(June 2018) We arrived at Cave Geisse in the late morning, when the fog was just beginning to lift from the long green rows of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. Nestled in the Serra Gaucha wine region of southern Brazil, Cave Geisse is one of the oldest and most prestigious sparkling wine producers, with a cellar full of vintage sparkling wines made in the Champenoise method. The winery and it surrounding vineyards are ideally located in the Pinto Banderia GI, which is a cool climate area dedicated to sparkling wine production. It is also an area rich in bird life, as I was soon to discover.
We were met by winemaker, Carlos Abarzua and his son Felipe, Export Manager. Originally from Chile, Carlos relocated to Brazilian wine country in the 1970’s, along with winery partner, Mario Geisse. They established Cave Geisse in 1976, after working several years for Domaine Chandon producing sparkling charmant in Brazil.
A Tour of the Vineyard with Burrowing Owls
Since the vineyard is the source of all high-quality wine, Carlos invited us to jump into his four-wheel drive SUV and we set off driving along a bumpy dirt road into the vineyards. Because June is winter time in Brazil, the vines were bare of leaves and stretched out in long perfect rows, attached to a VSP trellis system with verdant green grass growing beneath. As he drove, Carlos explained that the estate was 70 hectares, with 25 hectares of vineyards, situated at 800 meters above sea level (2400 feet). They produce around 300,000 bottles per year, with 50% as vintage wine. The soil is primarily loam on top with basalt bedrock.
Carlos parking the SUV on top of a hill, and invited us to climb the stairs of a wooden platform with a great view of the vineyards. As we approached, I was delighted to see a tiny round burrowing owl sitting on the ground next to his hole. He must have been accustomed to visitors because he continued to stare up at us with round yellow eyes, even after we had climbed to the top of the platform (see photo above). Like many vineyards around the world, wildlife was abundant, and we also saw many pairs of what the Brazilians referred to as “caro-caro,” birds.
Felipe described how they have reduced chemicals in the vineyard by 70%, but explained that it is very difficult to be 100% organic due to the cool wet climate with mildew issues. Therefore they are practicing sustainability, but not seeking certification at this time. Vines are trained at 1 meter x 2 meters, with around 4500 per hectare in density. The oldest vines are 15 years old, and they generally pruned in September (early Spring in Brazil).
Winemaking at Cave Geisse – 100% Hand-Riddling
Back at the winery, we went on a brief tour beginning with the grape sorting area. Carlos explained that they pick the grapes in January at around 19 brix to insure high natural acid for method Champenoise production. The chardonnay grapes go to a vacuum press, whereas the pinot noir grapes are pressed in a basket press. Sixty percent of the juice is transferred to stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation using selected yeast. Next the wine is transferred to bottle for second fermentation, with sugar and yeast added for autolysis. Carlos said they age anywhere from three to fourteen years. “We have studied the wines,” he said, “and we see the best evolution after 14 years in the bottle.”
During the tour we passed by a large hall of bottles in riddling racks, and I was very impressed to learn that every bottle is hand-riddled. This prompted me to ask about human resource policies, and Felipe proudly explained that their workers are all on a monthly salary (around $800 US), with houses provided in the vineyard. Health care is funded by the government, and there is a program in place that encourages workers to return to the land, rather than live in cities. “We have strong unions in Brazil,” Felipe explained, “so we focus on treating our employees very well.”
Tasting the Sparkling Wines of Cave Geisse
The tasting at Cave Geisse was very elegant, with seven bottles of sparkling wine. I was impressed with the high acid, elegance, and hint of minerality in all of the wines. We mainly tasted vintage bubbles, but I also requested to taste their 2nd label, Cave Amadea, which is non-vintage and a little fruit-forward. My favorites of the tasting were:
- Cave Geisse Blanc de Blanc 2015 – a bigger bodied wine with toasty bread notes, green apple, and crisp acidity. 100% chardonnay, 8.5 gpl dosage, aged 3 years on the lees.
- Cave Geisse Terre Natural 2014 – a zero dosage wine with brioche, lemon, and a very creamy palate with long finish. Crafted from their oldest vineyard – 15 years of age. 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay. Aged 4 years in bottle. Just released.
- Cave Geisse Terre Rose Brut 2014 – toasty cherry notes with a hint of bitter cherry on finish. Complex with high acid – delicious. 100% pinot noir with some skin contact to achieve color (not added later).
- Cave Amadea Brut Rose NV – a cheerful sparkler with notes of strawberry and citrus. Light, refreshing, and delicious. A perfect beach bubbly for Brazil.
Do Cave Geisse Wines Age? The Answer is Yes
Later in the week, Diego Bertolini, with Wines of Brazil, shared a magnificent magnum of the 2002 vintage of Case Geisse Brut as part of a dinner celebration at Valle Rustico Restaurant. We all enjoyed the complex nutty notes, as well as honey, pear, citrus and minerality that shimmered in the wine. The mousse was very silky on the palate, with thousands of tiny bubbles, and the wine had a long elegant finish. It also paired well with the cuisine of Brazil – in this case a dish made from a special local vegetable that reminded me of zucchini. All in all, it answered the question of “can Brazilian sparkling wines age?” The answer in the case of Cave Geisse Brut 2002 was a definite “yes.”