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Wines of Brazil: Hitting Their Stride
By Rebecca Murphy
Oct 4, 2016
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The recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro brought attention to all things Brazilian, including its wine.  Yes, Brazil may be better known for Carnaval, beaches, beautiful women, the Amazon River, soccer, the World Cup, coffee and the Olympics, but it is also becoming known for its wines.

Brazil boasts over 227,000 total acres of vines--25,000 acres of which are vinifera--used to make what they call “fine wine.”  The remainder are vitis labrusca vines and American hybrids, used to make what they call “table wine,” as well as juice, jelly, and table grapes.

The northern most wine region is Vale do São Francisco, situated between 8°and 9° south of the equator.  It is the largest tropical vineyard in the world, with a dry climate and plenty of sunshine for easy-drinking, fruit-forward wines.  Since it doesn’t get cold enough for the vines to go dormant, the vines are farmed to produce two harvests a year by using such techniques as pruning and strategically timed irrigation.  This is the only wine region that irrigates the vineyards.  In the south, where the majority of wines are produced, the average annual rainfall is 67 inches.

Fine wine country in Brazil is located much further south, beginning in the state of Paraná.  The next state to the south is Santa Catarina, with the coolest temperatures and highest elevations.  Included within is Planalto Catarinense, where only vinifera vines are planted.  It is actually possible to make ice wines here.  Think about it:  A country with areas so hot you can produce two harvests a year--and areas so cold you can produce ice wine.

The southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul--with Argentina to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and Uruguay to the south--is the home to 90 percent of the country’s wines.  It includes Campos de Cima da Serra and Serra Gaúcha in the northern part of the state, Serra do Sudeste to the southeast, and Campanha Gaúcha bordering Uruguay.

Serra Gaúcha is responsible for nearly 80% of the country’s fine wine production.  Here the average winter temperature is 53° F, and summer temperatures average about 72° F.  The soil is basaltic and altitude ranges from 1,476 feet to 2,460 feet.  According to Wines of Brazil, in 2015 the state produced nearly 5.3 million gallons of fine wine, the same amount of sparkling wines, almost 55.5 million gallons of table wine and 29 million gallons of juice.  So, fine wines, vinifera wines, are still a very small part of the wine production in Brazil.  However, some of those fine wines are indeed fine.

During a recent visit to Serra Gaúcha as a guest of Wines of Brazil, I found a gorgeous landscape of rolling hills, densely populated with deep green conifers, deciduous trees side by side with palms under a clear, bright blue sky.  I was surprised to see so many vineyards planted in the pergola system, which I don’t associate with high quality wine production, but since more grapes are grown for table wines and juice, it makes sense.

I also found that the people were most welcoming and hospitable as well as humble.  I quickly learned that the standard greeting was a brief, friendly hug.  We Americans can be friendly, but introductory hugs can feel a bit intrusive.  However, I got used to the practice pretty quickly.  (Perhaps if we all practiced hugs, the world would be a happier place…but I digress.)

Serra Gaúcha boasts the country’s first and only Designated Origin (DO), Vale dos Vinhedos.  This area is also a very popular tourist destination.  Wineries offer tasting rooms with retail sales and many include guest rooms, restaurants and other activities for visitors.  This is a land of family-owned vineyards and wineries.  The average vineyard size is less than seven acres.  Most of the families arrived from Italy in the 1870s, when the Brazilian government offered land grants that attracted large numbers of immigrants from Trentino and the Veneto. 

