sao Francisco Brazil

In Part 1 we looked back on the history of wine in Brazil, dating back to the 1500s and the first Portuguese immigrants, followed by waves of Italians and Germans who dreamed of planting vineyards that reminded them of home.  Then in Part 2 we explored the challenges facing Brazilian winemakers:  a rainy, humid climate; the unfortunate mismatching of grapes to vineyard sites; and a local population that doesn’t drink much wine.  While there’s not much to be done about the climate, the winemaking process has improved greatly over the years, resulting in commercially viable wines that are driving a renewed national interest in wine.  Vivino, the wine app, reports that Brazil currently boasts the second-highest number of active users in the world, just behind the United States.  In a year-over-year comparison, that figure represented growth of 60%.  Brazilians are clearly interested in wine, and local producers are doing their best to impress them.

Over the years, growers have identified the most favorable sites for the successful planting of vinifera varieties.  They have taken great pains to match early-ripening varieties to terroirs at risk of rainfall at harvest.  And they have taken advantage of basalt-laden soils that can help insulate high-altitude vines from cooler temperatures.  Perhaps the most interesting development though, one that places them squarely in the camp with innovative winemakers the world over, is their great interest in the natural wine movement.

 

Natural Wine

Brazil Wine TastingOn JancisRobinson.com, guest writer Wink Lorch reported on a wine summit that took place in Brazil last year.  It brought together influential proponents of natural wines from France, including Jura superstar Pierre Overny (Arbois-Pupillin) with a group of Brazilians eager to incorporate these principles into their local vineyard practices.  The summit was a collaborative effort of importers and restaurateurs seeking to offer “authentic” wines made by sustainable and/or organic methods.  Bringing together Brazil’s winemaking pioneers with experts who’ve been utilizing these methods for 25 years or more, was an opportunity too big to pass up.

Members of the Old Guard brought samples of their wines for all to taste.  And the Brazilians poured some of their creations, too:  a sparkling wine made with indigenous yeasts, and a Ribolla Gialla that had seen significant skin contact.  In fact, many of the local wines featured at the summit came from grapes we usually associate with Italy:  Sangiovese and Barbera, especially.  Not surprising when you recall that Italian immigrants helped promote early grape-growing efforts here.

 

Promoting Brazilian Wine

Brazil Wine BoothIn 2002, the Brazilian Wine Institute (IbraVin) and the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (ApexBrasil) founded the Wines of Brasil Project.  Essentially it serves as a bridge between local brands and international trade.  Its goal is to promote Brazilian wine to international markets, by teaching producers the ins and outs of exporting their wine, creating successful advertising campaigns, and participating in wine fairs and competitions.  It is open to all Brazilian wineries interested in entering the international market; currently there are 31 enrolled.  Under the Wines of Brasil Project umbrella are several subprojects, each with a specific focus:

The First Export Project – This effort is aimed squarely at the five priority markets identified by Wine of Brasil:  China, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  Together these five nations comprise nearly 50% of Brazilian wine exports.

The Image Project – With the goal of building and promoting the reputation of Brazilian wines in all markets, the Image Project reaches out to wine critics, reporters, magazine editors, and international trade partners.  They are invited to Brazil to participate in winery events, tastings, and sporting events, instilling an interest in Brazil’s wine culture that they may communicate to their followers.

The Buyers’ Project – Much more focused on the actual business of wine, the Buyers’ Project seeks to connect wineries directly with the importers, restaurants, retail shops, and hotels that might purchase their wines.

 

Finding Brazilian Wine Close to Home

IMG_0318It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that!  I was lucky to find a few bottles at my local Whole Foods as part of a promotion for the Olympics.  The Macaw brand is made by Casa Perini, one of the country’s largest producers.  We tried the Tannat and the Merlot, both light in body (and alcohol, at 11.5%).  Touted on the website as wines that are “friendly and uncomplicated,” both wines were agreeable, definitely at home with the Brazilian pão de queijo (dense rolls made from cheese and tapioca) and grilled steak salad we served at our party to celebrate the Opening Ceremonies.

