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SPECIAL REPORT: Brazilian wines

Wines of Brasil believes the time is right for the introduction of something new to the world's wine drinking nations. Felicity Murray reports from the country's main wine growing region, Serra Gaúcha

Brazilian wines are ready and set to make their mark on the global markets. And with two upcoming world events – the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games – scheduled to take place in Brazil, “the time is right,” says Andreia Gentilini Milan, export director at Wines of Brasil (Wines of Brasilis the project name for a partnership between Apex-Brasil and Ibravin – the Brazilian Wine Institute – to promote the sector's exports).

Brazil is a country full of surprises. The most popular perception of Brazil is that of a tropical country with endless sandy beaches, which it has of course and, because of this, it is not a country that immediately springs to mind when it comes to wine. But Brazil is such a vast and diverse country that it has regional weather conditions that differ greatly – from tropical to temperate to snow in the mountains of the south.

The country boasts six key wine growing regions: in the south, Planalto Catarinense, Campos de Cima da Serra, Serra Gaúcha (the largest), Serra do Sudeste and Campanha. And 4,000km away in the north, Vale do São Francisco.

In recent years, substantial investments in modern winegrowing and winemaking practices and technologies have resulted in the production of high quality wines, which are already being exported to over 30 countries. Brazil is expected to be the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020 and it is already the fifth largest wine producer in the Southern Hemisphere with 1,162 wineries producing 3.3m hectolitres of wine a year, behind Argentina at 14.6m, Australia 12.3, Chile 8 and South Africa 10.2.

The country has a very professional viticulture and is now producing world-class fine wines. Brazil’s wines reflect a style that consumers in many markets are now looking for – approachable wines that, almost without exception, are elegant, balanced and with good acidity, and retain their fruitiness even when aged in French or American oak. They also have the added benefit of alcohol levels that are not too high.

While Chile has Carmenère and Argentina, Malbec, there is no specific Brazilian grape variety to promote. The wineries are working with over 50 varieties, according to region. All the regions are producing good sparkling wines with excellent freshness and of a quality that could perhaps fill a gap between Cava and Champagne in the market. This, if anything, rather than any single grape, is Brazil’s headline offer and the country is rapidly establishing itself as a big producer and exporter of sparkling wines. Wines of Brazil has been puzzling over a possible generic name, in the same vein as Spanish Cava or Sekt from Germany, to distinguish the sparkling wines from Brazil on the international market – we wait with interest.  But it is perhaps the wines from the now very fashionable, Muscat grape (Moscato) – both sparkling and still – with its pronounced sweet floral aroma that particularly express the passion and flavour of Brazil, and which will stir the much targeted new generation of young drinkers into choosing Brazilian.

The per capita consumption of wine in Brazil, however, is low at an average of just 2 litres (the favoured alcoholic beverage is beer) but, if just a portion of the country’s total population of 192 million (around half now being the so-called ‘newly minted’ middle classes) made a small increase in their wine consumption, it would make a significant difference in volume. Brazilian wine producers are also looking to steal market share from imported wines, especially those from their South American neighbours – Chile and Argentina - in Brazilian shops and restaurants.

Exports grow by 86%
Established ten years ago with just six wineries, Wines of Brasil now encompasses 35 companies, 31 of which are exporting and showing their products at international wine fairs, tastings and master classes.

During the first half of this year, exports from the Brazilian vineyards participating in the Wines of Brasil project increased by 86%, resulting in revenues of US$1.85m, compared to US$996,000 for the same period last year. China is the largest importer of Brazilian wine, followed by the UK, Russia, the Netherlands, France, the US, Poland, Switzerland, Finland and Belgium.

The Serra Gaucha region
The biggest and most important wine-growing region in Brazil is Serra Gaucha (the Gaucho highlands), which accounts for nearly 85% of the country’s fine wine production. The land lies at an altitude of 450-750 metres at 29°10’S latitude, so the climate is temperate, but humid, with mild nights. The average temperature is 12°C in the winter and 22° C in the summer.  There is no need for irrigation as even in the summer when the temperatures can reach 35°C, there is a cool mountain breeze and rainfall  – very different to the rest of Brazil.

Within this region the most recognised wine growing areas are Vale dos Vinhedos (the valley of vines), which was Brazil’s first GI and now has Brazil’s only DO status, Vale Aurora, Vale do Rio das Antas and Pinto Bandeira (which produces mostly sparking GI). The main white grape varieties grown are: Italic Riesling, Chardonnay, Muscat, Malvasia and Prosseco; while the reds are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Ancellota and Pinot Noir. The varieties allowed on the Vale dos Vinhedos DO wines are: red (Merlot – min 60%, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tannat), white (Chardonnay – min 60% and Italic Riesling), and sparking wine made by the traditional method (Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir – min 60%, Italic Riesling).