I visited only a few wineries, but those few were some of the best:

Pizzato, Bento Gonçalves:

Flavio Pizzato, who is in charge of most everything, hosted us at his family winery.  His father, Plinio, who established the winery in 1968, is in charge of the vineyards and still lives in the middle of vines.  The Pizzatos were one of the first families to convert their vineyards from the Pergola vine training system to Vertical Shoot Positioning.  They own 64 acres in Vale dos Vinhedos that supply grapes for the Pizzato wines.  An additional 47 acres are located in Serra Gaúcha go in their entry level Dr. Fausto brand.  They make traditional method sparkling wines and still white, red and rose wines for both the Pizzato and Fausto brands

I was most impressed by the integration of tannins in young reds.  While all the wines were well made and enjoyable, the reds were outstanding.  They were of a lean, lower alcohol style, with crisp acidity showing balance of fruit, acidity and alcohol and those and integrated, ripe tannins.  The Merlots showed very well, particularly the Vale dos Vinhedos, Single Vineyard, DNA99 Merlot 2011 ($52).  It was a restrained wine, with spicy, dark, ripe fruit showing tobacco notes within a lean structure of tangy acidity and elegant tannins. The importer is Metropolis Wine Merchants, NY.

Casa Perini, Farroupilha:

The family originally grew grapes for a cooperative winery, but in the 1970s they started making wines for themselves on their property in Vale Trentino.  In 2005 they purchased the De Lantier Winery in Garibaldi, formerly owned by Bacardi, and started focusing on fine wine production.  At that time 60 percent of their production was table wine, 30 percent fine wine.  Today, those percentages are reversed.

While they produce several brands, Macaw was developed for the US market.  The Macaw Serra Gaúcha Semi Dry Moscato 2016 ($10) is fresh, floral, lively, sweet and easy to drink.  Quintessential Wines import the wines.

Lidio Carraro, Bento Gonçalves:

Patricia Carraro, director of marketing and international relations, is a most passionate and persuasive ambassador for her family’s wines.  She described their efforts directed toward their goal of producing pure wines that speak of their origin.  The story is not new.  It includes mapping the soils and identifying the climatic conditions of different vineyard sites, acquiring the best genetic materials, choosing the best clones and rootstock for each site and having respect for every step of the grape growing and winemaking process.  They have vineyards in Vale dos Vinhedos and in Serra do Sudeste near the Uruguay border to provide a broader range of flavors, structure and complexity.  They do not use oak with any of their wines, yet their wines are structured and complex with concentrated flavors. The oak is not missed.  Standout wines for me included Dádivas, Encruzilhada do Sul, Chardonnay 2014 ($17) with floral pear flavors and crisp, citrusy acidity and the Lidio Carraro, Encruzilhada do Sul, Agnus Merlot 2015 ($14).  Their US importer is Winebow.

Vinicola Salton, Bento Gonçalves:

Salton is one of Brazil’s three largest wineries.  It is housed in a magnificent building adorned with murals depicting important moments in the history of the family and its employees.  Antonio Dominico Salton arrived in Brazil from Italy in 1878.  The family began their business in 1910 selling groceries and began producing wines in the 1930s. 

Gregorio Salton was our guide through their wines.  He studied winemaking in Mendoza and recently completed the OIV MSc in Wine Management program.  He’s clearly an accomplished, yet modest young man.  When visiting a large winery that produces so many gallons of wines, it helps to put a family face on the business. 

The Salton, Serra Gauche, Desejo Merlot 2011 ($23) exhibited ripe, concentrated cherry, berry fruit with savory notes well balanced with vibrant acidity and ripe tannins.  Salton, Serra Gaúcha, Antonio Nini Salton, Geracoes 2011 ($36) is a distinguished blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  It was drinking very young and fresh with ripe, forward black fruit, beautifully balanced with fine tannins.  The US importer is A&M Imports.

Miolo, Bento Gonçalves:

The Miolo Winery is one of eight wineries owned by the Miolo Wine Group.  It is a beautiful property with a luxury hotel across the road.  The most appealing feature of the property is the wine playground, a large green park, with tables, seating areas, a food truck available for visitors to sit back and chill with a glass of bubbly.

One of my favorite sparkling wines was their Vale dos Vinhedos Millesime Brut ($22).  It was a very elegant blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with delicate raspberry, citrus and yeasty aromas, refreshing and lively in the mouth.  Another standout was the Vale dos Vinhedos, Reserve Chardonnay 2015 ($13) with pretty floral aromas, fresh and crisp in the mouth with a touch of saltiness.