Pao de QueijoThe Tannat, especially, was surprising in its floral aromas and simplicity.  If you’re looking for an easy summer quaff, this is it.  That said, I’d really like to try some other Brazilian wines.  My curiosity has been piqued by researching and writing these posts, learning how far Brazilian winemaking has come.

I checked the on-line inventory of a large wine shop in New York City, one that seems to have everything.  It had a few additional offerings, all from large producers like Salton and Perini.  My advice is to ask at your local store, or at a Brazilian restaurant – almost every city now has at least one churrascaria, or Brazilian steak house, within its limits.  And keep your eyes open for wine tastings featuring Brazilian wines.  Importers send their reps out every night and every weekend to conduct tastings and drum up interest in their wines (as I well remember, from my wine-selling days.)  Hey, you never know: Brazilian wines might be coming soon, to a tasting near you!

 

For this series of posts I have consulted the following references:

Goldstein, Evan.  Wines of South America; University of California Press, 2014.

Robinson, Jancis, et al.  The Oxford Companion to Wine; Oxford University Press, 2015.

winesofbrasil.com

http://www.ibravin.org.br/

ApexBrasil Logo

Part Two: The Road to Rio – Regions, Climates, and Grapes

 

brazil-wine-regions
Awesome map courtesy of wakeupthebrazilianinyou.com

In Part One I took you on a trip back to the 1500s, when newcomers from Portugal, Germany, and Italy first attempted to grow vitis vinifera grapes in Brazil.  Those early efforts produced less than stellar results, thanks to the overwhelming humidity and rainfall endemic to large swaths of Brazil.  But there are pockets scattered around this massive country, where grapes can be grown successfully.  In this post, I’m going to take you on a tour of the most exciting wine regions Brazil has to offer, with a look at the unique challenges facing winemakers, the wide variety of grapes cultivated, and the impressive range of styles they produce.

 

Vale do São Francisco (Bahia and Pernambuco States)

Perched in the far northeast corner of Brazil, Vale do São Francisco lies just south of the equator, between latitudes eight and nine.  As its name indicates, this region comprises the valley along the River São Francisco.  It might seem an unlikely place for fine wine grapes and, indeed, the great majority of the grapes grown here are labrusca varieties destined for use in grape juice concentrate or raisin production.  A smaller portion is harvested for winemaking.  What is interesting here in São Francisco, is the potential for double grape harvests each year.  Thanks to a much warmer and drier climate than in Brazil’s more southerly outposts, farmers here are able to manipulate the vines into accelerated growth cycles, using irrigation and plant hormones.  While that is a real shot in the arm for table grape and raisin producers, it’s not exactly a benefit when it comes to crafting high-quality wines.  But within the last 10-15 years a small cohort of growers has shifted the emphasis to successful cultivation of vinifera varieties, producing ripe, fruity, and aromatic wines.  Syrah, in particular, has shown promise, along with Muscat, known here as Moscatel.

 

Planalto Catarinense
Planalto Catarinense; (winesofbrasil.com)

Santa Catarina  (Santa Catarina State)

Flying south, past Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, we come to the high-altitude vineyards of Santa Catarina.  About 20% of the total 10,000 acres under vine are planted to vinifera varieties.  As you might expect, this is also one of the coolest regions in all of Brazil, and frost poses a perennial threat to the vineyards.  When winter blows into town earlier than expected, winemakers make the best of it: the region of São Joaquim produces the only ice wines in South America.  Its location atop an elevated plateau (the Planalto Catarinense) also makes it uniquely suitable for the planting of fine wine grapes, and its plantings are 100% vinifera varieties.  Soils are predominantly basaltic, composed of black rock particles that absorb the sun’s heat and radiate it back on the vines; especially useful as insulation for the grapes during cool spells.  According to Wines of Brasil, São Joaquim also serves as home base for some of Brazil’s first biodynamic and organic wine makers.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and other white grapes have shown well here, and drive the constantly evolving sparkling wine industry.  Red grapes, which often struggle to ripen in Santa Catarina, can produce elegant wines worthy of aging.

