If your only reason to go to Brazil is to play on white sandy beaches and drink caipirinhas, think again. Instead consider heading further south to the Brazilian wine region of Serra Gaucha, about 375 miles north of the Uruguay border in a cool hilly region that looks like Northern Italy. Indeed this region was settled by immigrants from the Veneto and Trentadoc regions of Northern Italy in the 1880’s, and, of course, they planted grapes and made wine. This region of Brazil also has many excellent Italian restaurants, as well as Brazilian steakhouses to celebrate the fact that this is indeed gaucho, or Brazilian cowboy country.
Recently I was invited to visit the Serra Gaucha region for a week by Wines of Brazil, where I toured a variety of wineries and tasted over 140 wines. While there I learned some fun, and rather amazing, facts about Brazilian Wine:
- 1500’s – Portuguese: Wine grapes were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, but didn’t thrive very well because of the humid climate of Rio de Janeiro. Therefore, they later imported Vitis Labrusca grapes from the Azores, which were resistant to fungus, and used these to make table wine.
- 50% Grape Juice: Because of the large number of labrusca vineyards, 50% of the harvest in Brazil is used for grape juice production, which is made in a very natural fashion with no sugar added.
- 1880’s – Italians: It wasn’t until the 1880’s that northern Italian immigrants settled in the cool southern part of Brazil in the Serra Gaucha region that vitis vinifera grapes were planted again to make quality wine.
- Sparkling Wine is King: Due to the cool climate, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes thrive, and they produce some delicious sparkling wines using the Méthode Champenoise as well as the charmant method. Sparkling wine comprises 80% of the Brazilian wine market.
- Moscato: Brazilians also enjoy sweet wine, so they make semi-sweet and sweet sparkling Moscato, as well as still and dessert wines with this fragrant grape.
- Experimenting with Red Grapes: Now other regions of Brazil are beginning to make wine and experiment with red grapes. Highlights include Merlot, Marselan, and Cabernet Franc in the south, and Syrah and Grenache in the warmer north. There are also many types of Italian red grapes used to produce Brazilian wine, such as Teroldego and Ancellotta.
- Six Major Wine Regions: Today there are five new wine regions in addition to Serra Gaucha. They are Campanha and Serra Do Sudeste further south, and Planalto Catarinese and Campos de Cima de Serra a little further north. Vale do Sao Francisco is in the far north near the equator, where they actually have two harvests per year because it is so warm.
- One DO and Four GI’s: Brazil is adopting the European quality system of appellations, and has recognized one DO (Domination of Origin) region called Vale dos Vinhedos. This is where the many of the original Italian immigrants settled, near the town of Bento Goncalves. There are four GI’s (Geographical Indicator) surrounding the DO: Pinto Bandeira, Monte Belo, Farroupilha and Altos Montes.
- 1100 Wineries and 79,000 Hectares: Today Brazil has over 1100 wineries, many of which are small family domains. Total vineyard acreage is around 195,000 or 79,000 hectares of grapes.
- Fresh, Fruity and Fun: Brazilian wines are produced with a focus on showcasing the fruit and not using too much oak. The wines are also very fresh with higher acidity and lower alcohol – more similar to Northern Italian styles. Due to the sparkling wine emphasis, Brazilian wines are used to celebrate and have fun in life – -just like the Brazilian culture.
Getting to Brazilian Wine Country in Serra Gaucha
The major airport in the Serra Gaucha wine region is Porte Alegre (POA). There are several connecting flights each day from the large international airports of Rio de Janeiro or San Paulo. I arrived into Rio on Delta Airlines, and then took their partner airline, GOL, to Porte Alegre – an easy two hour flight. Once in Porte Alegre it is necessary to rent a car or book a driver to take you to Bento Gonçalves, the main city in the Serra Gaucha wine region. It actually has a welcome wine barrel arch, and has several tasting rooms in the downtown area, including Aurora Winery, which is the largest in Brazil. Bento Gonçalves is a small city of around 100,000 people with good restaurants, friendly people, and wineries and vineyards all around it. The town was named after a Brazilian military leader who was much loved in the south of Brazil.
