My first introduction to the wines of Brazil happened back in 2005, when I visited the country for the first time. The occasion was my brother’s wedding. The setting was spectacular and I got my first taste of Brazilian wines. After the ceremony, I drank a lot of beer.
While it was Brazilian wine, I didn’t get to taste anything that I would have actually wanted to drink. Fast-forward to May of this year when I set off, with some trepidation, for the wine country of Brazil. What would I find? How would the wines be?
Let me tell you, I was more than surprised. In fact, I was shocked by what I found!
Brazil actually has a long history of producing wine, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. The real action started several decades later when Italian immigrants arrived and embarked on an ambitious plan. Their plan was ambitious out of necessity, since a wave of German immigration preceded the Italian immigration and the Germans predictably settled on the best available lands. In the region of Rio Grande do Sul, this ended up meaning those lands closer to the coast.
The Italians had to march inland over the gentle slopes of red soils that reach to the Atlantic Ocean, onto the high plateaus and through the hills to found towns with names like Garibaldi and Nova Bassano. They settled into valleys named after homes left behind, like the Valle do Trentino. This specific example really struck a chord with me since I trace my roots back to Trentino at every chance I get!
Surprise numero uno was the overwhelming influence the Italians have had there. By there, I mean the heart of Brazil’s wine community, located in the Rio Grande do Sul and particularly in Bento Goncalves. The Wine Capital of Brazil!
How does this Italian background manifest itself? Well, the typical meal of the region seems to start with Agnolotti en Brodo and generally includes polenta and some sort of roasted chicken or pig dish. The food is really, really good! And that’s coming from someone raised on Agnolotti en Brodo. Okay, tortellini, but close enough.
Surprise number two? I spoke more Italian than Portuguese while in Brazil, which in a way is not surprising since I don’t speak Portuguese. The surprising part is that people continue to speak Italian in the region and it’s fairly widespread, particularly once you get out of the city and into the valleys that surround Bento Goncalves.
The wine regions surrounding Bento Goncalves, where I visited in May, feature hillside vineyards for the most part. Unlike many other wine producing regions, these sloping vineyards are not on the sides of hills but on the sides of valleys, carved from a basaltic lava flow. This forms the plateaus around the main wine producing region known as Vale dos Vinhedos, or valley of the vines. Nearby and with similar topographical conditions, one finds the smaller but equally promising region of Pinto Bandeira.
This formation, sloping valley sides eroded from basalt, is one of the reasons that the wines of Brazil have such promise. Top soils here tend to be rather thin and meager, ideal for forcing the vines to struggle. Beyond that, they seem to impart a distinct terroir that can be seen across a rather broad section of the wines here. There is a fine minerality in many of the wines and sometimes an ashy note, which might be off putting, but that basalt keeps these wines taut and crisp with fine acidity and tannins.
The biggest hurdle facing producers here is not the lay of the land but the climate. We know that vines love warmth in the summer, but they also need cold in the winter and, in general, prefer drier climates. We don’t think of cold and dry when we think of Brazil, but Brazil is an awfully large country and Rio Grande do Sul is located in far southern Brazil.
While the notion of Brazil as a warm country is well founded, I was there in the dead of their winter and was lucky enough to enjoy daytime temperatures that often hit 70 degrees. By the same token, the temperature often flirted with freezing overnight. The warm weather broke shortly after my departure, witnessed by 50 degree daytime highs and lows well below freezing. So, the region does have temperature swings sufficient for healthy vine growth. Even during the warmer summer months, temperatures tend to be held in check by the temperature drainage afforded by the extensive valley system here.
If there is an Achilles’ heel to Brazil’s wine growing regions, it is the humidity. While many regions suffer through with 20 or 30 inches of rain a year, Serra Gaucha, the region that includes Bento Goncalves and the wine growing regions, often receives over 70 inches of rainfall per year. How do they handle it? With luck and ingenuity, mostly.
The luck would fall to the ground as it happens. That basaltic soil can be quite porous, allowing for easy drainage of much of the rain, particularly on the steeply sloping hillsides.
The ingenuity goes by the acronym TPC, or Thermal Pest Control. The humidity is rarely the issue with vineyards. It’s the tendency for mold, mildew and other pests to proliferate during periods of high humidity that can deal a death blow to vines. TPC uses hot air blown from a slow moving machine towed behind a tractor to help kill fungus, bacteria and other pests.
Repeated treatments of TPC, which blow air at 150 degrees Celsius and some 200 kilometers per hour, have proven to have physiological effects on the vines. It increases the antioxidants a vine produces and actually thickens the leaves of the vines and skins of the fruit. This all allows producers to eliminate conventional chemical treatments commonly used to combat pests in humid regions. While TPC was not invented in Brazil, coming instead from Chile, its rather widespread adoption here is an indication of the willingness of Brazil’s wine industry to take risks and think outside of the box.