 

Rio Grande do Sul

The lion’s share of wine produced in Brazil comes from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the far southeast corner of the country.  But there are four distinct regions within the state, some of which have been growing grapes for centuries.  Other regions attest to the Brazilian persistence in matching fine wine grapes with the terroirs that best suit them.  There’s a lot happening in Rio Grande do Sul that’s worth exploring.  Let’s take them one at a time, from north to south:

Campos de Cima da Serra

Located on the same plateau as São Joaquim in the state of Santa Catarina, vineyards in this region share many of the same growing conditions:  high altitude (about 3,000 feet), cooler than average temperatures and basaltic soils.  Historically, wines made here depended on the labrusca varieties like Isabelle, which could withstand the sometimes harsh climate.  Recently that has changed, with growers increasingly focused on vinifera varieties known for their crisp acidity and vivid color.

1647
winesofbrasil.com

Serra Gaúcha

Serra Gaúcha lies just north of the coastal city of Porto Alegre, and is the historical center of Brazilian wine production.  This is the place where German and Italian immigrants landed centuries ago, bringing with them vitis vinifera seedlings to jumpstart winemaking efforts in their new home.  Many of the challenges faced by those early vignerons persist today, namely high humidity, tons of rain, and disease.  Phenolic maturity, especially for late-ripening varieties, is anything but assured.  So why does this seemingly inhospitable terrain persist as the hub of Brazilian winemaking?  Continued focus on planting the right grapes where they have the best chance to succeed has resulted in a concentration of wineries in an area known at the Vale dos Vinhedos, or Valley of the Winemakers.  Encompassing three main villages, Bento Gonçalves, Garibaldi, and Monte Belo do Sul, the Vale dos Vinhedos has had success with white vinifera varieties like Muscat, Chardonnay, and Welschriesling, as well as reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Tannat.  However, Merlot outshines them all, with its propensity toward early ripening.  It has become the most reliable of the vinifera offerings in Brazil.

Vale dos Vinhedos was awarded official DO status in 2009, which applies only to blends dominated by Merlot and Chardonnay.  With respect to blends, both of the Cabernets and Tannat are permitted for reds, and Welschriesling is sanctioned for the whites.  The region has built quite a strong oenotourism business, inspiring comparisons to California’s Napa Valley.

Serra do Sudeste

Unlike the other regions of Brazil, where grapes have been grown for centuries, Serra do Sudeste has a much more recent history: serious viticultural efforts began to take hold in the early 2000s.  Vineyards here are blessed by a milder and drier climate than in Serra Gaúcha to the north, and get the added benefit of sitting at slightly higher elevations.  But there are two things that really set Serra do Sudeste apart: the nutrient-poor soils composed of limestone and granite, and the dearth of local wineries.  The soils, significantly different from the basalt-based terroirs found elsewhere in the country, produce grapes capable of making wines that are both structured and elegant.  International varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Tannat have proved successful here, as have early efforts with the native Portuguese grapes Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet.  With only ten wineries located within Serra do Sudeste, nearly 100% of grapes grown are transported north to the much larger operations of Serra Gaúcha.

Campanha Gaúcha

Running along Brazil’s border with Uruguay, Campanha Gaúcha holds much promise to lovers of fine wines.  Its grape-growing history dates back to the 1880s, with wine production quickly following suit.  But it wasn’t until much later that the full potential of this region for growing high-quality vinifera varieties was recognized.  In 1973 researchers at UC Davis identified Campanha Gaúcha as the site for the Almadén Project directed by National Distillers, and proceeded to plant 22 varieties on carefully matched sites.  Large investments from the biggest players in the Brazilian wine scene – the Miolo, Valduga, and Salton families – came quickly afterward, and even today dominate the landscape.

1362
Campanha Gaúcha; (winesofbrasil.com)

The climate in Campanha Gaúcha resembles that of Serra do Sudeste, its neighbor to the east.  It is warmer and drier than in most other parts of Brazil, and provides a hospitable environment for the vines.  Soils in this 3,500 acre zone consist of clay and granite, and are planted 100% to vinifera varieties.  Nearly a quarter of total plantings are Cabernet Sauvignon.  In recent years, 15-20% of Brazil’s fine wine production hails from Campanha Gaúcha, and that number is expected to rise.  Which varieties claim pride of place here?  Thus far the reds dominate, with Cabernet, Syrah, Tannat, Tempranillo, and Touriga Nacional all showing promise.  White grapes are less prominent but Viognier, it seems, may break out as a star.

