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!

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