Cachaça To Cabernet: A New Generation Of Winemakers Puts Brazil On The Map
Surprising as it may seem, Brazil is also seeking a future in wine. Driven by legendary families and ambitious new winemakers as ambassadors, the country is eager to play in the same league as its famous South American neighbors.
SERRA GAÚCHA — At the dawn of each new year, Brazilians like to follow a few traditions: wearing white, riding seven waves, eating lentils and making three wishes in a row while sipping sparkling wine.
The wine is one of the famous espumantes that have made the reputation of the local vineyards, based on a savoir-faire that, while well-known in the region, dreams of making a name of itself in Europe and elsewhere.
Wines on supermarket shelves in Sao Paulo.
Rigorous harvesting techniques
Today, the Valduga family produces 2 million liters of wine each year from grapes grown on 240 hectares of land. Their harvests are much more selective than in the past (7 tons of grapes compared with 40 in the 1980s).
Light, pleasant and easy to drink. Just like Brazil
Produced according to the méthode champenoise, patiently aged, sparkling wines are in the limelight. Whether red or white, still wines benefit from increasingly sophisticated blends, some comparable to those of European wines. This influence is also due, inevitably, to opening up the properties to tourists: restaurants, shops, wine tours, mini-harvest, grape trading, tasting under a waterfall and more. Here, as in Vinicola Goes, which boasts a wine tourism park opened on the road to Sao Roque, the field is open to any kind of experience to familiarize visitors with the world of vines.
In a country used to big cooperatives, ancient table wines and large-berry grapes (50% of the yearly harvests are still reserved to making grape juice), the success of sparkling wines is gradually opening the way to other commercial prospects. In the shadow of its Chilean, Argentinian and Uruguayan neighbors, Brazil didn’t dare open up to competition before the 1990s. “Our goal is not to compare ourselves to others,” says Mario Geisse, who came from Chile in 1976 as head of operations for Moët & Chandon, before settling in Pinto Bandeira and focusing on Chardonnay. “The best way to succeed is to do everything we can to have a wine that’s like us: light, pleasant and easy to drink. Just like Brazil.”
Considered one of the most renowned and critically acclaimed vineyards, the Cave Geisse waited 12 years before presenting its 1998 brut on the global market. Felipe Abarzua, one of the family’s oenologists, is as clear-sighted as his boss: “You have to know how to select the right customers," he says.
French and Portuguese varieties in Brazilian vineyards
Brazil aims to move upmarket on the red, white and rosé front, "Without looking like an exotic wine-producing country," says Mauricio Roloff, a consultant and sommelier.
Brazil chose to bet on its original assets, starting with its shape-shifting climate. Most of the vineyard benefits from temperate weather, where the landscape fluctuates between mountainous areas and plateaus perched at 1,000 meters altitude, guaranteeing freshness. The presence of sandy and granitic soil allows the adaptation of multiple varieties, including in the tropical zone.
“More and more estates prefer to emphasize their flexibility and adaptability, rather than the traditional. Right down to the wine-making process, estates are intensifying their efforts," Roloff says.
The head of four vineyards in the country, export leader and pioneer in night harvesting, the Miolo group has progressively established itself as a terroir explorer, cultivating 55 different varieties, mostly French and Portuguese. Near Bento Gonçalves, the family stronghold saw the birth in 1992 of the famous Reserva Miolo Merlot, the first of a series of crus, some of which matured under the benevolent eye of Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland.
Year after year, the Brazilian wine landscape is also taking shape through its designations. After the award in 2012 of the famous “AO” label to Vale dos Vinhedos, seven other regions already recognized as Geographical Indications are hoping for their consecration. More than an overly restrictive set of specifications for vineyard management, Brazilians associate this certification system to a quality guarantee, ostensibly displayed to the outside world. In the meantime, some have already abandoned pergola pruning for row pruning, while others are experimenting with more environmentally-friendly irrigation methods and treatments.
We wanted to create the wine we wanted — something new that people hadn’t tasted yet.
Within Casa Valduga, a department dedicated to research and development has even been specially created to study the adaptation potential of new grape varieties that might one day find their way to the family plots.
View of the Miolo estate in Vale dos Vinhedos.
Brazilian wine finds its own way
As a worthy heir to the family history, which started in Santa Lucia more than a century ago, Flavio Pizzato honors the pioneering spirits of his Veneto ancestors. “After being the first ones to launch a double fermentation sparkling wine, my father and I are the first ones to grow Semillon,” he says, proudly looking out over his 35-hectares in Santa Lucia.
The winegrower manages to sell some 450,000 bottles of his wines every year in the United States, Europe, Japan and China. “Nothing is easy, in the mountains," he says. “It took wine technicians studying abroad, then learning about marketing, for a different future to emerge.”
On the eve of their 20th birthday, Lucas Foppa and Ricardo Ambrosi are part of the first students of the country’s only oenological Institute. Recently graduated, they bought a few tons of Cabernet Sauvignon and set about vinifying their first vintage in the family garage, where they rubbed shoulders with pros from California's Napa Valley pros.
“We wanted to create the wine we wanted — something new that people hadn’t tasted yet,” says Lucas. "Not to please the entire world: just because we already believed in this terroir.” In 2019, the partners set up their vat room in a former marble factory in Garibaldi. While they wait to invest in their own vineyards, they passionately oversee the cultivation of the grapes they reserve for their wines, which are as fresh as they are elegant, aged in French barrels. Free, in their own way — especially when they decide to accompany their wine-tasting visits with a high-flying, typically Brazilian lunch, or to revive the graphic design of their labels with the help of artist friends.
Supported in their development by the Wines of Brazil project, about 20 producers are working on the necessity to “acclimatize” young consumers to this evolving culture. “Brought up in the food trend, Brazilian youth are curious to rediscover wine without the preconceptions of previous generations,” highlights Roloff, the consultant.
Many people still find their pleasure in cans of white sparkling white, drunk over and over again on the beach. But here too, change is just around the corner. “Brazil is a country in search of itself,” says Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, founder of Wine Explorers. “It would be wrong to try to please everyone.”
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