A Culture Reflected in Its Grapes

When you look at Brazil’s history and the immigrants who shaped it over the course of centuries, it’s easy to see why there is such a wide variety of grapes grown here.  The Italians, in particular, brought with them seedlings of well-known grapes like Moscato and Glera (Prosecco), but also lesser-known samples of Ancellotta and Teroldego.  Portuguese ex-pats planted Touriga Nacional, Aragonez (aka Tempranillo), and Alicante Bouschet.  And French varieties ended up in the mix, too, including the usual suspects – Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir – as well as more obscure grapes like Marselan, Egiodola, and Arinaroa.  You can find wines that feature unique blends of these grapes all over Brazil.  Some winemakers even craft single-varietal wines that are truly one-of-a-kind.

Here’s a little cheat sheet on some of the less common grapes you’ll find in Brazil:

Red Grapes

Alicante Bouschet – red-fleshed grape that is a cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache; adds structure and color to red wine blends, but varietal wines are becoming more common.

Ancellotta – originally from Emilia-Romagna in Italy, this red grape features in blends where it brings rich, deep color to the party.  When made as a varietal wine, it can be quite aromatic, with notes of ripe blackberries and plum.  In his book, Wines of South America Evan Goldstein compares Ancellotta’s flavor profile with that of Amarone – rich and dense, with hints of cherry and mocha.

Arinaroa – a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, this red usually plays a supporting role in blends.  Rare varietal wines showcase red fruit like currants and mulberries, with an herbal base note that some tasters identify as licorice.

Egiodola – the progeny of Fer Servadou (South West France/Madiran) and Negramoll (Madeira, Portugal; and Extremadura, Spain) this red variety is known for its strong tannins.  In Brazil it sometimes shows its softer side, exhibiting notes of raspberry and chestnut in a wine that people tend to love or loathe.

Marselan – this red, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, appears to have great potential as a varietal wine in Brazil.  Original plantings in the Languedoc region of France have been successful, largely because of the grape’s resistance to fungal diseases.  Good varietal wines express the best features of each parent: the cherry softness of the Grenache alongside the structure and complexity of the Cab.

Touriga Nacional – Originally known for its role in Port production and, more recently, distinctive dry wines in Portugal, this red grape has found a comfortable home in Campanha Gaúcha on the Uruguayan border.  Varietal wines are becoming more common, winning fans with their dense black fruit flavors.

1208

White Grapes

Not as obscure as their red counterparts, the white grapes of Brazilian wine production are familiar to most of us.  Chardonnay makes lovely varietal wines in the cooler climates, and contributes to the large sparkling wine enterprise here.  Gewurztraminer makes surprisingly authentic “Alsace-style” wines in Campo Gaúcha.  Muscat reaches its pinnacle here in the frizzante and espumante wines of Farroupilha in Serra Gaúcha, calling to mind the lightly fizzy wines of Moscato.  Glera, best known for its role in Prosecco, is a mainstay of sparkling wine production, itself the foundation of the Brazilian wine industry.  Perhaps less well-known than the other white grapes, Welschriesling (aka Italian Riesling) also plays a large role in sparkling wine production.

Now that we’ve explored this history of Brazil’s wine culture and looked at the unique offering of grapes that drive its growth, let’s look into the crystal ball and see what the future holds.  I’ll be back with one final post on Brazil:

The Road to Rio, Part 3:  Onward – The Future of Brazilian Wine

Saúde!

The Road to Rio – and Brazilian Wine!

