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Brazil's Medal Worthy Wines

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amphitheatre of vines at Casa Valduga in Vale dos Vinhedos

I'm thrilled the Olympic Games in Rio went so well, exceeding expectations. I am happy to report that another potential source of pride for Brazilians is the fact that some excellent wines--yes, even medal worthy--are now being made there. Surprised? So was I.

I was fortunate to travel to the center of Brazil's fine wine production last December, on a trip sponsored by Wines of Brazil, The trip was led by Evan Goldstein, Master Sommelier and author of the terrific Wines of South America. I'm a huge fan of Evan and have really enjoyed traveling with him in the past. I therefore took it on faith when he told me Brazilian wine country was worth a trip. I had tasted some okay Brazilian reds and fairly good sparkling wines prior to this trip that in no way prepared me for how excellent some of Brazil's top wines actually are.

Brazil's fine wine country--based in the more temperate southern end of the country--is also stunningly lush and beautiful, blessed with a few of the most gorgeous vineyards I have ever visited. The best of the wines have excellent fruit quality, relatively low alcohol and good balancing acidity. The food is also delicious there and the people warm and delightful, of course.

Background

Wine production in Brazil, spurred in large part by the many Italian immigrants in the south, who brought knowledge and grape cuttings with them, dates back to the mid-1800s. The production of fine wine, however, based on vitis vinifera grapes, really only got going in the 1970s, picking up steam with a growing number of boutique producers since the 1990s. A concerted effort to improve quality has been underway since 2000.

That said, the vast majority of the country's wine production--over 80%--is still very ordinary "vinho de mesa." That translates as "table wine," which makes it sound higher quality than it really is. Much of it is made with North American grapes, vitis labrusca, and hybrids, which have been widely planted in Brazil's humid climate because they fared much better than vitis vinifera, the type of grapes from which fine wine is made.

Nonetheless, vitis vinifera varieties like Merlot, and the grapes most commonly used for sparkling wine--Chardonnay and Pinot Noir--have been planted in increasing amounts in the southernmost Brazilian state, Rio Grande do Sul.

The center of fine wine production in that state is the region of Serra Gaúcha, particularly in the area extending south and west of the city of Bento Gonçalves. This area, called Vale dos Vinhedos--Brazil's only denominação de origen (DO)--is essentially the Napa of Brazil, home to the vast majority of the most notable fine wine producers.

This was where our trip was focused, with side trips to a couple of other important areas in Serra Gaúcha--Pinto Bandeira, source of grapes for Brazil's best sparkling wines; and Farroupilha.

Medal Winners

So after a week of sampling Brazilian wines from our base in Bento Gonçalves, which producers do I think are the very best--deserving of gold and silver medals?

No one wants a bronze medal any more, except in the Olympics, so I won't bother nominating a producer for that--I'll only indicate a few other wineries that I think are among the top five or so of Brazil's best.

Gold: Don Giovanni

vineyards at Don Giovanni in Pinto Bandeira

My gold medalist makes a small amount of dry wine--most notably a wonderful Chardonnay--but its production is largely devoted to what I think is some of the very best methode traditionelle sparkling wine I've tasted outside of Champagne.

Don Giovanni is based in Pinto Bandeira. Their sparkling wines are so profoundly good that I would buy them every year if only they were available here in the U.S.

The winery sits on one of the most strikingly beautiful vineyards I've ever seen, which includes tall trees, carved stone markers and lots of thriving hydrangeas.

My single favorite of their sparkling bottlings is the Ouro, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that is aged 36 months on the lees. I rated it 94 points and it is savory, autolytic, hazelnut heaven. I also very much love the Stravaganzza Brut, which is aged one year on lees, and the Nature, with less than one gram of dosage and aged two years sur lie. Both of these I rated 93+ points.

Silver: Lidio Carraro

My silver medalist is Lidio Carraro, named after its owner, an influential and pioneering viticulturalist. While his two sons, Giovanni and Juliano, are involved in making the wine, they benefit a lot from the active involvement of consulting winemaker, Monica Rossetti, who still makes wine in Italy as well.

Lidio Carraro consulting winemaker Monica Rossetti

One of the distinctive features of winemaking here is the absence of any oak whatsoever. Longer macerations and bottle aging are used to supply the texture and firm tannins that oak might otherwise help provide. The focus is on the wines' fruit quality, which is very appealing and complex.

For me, the most impressive wines in the portfolio are the Elos Cabernet/Malbec blend, another red blend called Quorum, a varietal bottling of Teroldego, and a terrific Tannat. I scored the latter 94+ points.

Other Top Producers

The other leading producers for me based on what we tasted are Cave Geisse, Pizzato, Perini and Peterlongo. Cave Geisse and Peterlongo make superlative sparkling wines, while Pizzato and Perini produce not only good sparkling wines but also some excellent dry reds. For detailed tasting notes and further winery profiles, see the full version of this post on my blog here.