More famous for sport than wine, Brazil nevertheless has a vine-growing heritage that is coming to the fore. Steven Spurrier explores the country's regions and top estates, and is intrigued by what he finds...

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The largest country in South America, Brazil is the fifth-largest wine producer in the southern hemisphere, behind Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Chile. Its vineyards cover an impressive 82,000 hectares, yet, while expanding significantly, only 10,000ha are planted to vitis vinifera. And although a certain volume of wine is exported, this accounts for only 10% of its output.

The country is more famous for sport than wine, and with the football World Cup this summer and the Olympics in 2016, producers are determined to take advantage. I feel their efforts won’t be in vain.

The regions

Serra Gaûcha: Known as ‘little Italy’ because the estates are mostly owned by third- and fourth- generation Italians, following an exodus from the Veneto at the end of the 19th century, this region accounts for almost 85% of Brazil’s fine-wine production. As such it will remain the focus of the country’s wines, even while the smaller regions are expanding. here, two hours north of the bustling city of Porto Alegre, is the country’s only Denominación Origen, Vale dos Vinhedos; and the recently created geographical Indication of Pinto Bandeira, famous for its traditional-method sparkling wines.

Vines are planted at 450-750 metres above sea level, and soils are varied, with a high proportion of basalt. summer temperatures average 22 ̊C, with mild nights that suit the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet sauvignon and widely planted Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as Tannat and Pinot Noir, for the reds; Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling and sauvignon Blanc for the whites; and Moscato and Malvasia for sweet and Charmat-method sparkling.

Campanha: Situated on the southern border with uruguay, the vines in ‘New horizons’ (as the region is known) are planted 200-450 metres above sea level on mainly granite and limestone soils. Temperatures are high, ripening grapes perfectly, and suit Cabernet sauvignon, Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo and, to a lesser extent, Merlot and Pinot Noir for red; and Chardonnay, sauvignon, Pinot gris and gewurztraminer for whites. Plantings of these and new varieties continue to increase.

Serra do Sudeste: A small region north of Campanha, south of serra gaûcha and nearer the ocean, with similar elevations, temperatures and soil. Cooling sea breezes bring complexity and balance, and have encouraged plantings of Ancelota, Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, gamay, Malbec, Marselan, Periquita, syrah, Teroldego and Touriga Nacional, alongside the classic reds, and adding Malvasia and Riesling to the whites.

Planalto Catarinense: To the north of serra gaûcha and known as ‘The highlands’, this is the newest, highest (at 900–1,400 metres) and coldest wine region in the country. so far, just Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir are planted for reds, and Chardonnay and sauvignon for whites, producing balanced wines with fresh acidity. Riesling will likely join them soon, with possibilities for ice wine.

Vale do São Francisco: Some 3,000 miles north of serra gaûcha lies ‘The New latitude’, the only one of the five regions where irrigation is necessary and where the sedimentary soils from the san Francisco river produce two harvests a year, the vines undergoing a 120- to 130-day cycle. Temperatures are high – 20 ̊C in winter and 31 ̊C in summer on average. Alicante Bouschet, syrah, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet sauvignon survive the heat, as do Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Malvasia and Moscato, the latter for a Charmat-method sparkler.

The wines

I first visited Brazil five years ago for a wine fair, and apart from some well-made wines from Salton and Miolo, the oldest and largest producers, and some very individual ones from Lidio Carraro, I was not overly impressed – it seemed worlds away from Argentina and Chile, even Tannat-dominated Uruguay. This year, on my first visit to the vineyards, I was both impressed by the present and excited for the future. The main producers, big and small, and mostly with European backgrounds, respect their vineyards, and the GTGT (grape-to-glass transfer, John Livingstone-Learmonth’s phrase for characterful wines) was not stymied by oak, alcohol nor over-ambitious winemaking.

Diversity was the key. Of course, these wines were all new to me, but the difference in taste and flavours, while avoiding excess of any kind, save for sweetness of the sparklers for the local palate, was a joy. There are some serious wines that will compete on the international scene, but what I was left with was an impression of varietal-vineyard wines, mostly fruit-dominated, with balance and charm to enhance any meal.

The climate, particularly in Serra Gaûcha, with its cooling sea breezes from the Atlantic, can suit French, northern Italian and northern Spanish grape varieties. Currently Merlot dominates the reds, but Malbec and Tannat are increasing, more in blends than on their own, as is Tempranillo. The cool nights suit Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter having a small but exciting future – for lovers of the world’s most capricious grape, Brazil will produce some great surprises. Perhaps its most ‘fun’ grape is Moscato (thanks to the Italian influence), of which many clones are planted for Charmat- method sparkling wines, mostly off-dry and so full of exuberance and fruit as to be irresistible.

