Brazil's Big Score
Wine and sports don’t normally have much in common. Most people reach for a cold beer when watching football, or futebol, as the Brazilians call soccer, the sport they love more than sandy beaches, samba and, in some cases, life itself.
In 2014, billions of people watched Brazil host the FIFA World Cup. Next up is the 2016 Summer Olympics, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro. Could the world’s two most popular sporting extravaganzas give Brazil’s small but growing wine industry a boost in the United States?
It certainly can’t hurt. Among wine-producing South American nations, Brazil ranks a distant third behind Argentina and Chile in production volume, exports and overall reputation.
Last year, Brazil shipped only about 35,000 cases of wine to the U.S., a fraction of what export-savvy Chile and Argentina send our way. But that number will likely increase in the aftermath of Brazil’s big moments on the world stage.
Amid rampant World Cup fervor, I visited a number of wineries in June, and my hosts seemed determined to make their mark. Certainly, the country produces some high-quality wines: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat among reds, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based sparkling wines made in the traditional Champagne style and the more industrial Charmat method.
Wines of Brasil, the primary trade organization for Brazilian wineries, claims that the country boasts more than 1,000 wineries; however, the number of commercial wineries is closer to 10 percent of that figure, and about a dozen Brazilian wineries export to the U.S. (The large importer/distributer Elixir Wine Group, formerly named Southern Wine & Spirits, accounts for about a half-dozen producers.)
Quality leaders among larger operations are Casa Valduga, Miolo, Salton and Perini. The boutique winery movement is also gaining traction in Brazil, with family-run houses like Lidio Carraro, Pizzato and Cave Geisse making some very nice wines in small quantities.
Breaking it Down
Brazil’s wine industry is centered in the deep south of the country, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where there are four defined winegrowing regions: Serra Gaúcha, Campanha, Serra do Sudeste and Campos de Cima da Serra.
Santa Catarina, the state to the north of Rio Grande do Sul, also has vineyards, as does the northerly, more tropical Vale do São Francisco, where Muscat grapes proudly rule as king.
The most developed and important Brazilian wine region is Serra Gaúcha, which contains the Vale dos Vinhedos, a denominated subsection that’s home to about three dozen wineries and a growing wine tourism trade. Wine Enthusiast named Vale dos Vinhedos one of its Top Ten Wine Travel Destinations for 2013.
During my Brazilian sojourn, I dubbed the region, which sits about 1,500 feet above sea level and is lush, green and hilly, “Little Veneto,” and nobody argued with the moniker.
The wineries are almost all third-, fourth- and fifth-generation operations run by the descendants of northern Italian immigrants who came to Brazil from Trento and the Veneto in the late 19th century.
This first wave of would-be Brazilian winemakers planted American labrusca grapes like Concord and Isabella, thick-skinned varieties capable of handling hot, humid summers. However, the past 15 or so years have seen the planting of noble wine grapes, particularly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon but also Tannat, Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional, a variety from Portugal.
A Bet on Bubbles
Over the past two or three decades, an abundance of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has been planted, much of which is used to make sparkling wines. The focus on sparkling wines in Serra Gaúcha comes as much from necessity as choice.
Because grapes for sparklers are harvested at a lower Brix (sugar level), they can be picked in good phenolic shape in January, the equivalent of July in the Northern Hemisphere. Consequently, they are at less risk for the rot and/or overripeness that often take hold later in the growing season in February and March.
To combat that pitfall, wineries are also turning more to Campanha, a dry, almost desert-like strip of Rio Grande do Sul that borders Uruguay.
“Only in the really dry summers can we get great red wines in Vale dos Vinhedos,” says Morgana Miolo, export manager for her family’s winery, Miolo Wine Group, which was founded by her father and uncles in 1989. “It’s usually quite rainy and humid during the peak of summer. Campanha isn’t as pretty. It’s mostly dry and flat, and the elevation is much lower. But it’s the best area we have for reds.”
As for Brazilian bubblies, those from Casa Valduga and Salton in Vale dos Vinhedos range from pleasant to excellent. Several of Valduga’s still wines are also quite impressive, especially a blend called Raizes Gran, which brings together Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc with Tannat.
Based in a high-elevation microzone called Pinto Bandeira (about 2,500 feet), Geisse grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on fractured basalt soils that allow for ample drainage and impart minerality into the wines. Geisse ages its wines for a minimum of two years, and some for as long as 15 years.
With notable bottlings like these, Brazilian wines are on a winning streak. And despite a hugely disappointing loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinals,
Brazilians remain hopeful that soon the world will take its wines as seriously as it has long admired its soccer players.
Recommended Brazil Wines
Salton NV Gerações José Bepi Salton: This sparkling wine made from 50% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir spends four years on lees. It’s bready and lightly briny up front, with vanilla and yeasty notes along with dry citrus flavors. Imported by A&M Imports.
Cave Geisse 2009 Terroir Nature: A razor-crisp blend of 50% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the hilly Pinto Bandeira subzone in Serra Gaúcha. Dry as a bone, this no-dosage sparkler scours the palate with lime and green-apple flavors along with cutting acidity. Imported by Vine Connections.
Casa Valduga NV Brut 130: This traditionally fermented sparkler is 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. After spending three years on lees, it’s classic in terms of its bready aromas and white-fruit flavors. Among Brazil’s go-to sparkling wines. Imported by Elixir Wine Group.
Perini 2009 Qu4tro: Based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tannat and Ancelotta, this juicy blend is a savory wine with plenty of spice and verve. It’s barely above 12% in alcohol, but it delivers balance and depth. Imported by Shaw-Ross International Importers.
Lidio Carraro 2011 Agnus Merlot: Hailing from the Encruzilhada do Sul subzone in Serra Gaúcha, this spicy, juicy Merlot is fresh in style, with leafy tomato accents and a leathery quality. Imported by Winebow.
Pizzato 2011 DNA99 Merlot: One of the best red wines from the Vale dos Vinhedos. Expect smoky richness on the nose and palate along with ripe flavors of oak-infused berry and plum. Imported by Metropolis Wine Merchants.
Miolo 2011 Lote 43: One of Brazil’s top reds, it blends Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Earthy spice aromas and ripe plum, black cherry and cassis flavors finish with notes of chocolate and pepper. Imported by Elixir Wine Group.