(June 2018) It was a bright sunny morning when I visited Casa Valduga in the Serra Gaucha wine region of Southern Brazil. Elisa Walker, Export Coordinator, met us at the front door with a large smile, gesturing for us to enter the spacious tasting room and retail shop. Immediately I was reminded of Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, not only for the large size of place with countless different types of wines for sale, along with grape-based cosmetics, glasses, and souvenirs, but because the winery was the first in the region to focus on tourism – just like Robert Mondavi’s vision to welcome tourists to Napa Valley. Today Casa Valduga remains one of the most popular wine tourist destinations in Brazil, with more than 150,000 visitors each year.
About Casa Valduga – Transitioning Thru the Generations
In 1875 the Valduga family emigrated from northern Italy to southern Brazil, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Luis Valduga had a dream to start a winery. At that time he primarily planted vitis lambrusca grapes, such as concord, that grew well in the cool climate. But as his sons grew older, they had a desire to make fine wine from classic vitis vinifera grapes. So they encouraged Luis to go on a long vacation, and while he was gone, they tore out most of the old vineyards and replanted with classic grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and other varieties that were beginning to perform well in the region. When Luis returned from vacation, he was surprised about the changes, but agreed to help his sons transition the business by also investing in new technology and equipment for the winery. However, Luis continued to make concord wines for his own enjoyment.
Today Casa Valduga is still family operated with 240 hectares of vineyards, producing over 2 million liters of wine each year with 120 employees. They focus on producing sparkling wines made in the method Champenoise, and have the largest sparkling wine cellar in Brazil, with more than 6 million bottles – all hand-riddled! In addition, they also make still wines, with an emphasis on cool-climate Merlot and Chardonnay. Casa Valduga practices sustainable winegrowing, and their wines have won numerous awards at competitions around the world. Currently they export about 8% of their wine, sell 10% direct to consumer (including via a wine club), and the remainder through distribution.
A Wine So Rare That Thieves Crave It
After describing the history of the estate, Elisa took us on a tour of the riddling cellar. It was massive, and very impressive. Probably most impressive was a single large magnum of red wine, called Luis Valduga, which was deep in the cellar and spotlighted on its own special pedestal.
“This is a very special bottle of wine that we only produce in certain exceptional vintages,” Elisa explained. “It is very limited production and not for sale. Sadly, this year I took one bottle to ProWein to share on the last day of the event, but it was stolen and not recovered. People were very disappointed that they could not taste it.”
This rare Luis Valduga wine has a partner wine called Maria Valduga, name for Luis’s wife. While Luis is a complex red blend, Maria is a sparkling wine that is aged for 48 months on the lees made from a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir from a special section in the vineyard. Maria Valduga is for sale in limited quantities, and is considered to be the top cuvee of the estate, priced around $55 in Brazil, but much more on the export market (see bottle below as first in sparkling wine line-up).
Eight Categories of Casa Valduga Sparkling Wine
Casa Valduga produces a broad range of sparkling wines designed to match all consumer needs, ranging from sweet to semi-sweet and kosher wines, to sur lie and natural wines. There is something for everyone to enjoy.
Tourists Assist in Developing Innovative Sur Lie Sparkling Wine
As we wandered through the massive sparkling wine cellars of Casa Valduga we came across a very unique bottling line (see below). It was a woman who was dipping bottles of sparkling wine with a crown cap into hot black wax. When I asked what the woman was doing, Elisa responded:
“That is our new Sur Lie sparkling wine that is made in a very natural fashion where we do not disgorge and add dosage like regular method Champenoise sparkling wine. Since it doesn’t receive a cork and cage, we dip it in black wax to make the final package look attractive.”
I watched in fascination, and then asked how they had decided to make this special type of sparkling wine.
“It actually came about by accident,” explained Elisa. “During the visits of tourists in our sparkling wine cellar, we provided a different tasting experience by opening a bottle of sparkling wine still in process of remuage. We noticed that they greatly appreciated the product which motivated us to launch this sparkling wine.” Thus Casa Valduga Sur Lie wine was born.
“It’s such a fun wine to drink,” stated Elisa, “because the more you drink from the bottle, the cloudier the wine gets. Customers really love this aspect.”
Make Your Own Sparkling Wine
Casa Valduga also offers a unique “Blend Your Own Sparkling Wine Workshop.” Tourists who sign up for the workshop taste different cuts of the base wine as well as dosage levels from dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Then they get to learn how sparkling wine is disgorged, and are allowed to taste the wine without any dosage. Later the dosage they selected is added, the bottles are corked with wire cage, a personalized label is applied, and each couple is shipped 30 bottles of the wine they made.
Casa Valduga Restaurant, Weddings, and Beautiful Vineyards
As we came to the end of the sparkling wine cellar, Elisa asked if we wanted to see the vineyards. I nodded with enthusiasm and we exited the cellar through a beautiful wrought-iron gate with views of the vineyard and roses beyond. Chardonnay and pinot noir vines wove their way up the hillsides as far as the eye could see. It was a truly mesmerizing view.
As we continued through the expensive grounds of the winery, Elisa pointed out locations where they held weddings and other events for visitors, as well as small houses and apartments that could be booked to stay overnight. Eventually we ended at a charming restaurant with flowered tablecloths and rose bouquets. A range of wines and crystal wine glasses were set-up on a table for our private tasting.
“We opened the restaurant a number of years ago,” said Elisa, “because we had many tourists who came from far away. After wine tasting they were often hungry, and then some wanted to stay overnight. In the beginning Maria Valduga would invite them home to eat her Italian-Brazilian meals, but now we serve them at the restaurant, and people can stay overnight in our guesthouses.”
A Tasting of Casa Valduga Wines
When we sat down to taste some of the wines of Casa Valduga, we were joined by two winemakers (they have six in total), who were able to explain viticulture and enology practices. We tasted ten wines, and some of my favorites were:
- Casa Valduga Sur Lies 2015 – ripe yellow apple nose, bright citrus, full bodied with persistent bubbles. Fun and approachable bubbly. Aged three years on lees. 89 points.
- Casa Valduga Blush RSV 2015 – complex earth and dried cherry notes with touch of minerality and clean fresh finish. Beautiful rose pink color with creamy mouthfeel. “Like yogurt for breakfast,” was a quote from Elisa. 50% pinot noir and 50% chardonnay. Aged 25 months on lees. 91 points.
- Casa Valduga Viognier 2018 – extremely aromatic with honey, peach and apricot blossom, yet bone dry with very high acidity on palate. My favorite type of viognier – extremely sensual and pleasing, but with the surprising shock of a dry finish. 92 points
- Casa Valduga Chardonnay Leopolinda 2017 – pale golden color with nose of chalk and lemon, hint of oatmeal on the creamy palate. Extremely long, complex and elegant. Seemed very much like a high-quality Meursault from Burgundy. 94 points
- Casa Valduga Storia Merlot 2012 – opaque red/black color with blue plum and cassis, spice notes of anise and cola. Very concentrated with well integrated French oak, fine-grained tannins and crisp acidity on the very long finish. Only made in top vintages. Truly exceptional. 95 points