We first arrived to Brazil about 10 months ago. I struggled to find a Brazilian wine I could tolerate. You see, I grew up in Northern California on the doorsteps of Napa Valley, and I consider myself a bit of a wine snob. I do not claim to be an expert on wine, but I do have my preferences. I usually prefer a good Pinot Noir or Syrah.
So, before our trip to Vale dos Vinhedos (Valley of the Vineyards) my expectations were already set low. It doesn’t help that I tried some horrific Colonial wine that tasted like grape juice. And the worst Pinot Noir I’ve ever had – both Brazilian wines. It seemed every time I bought a Brazilian Pinot Noir it was weak and not flavorful. I knew zilch about Brazilian wines! I am so thankful for our visit to Southern Brazil’s wine country because it opened my eyes to all my mistakes.
Vale dos Vinhedos lies in some amazingly beautiful countryside. Mountains, rolling hills, babbling brooks, and everything is bright green. It is located in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. This is the southernmost state in Brazil in the Serra Gaucho region. The Vale dos Vinhedos is next to the small city of Bento Gonçalves. This is a great jumping off point for what I soon found out to be some great wine tasting!
So here is what I learned in Vale dos Vinhedos. Brazil has approximately 700 wine producers and only about 40 of them export wine regularly. So Brazilian wines are not famous world over, in fact I’ve never tried one until moving to Brazil. I had no idea that Brazil had a long history of wine making. I was amazed to learn that the first grapes were reportedly brought to Brazil in 1532 by the Portuguese. And later it was the Italian immigrants who settled in Brazil in the mid 1800’s that made Brazilian wine what it is today.
Brazil is famous for sparkling white wines. You see, I’m a fan of the reds. I do enjoy a nice sparkling wine at family get-togethers – a little too much one New Year’s Eve (sorry in-laws!). Brazil didn’t get serious about producing quality red wines until after Brazil opened up the market to imports of wine from other countries. Leave it to a little competition to improve the quality of the reds!
Most of the wine producers are located in the Serra Gaucho region. This region is in the far south of Brazil. The climate in the winter months is damp and chilly. The difference in soil and climatic conditions produce a different taste. This gives the regions’ wines an aromatic characteristic with a good fruit and acidic balance. Yet you cannot compare the same types of wine from this region with the wines of Napa Valley. This was the mistake I made when I first tried a Brazilian Pinot Noir. The tastes are distinct! The Brazilian Pinot Noir is not as bold as the Pinot Noir’s of Napa Valley. In fact to me, the Brazilian taste like a watered down version and I am not fond of it at all! But that is my opinion; a lot of people love this wine.
In addition, Merlot has never been my favorite of the reds. I loathe merlot, even in Napa Valley. I bought a bottle of the best tasting Merlot I’ve had. It was a Brazilian Merlot in Vale dos Vinhedos. And guess what, I’m drinking Merlot now! Dale and I had to celebrate it by quoting the movie Sideways several times, “If anyone orders Merlot I’m leaving. I am not drinking f’ing merlot”.
I’m not a big drinker of Cabernet Sauvignon. But I learned in the Valle dos Vinhedos, Brazil produce some excellent Cabs! In fact, if selecting a Brazilian red, your best bet is to go with a good Cab. I would recommend Casa Valduga Gran Reserva.
So other than the soil, climate, and flavors of the wines, Napa Valley and Vale dos Vinhedos have several other differences. For example, when touring Napa Valley, you need several days. Napa Valley is spread out and it takes some time to explore, whereas Vale dos Vinhedos is a smaller area with more wineries packed in together.
My opinion is Vale dos Vinhedos makes for a more fun day or two of wine drinking. You can easily drive from one winery to the next, and go to several in just one day. Be warned though, the attendants give big pours and will allow you to taste as many wines as you like. In fact they encourage you to taste everything. You may want to find a driver whom isn’t tasting wine! When Dale declined a tasting because he was driving our tasting room attendant informed him that the police do not monitor the Vale dos Vinhedos. He told us we shouldn’t worry. He said if people were arrested for drunk driving here, the industry would suffer. The next day when driving through the valley we saw a police car waiting to pounce on drunk drivers! Don’t believe anyone who tells you the police do not track this area! The last thing anyone wants on vacation is to end up in a Brazilian jail. There is a zero tolerance law for drinking and driving in Brazil.
Back to the big pours. The wineries usually aren’t very stingy with the samples. While it is great, some of the wines I did not like. I didn’t want to be rude by dumping them out. This resulted in me getting a little tipsy by the end of the evening. Dale and I returned home with about 10 bottles of wine. You see, the more buzzed you get, the more wine you feel compelled to purchase. I’m not complaining though because I love wine!
Also, what makes Vale dos Vinhedos stand out is that the area has such a strong Italian presence. There are so many wonderful Italian restaurants in the area. Not to mention the Colonials. They are houses in Brazil that sell colonial products such as cheese, jam, olive oil, salami, ham, wine, etc. The colonial restaurants serve delicious meals that include many types of food and cakes. This place is a foodie paradise.
Now back to the wineries. Here are my top 3 wineries we explored in Valle dos Vinhedos.
My favorite was, not shocking, Casa Valduga. It’s not shocking because Casa Valduga is the most well-known winery in Brazil and for good reason. They produce some excellent wines. The property is amazing. The guests are allowed to walk through the vineyards and take photographs. They have two restaurants and a hotel on the property. We had an awesome time wine tasting at Casa Valduga. Our attendant spoke almost perfect English. He also spoke Portuguese with us so we could get some practice in. He did an excellent job explaining the different wines and recommended several for us to try. And thanks to this gentleman, I discovered I actually like brandy. Ah that delicious burn as it goes down!
Casa Valduga also claims to be the oldest winery in that region. They were founded by an Italian family in 1875. Six generations have worked at Casa Valduga. Our favorite wines were the 130 Brut-Sparkling wine, the 2008 Heitor Villa-Lobos Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2009 Gran Identidade.
My second favorite winery is a small wine boutique called Lidio Carraro Vinicola Boutique. The winery is based out of the family’s home. If you are in the region they are right next door to Miolo-you will see Miolo, it is a giant winery. We were given an excellent tour. We learned about what sets this winery apart from the rest. You see they are purists. They use innovative methods to produce wine and to maintain the purity of the grape. Their wines age in the bottle, not the barrel. At first I was skeptical but after the tasting I was sold and we brought home several bottles. They were also chosen to be the official licensed wine of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Our favorite was the the 2006 Merlot Grande Vindima (shocking I know!).
And the third spot goes to Miolo. The Miolo family arrived in Brazil from Italy in 1897. This is a large and popular winery in Brazil for good reason, they make good wine! Also the property is amazing. It has spectacular views. The property includes a pond with carp, grassy meadow in which you can have a picnic and food and wine from the food truck. It is a romantic spot! And did I mention the wine is pretty great too? We enjoyed the Lote 43 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as the Miolo Merlot Terroir. This winery also has a partnership with Argentine winemaker Cesar Augusto de Azevedo. The line of wine they produce is called Los Nevados, to include a good Malbec. This particular line of wine is produced in Argentina.
This trip to Brazilian wine country was a success! We both learned a tremendous amount about Brazilian wines. I will never again say that Brazilian wines are bad. Now that I know a little more about what I am doing, I feel confident I can select a good wine in Brazil. In addition to wine tasting we had some amazing meals, made new friends, and saw beautiful countryside. Sounds like a perfect trip to me! And Dale was so impressed with the natural beauty of the area he didn’t want to leave. We plan to return sometime soon and spend even more time relaxing and sampling wines in the Vale dos Vinhedos.