Aurora, Bento Gonçalves:

Aurora is a cooperative winery established by 16 families in 1931.  Today the number has increased to 1100 grower families whose fruit goes into the wines produced by the winery.  The original winery, located in downtown Bento Gonçalves, receives 160,000 visitors annually.  They are a leader in the production of grape juice with almost eight million gallons, which André Peres, one of the 20 enologists on staff, said is more complicated to make than wine.  Their 2015 Varietal Chardonnay ($12) showed dusty, lemony aromas with fresh, clean and crisp citrusy flavors.  A single vineyard Pequenas Partilhas Cabernet Franc 2014 was outstanding with savory red fruit, fresh with bright acidity and finishing with fine tannins.  I also tasted the best grape juice I have ever tasted: pure juice, not water or sugar added.  US importer is Votto Vines for select brands.

Casa Valduga, Bento Gonçalves:

Casa Valduga is a very impressive winery and tourist destination that attracts 130,000 visitors annually.  João Valduga is in his element with the throngs of visitors at his family’s handsome visitor center.  He poses with guests for photos, bends to speak to a child and clinks glasses with all.  He guided us through miles of riddling racks filled with bottles of sparkling wines that workers are turning by hand.  Their traditional method bubblies are excellent quality and sell for around $20 in the U.S.  We tasted a new wine, yet to be released: a multi-vintage red blend made as a tribute to founder Luis Valduga.  We may never see in the US, but I must mention it to illustrate the quality that can be produced here.  It was classically structured, reminiscent of a Right Bank Bordeaux, with aromas of black olives and pencil shavings, savory flavors of black currant sprinkled with woody spices and hints of citrus zest.  The importer is Heritage Link Brands.

The Annual Evaluation of the Harvest:  At the end of my trip I was invited to participate in an event unlike any I have ever attended.  It was an evaluation of wines from the 2016 harvest sponsored by the Brazilian Association of Enology (ABE).  The purpose of the project is to select 16 wines that best represent the current harvest then present them to the public.  The ABE believes that the event has helped to track the changes in the Brazilian grape and wine industry, and contributed to the development of quality of wine production.  It is a massive project that was inaugurated in 1993. 

Each year it begins with the collection of samples, many still in tanks.  For 2016, more than 40 wineries entered 241 samples.  Those wines were evaluated by 90 winemakers over two days of blind tasting.  Sixteen wines were selected as the best representation of the recent harvest.  The finale was a public event attended by 850 people.  Sixteen commentators including winemakers, journalists, sommeliers, wine competition directors, an actor, a musician and a randomly selected member of the audience were assigned a wine to discuss.  The judges came from South America as well as Belgium, Greece, England, Greece and the U.S.  My wine was an unoaked Chardonnay with delicious pear, apple and citrus flavors balanced with crisp acidity.  I commented that it was a great example of why winemakers shouldn’t feel compelled to put a Chardonnay in oak.  It was perfect as it was.

The audience was the most attentive I have ever seen.  For the entire three hours of the event, they were taking notes and spitting rather than drinking the wines they tasted.  The organization of the day was impeccable and ran on time.  Since this event’s inception, it has served as a means for improving wine quality and for engaging and educating the public.  It is an amazingly successful project.

Brazilian wines are relatively new to the global wine scene.  The country’s fine wines are a very small part of their production, but many of those wines show a distinctive style that make them great partners with food.  They’re what the Brazilians describe as gastronomic wines with lower alcohol, usually 13.5 percent or less, and lively acidity.  Their traditional method sparklers are elegant.

The assortment of wines produced by many of the wineries is large, perhaps much larger than practically and economically sensible.  As the business of grape growing and wine production matures, vintners will have a better idea of what they can make and sell best.  They can concentrate on those wines, simplify their production and perhaps make more money in the process. 

It’s a collaborative environment with cooperative efforts like the annual evaluation of the harvest to educate themselves and their customers alike.  The industry is evolving learning how to make their good wines even better.  It’s an exciting time for Brazilian wines.  Time for you to enjoy them.