Brazil, in fact, is presently the fifth largest producer of wines in the Southern Hemisphere--after Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and Chile. Yes, even larger than New Zealand, whose wines have been well-known in the U.S. now for about 15 years.
Brazil has been a sleeping giant when it comes to wine. It has the fifth-largest population in the world, with nearly 200 million people, and is the world's fifth-largest country in area--almost the size of the U.S. Brazil now has a thriving middle class, and interest in wine has been developing there within the last two decades.
Two interesting facts about Brazilian wines:
• Almost all (90%) of its wines are produced in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state, bordering Uruguay (which also produces wine);
• Just about every winery, at least in Rio Grande do Sul, was founded by Italian immigrants, almost all of whom arrived in Brazil between 1875 and 1900. And, in fact, just about all of these families came from only two regions in Northern Italy, the Veneto and Trentino.
Rio Grande do Sul has a temperate climate, with four distinct seasons; winters are marked by rain and even snow; in summer, the temperature is mainly in the 80s. Italian immigrants, mainly poor farmers, lured by the prospect of buying their own land, settled in the mountains around the town of Bento Gonçalves, and planted grapes as well as grains, exactly what they had been doing in Italy.
But there really had been no market for wine in Brazil in the last century, traditionally not a big wine-drinking country. Moreover, the Brazilian government has not helped, still taxing wine sales today in its own country as high as 50%. Fortunately, the taxation does not apply to exports, and so we can find Brazilian wines at reasonable prices in the U.S.
Almost all of the wineries in Rio Grande do Sul started in the late 1980s and early 1990s; they were founded by third- and fourth-generation members of the original Italian immigrant families. One huge Cooperative, Cooperativa Vinicola Aurora (simply known as Aurora), and two large wineries, Salton and Miolo, dominate the domestic and export market, although at least 18 wineries are now exporting their wines around the world. The largest import markets for Brazilian wines are the United States, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Holland, with Canada and Singapore rapidly growing.
Brazilian wines had an unlikely Brazilian brand name--Marcus James! A little touch of Roman and Anglo-Saxon perhaps, for our market. Frankly, I was not impressed with the Marcus James wines. Little did I know at the time that Marcus James wines were an inexpensive line made by the aforementioned Aurora Co-op. Marcus James wines can still be found in the U.S., but the Co-op's best wines are marketed with the Aurora brand name.
In fact, during my recent visit to Aurora, I was not offered any Marcus James wines--only Aurora-branded wines.
I just returned from a visit to the Brazilian wine region, located around the thriving town of Bento Gonçalves--really a city of 100,000 people, with its inhabitants enjoying the second-highest per capita income rate in all of Brazil. Outside of Bento Gonçalves and Garibaldi (a nearby, smaller wine town) is a splendid new hotel, Villa Europa, across the road from the Miolo Winery, and at least partially owned by Miolo. I visited eight wineries and tasted wines from at least another eight wineries; many of the wineries and vineyards are located in the appropriately named Vale dos Vinhedos, making it easy to travel from one winery to the other.
Brazil's fine table wines are primarily made from the same European varieties that we are familiar with: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the big players among the red wines, Chardonnay the main white variety. What I particularly liked, however, was the huge range of varieties that are being utilized in Brazilian wines. For example, Tannat, a fairly obscure red variety from southwest France, is thriving in Brazil and neighboring Uruguay. In France, Tannat lives up to its name; it is a very dark-colored, very tannic, astringent variety that is used mainly as part of a blended wine. Brazilian terroir, however, has tamed the harsh Tannat quite a bit; it tastes fruitier, and is fine as a straight Brazilian varietal wine--although it is usually blended in with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot .
In addition to Tannat, probably the two red Brazilian varietal wines that I enjoyed the most were Cabernet Franc and Teroldego. Generally, I found that those wineries which produced Cabernet Franc wines, such as Casa Valduga, often did better with this variety than any other. Casa Valduga's Cabernet Franc, for example, was intensely flavored, with great structure. Perhaps the fact that Cabernet Franc needs less time to ripen than other varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, is a plus for it in the Brazilian climate.
Teroldego is the principal red variety in the Trento region of Italy's Trentino-Alto Adige region, and a few Brazilian wineries produce it as a varietal wine. I loved every Brazilian Teroldego that I tasted; just like Tannat, Brazil's version of Teroldego is less tannic with more appealing fruit than the more forbidding Italian Teroldego wines.
Other red Brazilian varietal wines that I tasted included Tempranillo (good), Pinot Noir (just okay), Syrah/Shiraz, Barbera, Gamay, Malbec, Ancellota (an obscure Italian variety from Emilia-Romagna and Switzerland), Marselan (a new Mediterranean French variety made from crossing Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache), and Nebbiolo (just one, from Lidio Carraro Winery, which was quite good, with true Nebbiolo character!).
Most Brazilian wineries make far more red wines than white (with just a little rosé), but some of the white wines I tasted were very good. In general, its Chardonnays are competent, but not spectacular. I preferred its Sauvignon Blancs (I don't think that Brazil's climate is cool enough for outstanding Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs). I did enjoy Miolo's Pinot Grigio and Viognier, and Casa Valduga's Gewurztraminer was particularly fine.
Most of the wineries whose wines I tasted do export their wines into the U.S., but often in limited markets. For example, one small winery told me its wines are in Colorado. The Miami area is a good market for Brazilian wines, as it is for all South American wines. The two Brazilian wineries which seem to have the largest distribution throughout the U.S. are two of the largest and the best: Salton and Miolo. Salton, which produces 20 million bottles a year, is Brazil's largest privately owned winery. Look for Salton's Family Reserve wines, especially its 'Volpi' line. Miolo, which has a magnificent new winery, produces seven million bottles a year. I found all of Miolo's wines first-rate.
Three other wineries that impressed me: Casa Valduga (run by the three Valduga brothers, who rate an 'A' for their warm Italian-style hospitality); Lidio Carraro, a rather amazing, smaller winery which ages all of its wines in stainless steel tanks--not an oak barrel in sight--and whose wines are of a very high caliber; and Aurora, whose Aurora brand wines all indeed impressive.
Other Brazilian wineries to look for include Pizzato, Panceri, Luiz Argenta, Perini, Courmayeur, and Don Laurindo.