Hotels and Restaurants in Bento Goncalves
A quick check on TripAdvisor will show you a list of over 30 hotels, B&B and specialty lodging in the area. I stayed about 15 minutes outside the town in the very fancy yet affordable, Hotel & Spa do Vinho (see photo above). It has excellent service, is incredibly beautiful, and has a good restaurant and spa. It is also situated in the middle of the vineyards and is across the street from two famous wineries – Miolo and Lidio Carraro. This is a prime location to visit wineries, because the hotel is situated in the Vale dos Vinhedos, which means Valley of Vineyards. It is the first and only DO appellation in Brazil, and is surrounded by some of the oldest and most prestigious wineries.
In terms of restaurants, I was able to enjoy four local restaurants, and they were all excellent:
Ipiranga Steakhouse – classic Brazilian steakhouse in casual setting with great wine displays on the walls. Open kitchen allowing you to see the meat on the grill – fascinating. The meal begins with fresh green salad (I loved the salads in Brazil) and the “can’t stop eating” cheese bread balls, which are a local specialty. Then non-stop skewers of meat are presented at the table by professional servers, with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and even whole stakes of filet mignon (see photo below). We enjoyed the meal with a nice bottle of Casa Valduga Merlot, and dessert was a small glass of sweet sparkling muscato wine called Cave Amadeu from Family Geisse Winery.
Mamma Gemma Restaurant – a very elegant Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and a beautiful view of a lake outside the large picture windows. Excellent Italian dishes arrive non-stop at the table until you cannot move. We had the complete menu which includes a fresh green salad (see photo below) several different pasta dishes, along with chicken, beef, fish, Brazilian cheese bread, and grape ice cream dessert with a small cup of chocolate fudge called Brigadeiro (see photo below).
Casa Di Paolo Restaurant – a casual local chain restaurant with simple décor and friendly service. It focuses on Brazilian-Italian fare with non-stop pasta and meat plates arriving at the table, along with fresh salad and breads. They also serve the delicious pasta soup, which is a specialty of the region (see photo below). We enjoyed lunch with wines from Goes Winery.
Valle Rustico Restaurant – this restaurant is a gourmand’s dream with artistically arranged small plates of very fresh, local, organic ingredients. The staff provides an explanation of each plate when they bring it to your table, and describe the many unique vegetables and spices that are used in the dishes. Several include heirloom foods, such as an ancient corn, that they are trying to preserve. The décor is actually rather casual, set in an old farmhouse with wooden beams, antiques, and pottery plates, but the service and food is of Michelin star quality. Truly a unique restaurant, focusing on local Brazilian cuisine – not to be missed. We enjoyed the meal with wines from Don Guerino Winery.
Local Wineries to Visit
During the 5 days I stayed in Bento Goncalves, I visited 9 wineries, listed below. Each of these visits will be described in separate posts on this blog. Driving distance from my hotel ranged from 2 minutes to 45 minutes to arrive at the winery tasting rooms. All of my visits were organized as part of a business trip by Wines of Brazil. There are many other local wineries near-by with friendly signs stating they are open for tourists to drop in and taste delicious Brazilian wines.
- Cave Geisse Winery
- Pizzato Winery
- Casa Valduga Winery
- Miolo Winery
- Lidio Carraro Winery
- Salton Winery
- Casa Perini Winery
- Aurora Winery
- Luiz Argenta Winery (with great restaurant!)
I have to admit that one of the best parts of visiting Brazilian wine country was getting a chance to taste some many delicious sparkling wines – their icon wine product. I lost count of the number of times each day that we toasted to one another with a glass of Brazilian bubbles! Brazil truly is the land of fun and celebration – and their sparkling wine is a great testament to this.