Written by Steven Spurrier

Brazilian wine producers

Casa Valduga: Founded in 1973, this estate now owns 250ha across three regions. The traditional- method sparkling wines – a Chardonnay-dominated Brut 130 and a 2006 Brut Nature – are very good, and I found the Raizes Cabernet Franc 2010 from Campanha had all the crunchy fruit expected of it. (Exel Wines)

Cave Geisse: This is Brazil’s renowned producer of traditional-method sparklers solely from Pinto Bandeira. Its Brut Nature 2009 and Blanc de Noirs 2009 are in a class of their own and prove Brazil will become a major player in bubbles. (Go Brazil)

Domno: Under Casa Valduga ownership, Domno produces only Charmat-method sparkling wines, of which the Nero brand is the one to look for.

Dunamis: Founded in 2010 with a production of just 50,000 litres from 25ha in Serra Gaûcha, this is new-generation Brazil at its best, personified by the young winemaker Vinicius Cercato. His Cabernet Franc 2011 won a Sliver at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, and I’m surprised his 2011 Merlot did not. His 2011 Cop, a blend of the two Cabernets with 40% Merlot, is very smart.

Lidio Carraro: I cannot hide the fact that this winery, now in its fifth generation, is my favourite. It wishes to preserve the authenticity of variety and terroir and never uses oak, preferring that the wine speaks of the soil, not what it is aged in. From Serra do Sudeste comes its Dádivas brand with lovely sparklers, clear-fruited Chardonnay and really good Pinot Noir and Tempranillo. The Singular label shows expressive Nebbiolo and Teroldego, while the Elos and Lidio Carraro labels are top class. (Go Brazil)

Miolo: (pictured above) Giuseppe Miolo arrived in Vale dos Vinhedos in 1897, and invested all his savings in planting vines on a plot of land called Lote 43. Today, the CEO Adriano Miolo heads a company producing 12 million litres from four of the five wine regions, exporting 30%. On my visit he hosted a wide range of wines from Campanha. Designated in the 1940s by Dr Harold Olmo from the University of Davis, California, as one of South America’s most suitable region for viticulture, this is borne out by the 2,000ha now under vine. The Pinot Grigio 2012, Quinta do Seival Touriga Nacional/Tinto Roriz 2011 blend, and the Tannat 2012 from 38-year-old vines, stood out. In May, the Cuvée Giuseppe Chardonnay 2012, Merlot Terroir 2009 and Lote 43 Merlot/ Cabernet 2011 were very expressive, while the single-vineyard sparkling Millesime 2009 was elegance itself. (Bibendum)

Pizzato: The family’s first vines were planted in the Vale dos Vinhedos in 1875. Today, winemaker Flavio Pizzato, his brother and two sisters run this 42ha vineyard and winery. The Fausto label shows good, fresh varietal wines, while the Pizzato label provides reds with exceptional depth and clarity of fruit, especially the Concentus 2007. Its DNA99 Merlot 2005 was voted Brazil’s best red in 2011 by the country’s leading wine magazine. (Go Brazil)

Salton: Antonio Salton arrived in what is now Serra Gaûcha in 1878 and, in 1910, his son Paulo opened the first winery to be officially established in Brazil. Daniel Salton now runs a company whose own vineyards are bolstered by grapes from more than 700 contract growers. Brazil’s largest producer of Charmat- and traditional-method sparkling wine, Salton’s Prosecco and Moscato are fresh and fruity. Like all big wineries, Salton has several levels of quality: the first is Volpi, with good Chardonnay and Sauvignon; the next Intense, with splendid Cabernet Franc, Tannat and Teroldego; and above these Desejo, a 100% Merlot, and Talente, a Cabernet/Merlot/Tannat blend. (Legacy Wines)

ViniBrasil: Part of the Portuguese group Dão Sul, ViniBrasil produces two crops a year from its 200ha in Vale do São Francisco. Apart from some Charmat- method sparklers, all the still wines are bottled in Portugal under the Rio Sol label. (PLB)

Vinícola Aurora In 1931, 16 families of grape growers joined forces to create Vinícola Aurora, now the country’s largest producer with 42 million litres and 30% of the home market. It exports under two brands, Aurora and Brazilian Soul: both have a nice range of varietal wines, including a great Pinot Noir 2012, at just £8.99.(Stevens Garnier)

Meanwhile, don’t overlook Uruguay…

Known as ‘the boutique’ in South America, Uruguay has barely more than 8,000ha planted to vine (Argentina has 200,000ha). Most are in the south around Montevideo, the capital; and 25% is Tannat.

