Take a journey to Serra Gaúcha, Brazil’s emerging destination for wine tourism.
Think of Brazil and your mind likely wanders toward Carnival and caipirinhas – not vineyards. Yet, for the past 25 years, a region in southern Brazil has quietly been flying under the radar as a centre for quality wine production – think California’s Napa Valley of the 1970s.
Flying into Porto Alegre in Brazil’s southernmost state Rio Grande del Sul, Serra Gaúcha is a short two-hour drive away, a rustic oasis in the middle of an otherwise industrial area (40% of Brazilian furniture is produced here). Comprised of five sub-regions and responsible for 80% of Brazilian wine production, the region’s main city, Bento Gonçalves, is also considered the country’s “wine capital.”
Despite receiving three million tourists last year, 95% are Brazilian and most production is consumed domestically. Yet, Brazil is starting to achieve international recognition for sparkling wines, as well as still reds (in particular Merlot). If you’d like to discover a world class wine region that’s still off the beaten path (for now), get there soon.
Though grapevines were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese as far back as the early 1530s, it wasn’t until Italian immigrants arrived in 1875 with their technical knowledge and culture of wine-drinking that commercial wine production really took hold. Open trade agreements within South America in the early 1990s saw an influx of high quality Argentinian and Chilean wines, prompting many producers to shift from cheap table wines to fine wine production. Today there are more than 1,000 wineries in Brazil and the first appellation, Vale dos Vinhedos in Serra Gaucha, was established in 2002.
Because of the tropical climate, Serra Gaúcha does well with sparkling grape varieties that benefit from early harvesting. In addition, expansion of vineyards to drier areas further south, including Serra do Sudeste and Campanha on the border with Uruguay, are contributing to the country’s increasing output of fine still wines. Brazilian wines are starting to find their place on the world wine map, balancing tradition with surprisingly modern winemaking and use of technology.
Brazil Wineries to Visit
The most accessible part of Serra Gaúcha is the Vale dos Vinhedos, immediately surrounding Bento Gonçalves, so base yourself around here to make the most of your stay. However, I started my visit with a drive out to Pinto Bandeira, another sub-region about 25 minutes’ drive from the city that is expected to become Brazil’s first appellation devoted entirely to sparkling wines.
Since 1980, Cave Geisse has been producing traditional method sparkling wines. When I arrived – without an appointment and lacking the necessary Portuguese language skills to communicate – I thought the drive may have been for naught, until I was introduced to oenologist Felipe Abarzúa. Felipe took me on a tour of the facility and led me through a tasting of six of Cave Geisse’s sparkling wines. The wines had a unique sense of place and were particularly refreshing in the Brazilian heat.
Back in the Vale dos Vinhedos, Miolo is the region’s largest producer of fine wines, with a history dating back to 1897. Here you can even make your own wine – Miolo offers a winemaking program for tourists, including management of your own vineyard row, label design and bottling (plus a stay at the nearby Hotel and Spa do Vinho, the region’s most luxurious accommodation). Sadly, I didn’t get to enjoy their Wine Garden, which is open only on weekends, and I’m told is the place to enjoy a glass of bubbles in the late afternoon.
Next door, the entire family is actively involved in operations at Lidio Carraro. With a focus on minimal intervention and intensive research into soil mapping, Lidio Carraro aims to have a “purist” expression. All of their wines are unoaked, and every plot is vinified separately. Even without oak their Tannat and Quorum, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tannat and Cabernet Franc, were quite complex and age-worthy.
It was raining when I arrived at Pizzato Vinhas e Vinhos which put a damper on sitting on their inviting patio overlooking the valley. Nevertheless, their wines were impressive, particularly their Concentus Gran Reserva, a blend of Merlot, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. Owner and winemaker Flavio Pizzato works only with estate-grown fruit and is known for making structured Merlots. Pizzato’s DNA Merlot is a single-vineyard wine released only in exceptional years.
Almaúnica looks like it has been plucked out of Napa, with a tree-lined drive leading up to a modern, clean winery. Relying on Google Translate, I went through one of their tasting options, the highlights of which were the sparkling Reserva Nature and almost Burgundian Reserva Chardonnay.
At Vinicola Salton winemaker Gregório Bircke Salton gave me a glimpse into the winery’s history via an impressive painted fresco on the property. Four out of ten sparkling wines sold in Brazil are produced by Salton. Like most of the wineries I visited on my trip, Salton also produces grape juice from native American grape varieties and recently released a line of grape teas, which I saw on the menu at the Hotel and Spa Do Vinho.
Casa Perini is located in the Valle Trentino in Farroupilha, another sub-region that specialises in Moscato production. Here you can do a bike tour on weekends, enjoy family recipes in the on-site tavern and take a tour from an expert: all tours are hosted by winemakers. Bárbara Ruppel, Export Manager, says that the culture in Serra Gaúcha is “very different than the rest of Brazil,” and it can take time to feel a part of it. However, by the time I’d reached Casa Perini, I’d already begun to feel like part of the Serra Gaúcha family.
Places to Eat
Serra Gaúcha is still new to tourism. Don’t come on a Sunday evening or Monday, or you’ll find most restaurants are closed like I did. In addition, I was surprised that it was nearly impossible to find wines by the glass, something I’d expect in a wine region.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to eat well here, where the cuisine is heavily influenced by the region’s Italian heritage. I had my first meal in the city of Bento Gonçalves at Canta Maria Gastronomia, where I was introduced to the typical way of eating: family-style servings of meat, fish, pasta and salad.
Pizza Entre Vinhos is said to have the best pizza in the region. If you have a hard time making a decision between so many delicious-sounding pizzas on the menu like I did, you can even order one that is half of one recipe and half of another. The same owners run Trattoria Mamma Gema upstairs, which offers pasta seated on a beautiful outdoor terrace.
Perhaps the best meal I had was one I almost didn’t. After a brief visit to Wines of Brazil, Promotion Manager Diego Bertolini directed me to Sapore + Piacere, a place of “simple” food founded by a local chef. A buffet of salads, cheeses and meats was followed by perhaps the most delicious risotto I have ever tasted. Once again, no one spoke English, but I’m certain licking my plate clean communicated how much I savoured the meal.
Everyone I spoke with about Serra Gaúcha told me you must try Valle Rustico, a farm-to-table restaurant operating under the slow food philosophy. Sadly, they were closed the entire time I was there, but it is at the top of my list for my next visit.
Also, don’t miss local chocolate shop Mondē. As soon as you step through the door you’ll be met with the most delightful scent of melted chocolate. Just don’t buy too much or you’ll end up with melted chocolate yourself the moment you step back out into the Serra Gaúcha heat.