The region feels very Italian in every way – from the food and wine to the languages spoken – for it was here in the nineteenth century (1875 onwards) that immigrants from Northern Italy arrived in Brazil to create a new life. These families settled in the hills where they planted vines as they had in Italy, each with, on average five hectares to work. It is the third, fourth and fifth generations of some of these families who have been able (since 2010, following the opening up of the country) to invest and so establish the impressive wineries that exist today.

Wineries to watch
Contrary to what you might expect, Brazil has the some of the most advanced facilities, technology and knowledge to be found anywhere in the wine-making world. There are only a few large properties capable of supplying sufficiently large volumes to be able to compete price-wise in multiple retail outlets in export markets; but there are many boutique wineries producing wines full of character  that would add interest and a point of difference to on-trade establishments.

Among the larger properties, Salton, founded in 1910, is one of the main wineries for still and sparkling wines. The winery (pictured above), which occupies 30,000sq m, has 315 stainless steel tanks and 1,800 oak barrels (French and American) and a production capacity for still wines of 22,000 bottles/hr, and 13,000bottles/hr for sparkling. Surrounded by beautiful countryside and 1,000 hectares of its own vineyards –the family also strives to make Vale dos Vinhedos, and Salton, an unforgettable tourist experience.

On-going investment in the grapes and the winery includes extending the sparkling production and, according to technical director Lucindo Copat, by 2015, 85% of the winery’s production will be certified with the Fairtrade seal.  The plan is to be able in three years time to also offer certified organic wines.

Miolo (pictured above) is claimed to be the largest in South America with a production capacity of 2m bottles/year. It also has some of the oldest vines in the country – up to 35 years old. It has 450 hectares planted in the Vale dos Vinhedos, of which 120 hectares belong to the Miolo Family and 330 to other producers supplying grapes for the wine production.

There are 3,000 barrels in its caves (which were completed in 2003 following a US$50m investment) 1,000 American Oak and 2,000 French Oak – all made on site. The wines are kept between 3-12 months in barrels but no longer, so as to preserve their fruit character – a signature of Brazilian wines. The winery is also another major producer of sparking wines, with its most premium label being Millésime, produced in the traditional way and packaged in a distinctively shaped black bottle by Sava Glass.

The Miolo Wine Group was established in 2006 and now comprises eight projects: Vinícola Miolo (Vale dos Vinhedos, RS), Fortaleza do Seival Vineyards (Campanha Gaúcha, RS), RAR (Campos de Cima da Serra, RS), Lovara Vinhos finos (Serra Gaúcha, RS), Fazenda Ouro Verde (Vale do São Francisco, BA), Costa Pacifico (Chile), Osborne (Spain and Portugal), Los Nevados (Argentina), Henry Marionnet (France), Giovanni Rosso and Podere San Cristoforo (Italy).

Aurora (pictured above), which was established in 1931 by 16 Italian immigrant families, is the biggest cooperative in Brazil with 1,100 members with 2,800 hectares under vine, all of which are hand picked. Last year, production was 317,000kg. With 177 stainless steel tanks, 255 concrete tanks and 351 French and American oak barrels for fermentation and storage, the winery has an annual production capacity of 38m litres. It is also the most highly awarded Brazilian winery for quality wines, with 349 international awards until July 2012, and it is the most visited winery in Brazil with over 150,000 people a year

Rosana Pasini, export/import supervisor for Aurora says the cooperative is committed to its employees, the environment and sustainability, and is constantly looking for ways to be ‘greener’. In terms of packaging, the cooperative has reduced the paper content of its boxes by 75% and on the large volume wines (4m) the weight of the glass bottles has been reduced by 14%.

Casa Valduga is run by three third generation brothers of the Valduga family who, when they arrived in Brazil in 1875 from Roverto in Italy, began planting vines. The winery was founded in 1973 to produce wines with their own label. Since then, investments in quality and technology have resulted in international award-winning wines that are exported to more than 18 countries.

Annual production is around 2m litres, 50% red/50% white and the winery has one of the largest cellars of sparkling wine in Latin America, presently containing 11 different labels for a minimum of one and a maximum of six years and requiring 15 riddlers (only one giropallet is used). It also claims to be one of the first to use the traditional method. “The more expensive Champagne gets, the better the market opens up for others,” says Elisa Walker, export coordinator. “This year we are getting a new machine for the dégorgement, which will triple our capacity from 300 bottles an hour to 900.”

Vinicola Geisse was established in 1979 by agronomist and enologist Mario Geisse, a Chilean who came to Brazil in 1976, as general manager for Moët & Chandon do Brasil. He quickly realised the potential in the region for producing high quality wines, especially sparkling: "The image I had of Brazil was completely different to the country I found – the south is not at all tropical, and the grapes were very different to those in Chile. Each country has its characteristics, and there is no doubt that this is a sparkling wine region. At some point the world will realise how unique this is.” Mario is also technical director of for Vina Casa Silva in the Colchagua Valley, Chile. His son Daniel Geisse (pictured) heads up the Cave Geisse Champenoise in Brazil.