Tannat, introduced in Uruguay in around 1870 by Basque immigrants, is not an easy variety, especially for modern palates that are used to smooth, ripe tannins. Tannat heads in the other direction – it is harsher and has firm tannins and thick skins, characteristics that allow it to adapt in a country where humidity is a major issue (1,000mm of rain falls annually, and the influences of the Atlantic and River Plate add even more humidity).

Although international consultants, such as Alberto Antonini and Michel Rolland, have tried to tame Tannat’s astringency with longer ripening and new oak barrels, true Tannat is wild – the type that can stand up to the juicy, fatty beef cooked on a Uruguayan barbecue. Closer to 13% alcohol than the 15% that is more common in the New World, these reds need years in the bottle, though Tannat is often made with Beaujolais-style carbonic maceration to calm its astringency and turn it into something simple, young, vibrant and crisp. If you close your eyes, the winemaking is closer to traditional European than it is to the warm and lush styles more often seen around here.

Finally, there’s the soil. Most of the ‘grand cru’ of Tannat is found in the southern zone, where 90% of Uruguayan viticulture is concentrated, and where clay-lime soils lend a peculiar austerity. More than nose, what they offer is palate, with imposing structure made of cement with no more adornment than its firm, marble-hard bones. More ambitious Tannats come from soils with a higher percentage of lime among the clay. Wineries such as Carrau, Los Cerros de San Juan, Antigua Bodega Stagnari, Estancia Piedra and De Lucca exemplify this austere, potent and deep style that Tannat can reach when it’s not over-ripened.

If you like Baga from Bairrada, if you think Sagrantino from Montefalco deserves more attention than it already gets, if you are among those who believe that Pinot Noir is not as feminine as everybody thinks and that Nebbiolo’s value is related more to its structure than its adorable floral aromas, then you might be in for a surprise with Tannat from the rolling hills along the Uruguayan coast – one of the best-kept secrets of South American viticulture.

Steven Spurrier’s top 6 wines from Brazil

Cave Geisse Brut, Pinto Bandeira, Serra Gaucha 1998
18.5/20pts (95/100pts)
A 70% Chardonnay/30% Pinot Noir blend in magnum. Fine, full gold colour; bready, honeyed and rich on the nose; very rich and complex on the palate. Beautifully textured and mature.
Price: £35 Go Brazil
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 12.5%

Lidio Carraro, Grande Vindima Merlot, Encruzilhada do Sul 2005
18/20pts (93/100pts)
Fine deep red with mature rim, very Merlot/ Pomerol nose with cassis, spice and chocolate. Rich on the palate; full, fleshy yet elegant and firm. Very good indeed.
Price: £45 Go Brazil
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 14.2%

Pizzato DNA99, Vale dos Vinhedos 2008
18/20pts (93/100pts)
Superb black-purple-red, a nose of dark summer fruits and lovely natural richness on the palate. Oak blended to show voluptuous texture, and elegant tannins.
Price: £55 Go Brazil
Drink 2013–2018
Alc 13.8%

Lidio Carraro, Dádivas Pinot Noir, Encruzilhada do Sul 2012
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
Deep with purple rim, lovely black cherries, Pinot on the nose, lovely texture and fruit on the palate. Good energy and depth.
Price: £16 Go Brazil
Drink 2013–2018
Alc 14%

Miolo Sesmarias, Campanha 2008
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
A blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Tannat and Tempranillo aged for two years in new French oak and bottled without fining or filtration. Deep purple-red, great depth of fruit with spice, black chocolate and lots of grip. Tannins still there but the fruit dominates. Has a great future.
Price: POA Bibendum
Drink 2013–2018
Alc 14%

Casa Valduga Raizes Cabernet Franc, Campanha 2010

16.5/20pts (88/100pts)
Also from Campanha, this has a good deep colour, very good red-fruit nose and is crunchy and fresh on the palate. The oak (50% French, 50% American) is well blended in. Nicely extracted with some elegance.
Price: N/A UK
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 13.5%

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Brazilian wine producers
  3. 3. Meanwhile, don't overlook Uruguay...
  4. 4. Steven Spurrier's top 6 wines from Brazil
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