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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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