Brazilian Flag

Tonight marks the beginning of the Rio Olympics and I’m so excited!  I have had a thing for Brazil ever since I was a little kid and my dad would point out countries on our old Rand – McNally atlas.  Not that I understood anything at all about Brazil at that age, or even knew where it was in relation to my home town.  But for some reason I loved the page on South America and looked at it every day.  So much so that eventually the atlas would open to that page by default!  And by far my favorite spot on that page was the big, green wedge of Brazil.  With a level of persistence cute only in a toddler, I would point it out to anyone who indulged me, over and over again.  I can still picture it all these years later.

SA Map
Obviously this isn’t the original atlas from my childhood!

My love for Brazil lives on, although I’m sad to say I’ve never traveled there.  Yet.  When I relocated from Washington, DC to south Florida, I moved into a community where there are tons of Brazilians.  We have Brazilian restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries – you name it, we’ve got it in Pompano Beach.  I love the distinctive lilt of Brazilian Portuguese dancing in the air around me, whether I’m at the beach, or the gym, or the Publix.  I’ve even started learning to speak it (mas só um pouco.)  It’s just a matter of time before I fly south to explore that big green wedge in person.  The Brazilian wine scene will drive the itinerary.

While most of us would agree that Brazilian wine remains something of a mystery, it would behoove us to get with the proverbial program.  In this case, the Brazilian Wine Bandwagon.  Okay, perhaps using the term bandwagon is premature, but the wine landscape in Carioca Country is, quite frankly, fascinating.  Why?  Because things are changing!  While per capita consumption of wine remains low at just 1.8 litres per person per year, Brazil’s population appears to have taken a keen interest in fermented grape juice.  Vivino, the wine app, reported that in terms of total number of users as of April 2016, Brazil ranks just behind the United States, with 1.6 million.  And that’s a 64% jump from the previous year!

So in honor of the Olympic Games kicking off August 5th in Rio, I thought I would go on a Brazilian wine safari, learning as much as I could on a subject about which I know precious little.  Turns out there’s a lot to know!  I’ve broken it down into three posts: the history of Brazilian wine; the regions and unique terroirs; and grape varieties (some familiar, some downright obscure) and wine styles.  Today’s post homes in on the history of wine in Brazil.

To begin, I’ll warn you that this is a tale of hardship and perseverance, of men and women who probably should have quit when things got tough, and survived when they got worse.  But their toil and hard work are a wine lover’s gain.  Centuries of planting vinifera grapes in the wrong places have led to the discovery of the most suitable locations for them, taking advantage of Brazil’s varied topography.  And, with the introduction of modern vinification techniques, Brazil’s hard-working vignerons now have even more tools at their fingertips for creating fine wine.  It’s a long story that dates back to the 1500s . . . .

 

If At First You Don’t Succeed . . .

In 1532, Martim Afonso de Souza, left Portugal for Brazil, where he planned to augment local farming traditions with European agricultural methods, including the planting of vitis vinifera seedlings.  Unfortunately he landed in São Vicente, where the oppressive humidity and high seasonal rainfall provided more hospitality to pests and disease than to fledgling grape vines.  Twenty years later, de Souza and his cohort decided to move to a more suitable location, on the Atlantic Plateau.   While they succeeded in producing the first Brazilian wine from vinifera varieties, progress was slow and unpredictable.  Heavy rains that drenched the vineyards throughout the growing season, and again at harvest, made for a losing proposition in the long term.

The next to try their hands at winemaking were the Jesuits, who arrived in 1626.  Father Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz brought grape-growing to the area of Rio Grande do Sul, the center of Brazil’s wine production today.  He was assisted in his endeavors by members of the native Guarani community, who tended and maintained the vineyards and even helped with winemaking.  It was a small enterprise, dedicated to producing just enough wine for religious sacraments, and had no commercial implications.

 

Try, Try, Again

With so many false starts on the winemaking front, local officials realized they needed to provide more guidance to those who wished to dedicate themselves to the enterprise.  In 1640 they attempted to create and enforce basic standards of quality wine production, with an eye toward promoting viticulture in the most favorable locations.  But these regulations had no teeth:  most growers continued to plant where they wanted, without regard for any sanctions.  When Portuguese immigrants arrived in Brazil around 1732, they tried, as did their forebears, to plant seedlings they had brought from home.  With little knowledge of local conditions and no local expertise to guide them, their efforts amounted to nothing.