The hills of Pinto Bandeira are at 800m, well drained and with good exposure to sun. Frost and pests can, however, still cause problems. Geisse has been a pioneer in adopting the Thermal Pest Control (TPC) system (shown above), which uses hot air instead of pesticides and, therefore, can also deter night frosts. Developed in Chile by Lazo TPC, the equipment produces wing jets at high speed with approximate temperatures of 130-140ºC, which strengthen the plant’s self-defence system, resulting in grapes of better quality with double the resveratrol (a natural anti-oxidant) content.

The Lidio Carraro Vinicola Boutique (above) was established in 1998 when the fifth generation of the Carraro family, winemakers from Northern Italy, established new vineyards in Vale dos Vihedos and Encruzilada do Sul and produced their first own-label wines in 2002. Previously, like many of the immigrant families of that time, they had sold their grapes to other wineries.

Patricia Carraro (pictured) says the winery was the first in Brazil to integrate grape growing and enology management – from the study of clones and soil mapping to the receipt of grapes by gravity and the making of complex, structured and balanced wines without the use of wood. “We concentrate on getting the right variety in the right soils because we don’t want to be making corrections in the winemaking. We have natural acidity and natural balance that comes from the terroir. We also work in partnership with Geisse to find sustainable solutions by finding the best clones for naturally healthier vines along with the use of the Lazo TPC system.” The wines have won many awards and are exported to more than 18 countries, mainly in Europe but also the US and Canada.

The Pizzato family, once again descendants of grape growing immigrants from Northern Italy, started with the planting of 26 hectares in Vale dos Vinhedos, in 1968 followed by 16 hectares at Dois Lajeados in 1982. The Pizzato Vinhas e Vinhos winery was completed in 1999 and the first Pizzato-branded wines reached the Brazilian market in September 2000. Exports to the US, Canada, Europe and China began in May 2005 when the winery joined the Wines of Brasil project.

They have two key brands: Pizzato, produced primarily from grapes planted in Vale dos Vinhedos, and Fausto, an entry-level wine from Dois Lajeados vineyards. Plinio Pizzato (above) is charge of the vineyards and his brother Flavio is winemaker. Flavio’s wife Giovanna is a brilliant chef and creates the most wonderful food and wine pairing menus showcasing the best of Italian and Brazilian cuisine.

Production last year was 150,000 bottles (12,000 cases), 18% of which was exported. Sparkling wine production only started in 2006 and 42,000 bottles are expected from this year’s harvest. So far, only about 20% of the sparkling wine is exported.

Two brothers, descendants of Italian immigrants and generations of winemakers, Clóvis Roberto Boscato (above), enologist, and Valmor João Boscato, grape grower, founded the Boscato winery in 1983. Their aim is to make quality not quantity: “We do not want to be bigger, just better.” Small but perfect.

All the equipment is Italian and state-of-the-art, including a Velo Agita Scarica (the only horizontal grape press in Brazil), reverse osmosis technology, the Juclas beverage system for tartaric correction, a humidity and temperature controlled storage unit for corks (Amorim), and an impressively equipped laboratory. The winery also boasts one of the best tasting rooms in the world. And the technology doesn’t stop at the winery, the vineyards are also equipped with drip irrigation plus a weather station, which conveys information 24 hours a day to a computer in the winery via satellite and probes (pictured). “Quality is not just because of the terroir but also the man and management of the vineyard.”

This meticulous attention to detail and perfection is paying dividends in terms of quality.  The result is intense but elegant wines full of fruit and body, a good balance of tannins and acidity, and great length.

The Don Guerino winery (above) in Alto Feliz was bought by the Motter family in 2001 and is named after their grandfather, an Italian immigrant. Bruno Mottler, who has qualified as an enologist, and his father who has been in wine for many years, look after the technical side of the business while his brother and mother deal with the commercial side.  They planted 50 hectares in 2002 and aim to plant a further 2 hectares every year until all 60 hectares of their plot is under vine. Next to the vineyards, the construction of a modern winery – architecturally designed to incorporate, with wine tourism in mind, viewing galleries the length of the building– was completed in 2007.

This is a very well set up winery. The owners clearly know what they are doing; they have a clear vision and are already ready for export. They have a line of perfectly well made, well-balanced wines – red, white, rosé and sparkling – that are consistent in quality and style, with good structure and good colour.

Alto Feliz at just 500m has its own microclimate. The wind is constant and the soil is clay that is rich in organic matter. Production is presently running at half the capacity of the winery, at just 400,000 litres, and half of that is sparkling - on which they are putting an increasing focus. Ninety percent of the sparkling production is by the Charmat method, because this what the young wine drinkers in Brazil are looking for.  Only about 3,000 bottles a year are currently made by the traditional method and comprise 70% Chardonnay/30% Prosecco grapes, and no oak.

1 December 2012 - Felicity Murray