As if hopeful Brazilian winemakers needed another obstacle, in 1789 the Portuguese court enacted protectionist measures designed to insulate the old world wine industry from potential upstarts in the colonies.  Cultivation of grapes was banned in Brazil, crippling the barely-there winemaking business and the population’s nascent interest in wine in one fell swoop.  Fortunately for all, the royal family relocated from Portugal to Brazil soon thereafter, resulting in immediate repeal of the prohibition.  Kings and queens must have their vinho, after all!

And thus the grape renaissance began, with most parcels replanted using native and hybrid grapes from North America.  Better able to withstand the humidity and disease than vinifera varieties, they fared well in Brazil and gave farmers a truly reliable crop.  Queen among the labrusca varieties, Isabella became the most-planted grape.  That said, it didn’t do much for the wine market.

 

Serra Gaucha Brazil
Tending the vines in Serra Gaúcha, Brazil (winesofbrasil.com)

Better Days Ahead

But it was in 1824 that the tide truly began to turn for Brazil’s future wine trade.  That year marked the initial wave of German immigrants who settled in Serra Gaúcha: finally, people from a wine-centric culture who happened to land in a potentially auspicious spot for growing vinifera grapes!  All was not lost!  A second wave, this time to Bento Gonçalves, was spurred by land grants given to Italians in 1875.  It resulted in the establishment of yet another beachhead in the battle to develop a European-style wine economy.

More serious efforts by the newly-arrived winemakers eventually led to stronger official oversight and new production standards, and in 1928 the Sindicato do Vinho was born.  With its responsibility to monitor quality of both the grapes and the wines they made, as well as monitor trade practices, the Sindicato was one of the first supervisory organizations devoted to wine in South America.  An outgrowth of the increased focus on quality was the surge in wine co-operatives, which allowed small growers to participate in the burgeoning wine business.  Many of these co-ops still operate today.

The flow of Europeans into Brazil presaged another big leap in wine production here:  the influx of large-scale Euro wineries looking to expand their horizons.  Among the first to make the move was Georges Aubert from southeastern France, whose expertise came from making Clairette de Die, a mousseux or lightly bubbly wine.   Aubert brought with him new production techniques such as the Charmat method of sparkling wine, giving the local talent a big boost forward.  (As we shall learn in Part Two of this post, sparkling wine was what boosted Brazil’s wine industry onto the world stage.)  Aubert also established operations for the production of brandy, whisky, gin, and vermouth, which continue today.   During the 1960s, mega-producers like Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, Moët & Chandon, and Pernod followed suit, setting up shop in Brazil.

 

Turning a Corner

With so much expertise flowing into the country, production methods and, ultimately, quality improved.  Growers paid more attention to matching grape varieties with suitable terroirs and climates, and wine makers exerted real efforts to source and select the finest grapes.  For the first time, family farms (adegas) flirted with the possibility of vinifying and bottling their own wines rather than shipping their crops off to the co-operatives.  While co-ops remained a force in the Brazilian wine industry (and remain so to this day), they were no longer the only way for small growers to make their mark.

 

Coming Soon:   Part Two,  Regions and Climates – Winemaking Challenges in Brazil

Now that we’ve got an idea about how the wine industry has evolved in Brazil, let’s delve into the details on the specific obstacles facing its winemakers.  Brazil is a massive country, home to mountains, rain forests, the Amazon, and miles upon miles of Atlantic coastline.  Its climate varies dramatically from one point to another, and demands tenacity, patience, and a good deal of faith from anyone attempting to grow grapes there.  In my next post I’ll take you through the established wine regions as well as those just being explored, showing what makes each one unique.

IMG_0318

 

Tasting Note:  I was able to snag two bottles of Brazilian wine for a tasting experiment this evening, as we watch the Opening Ceremonies.  One is a Merlot which, due to its early ripening, fares better in southern Brazil than many international grapes.  The other is a Tannat, about which I’m particularly curious.  I’ll give you the low-down on each wine in the next post!

Cheers!  Or, rather, Saúde!