Brazil is the third largest producer of wine by volume in South America, after Argentina and Chile. The climate is suitable for viticulture in the most southern region, particularly around Serra Gaúcha, just north of Porto Alegre, at about 29 degrees south latitude, and accounts for the bulk of Brazilian wine. Neighboring Uruguay and to a lesser extent Paraguay also have many vineyards and produce wine and table grapes.
The business center of the wine region is the vibrant cosmopolitan city of Porto Alegre (appropriately named “happy port”) located on the South Atlantic coast, and the capital of Brazil’s most southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. This is the Gaucho capital of a prosperous region devoted to cattle ranching and agriculture. The coastal regions are hot and humid but further inland are higher hilly regions having basaltic soils such as the Serra Gaúche which are cooler and produce almost 90% of Brazilian wines.
The Jesuit missionaries brought Spanish vines to the region in 1626. More successful in 1840 was the establishment of the Isabella species (Vitis labrusca). By 1870 wine production was well established in Serra Gaúche, largely due to the efforts of Italian immigrants. Italian grape varieties were introduced, also Tannat from France. Since the 1970’s there has been a gradual move from high yielding grape varieties for production of domestic quaffing wine to the classic European varieties (Vitis vinifera) with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grapes to the fore.
Notable wineries are Vinicola Miolo, Casa Valduga and Cave do Armadeu. Wine tasting tours can be joined in Puerto Alegre. It is only 2 hours drive north to start tasting. They actually have a steam train called “Maria Fumaca” (Smoky Mary) to take you to the beautiful Vale dos Vinhedos. Cheap plonk is available en route but it is wise not to get plastered before sighting the good stuff. There are over 1000 wineries in Brazil with many fine products to taste.
The Brazilian wine regions close to the Uruguay border range in altitude from 210 meters at Campanha to about 420 meters at Serra do Sudeste and provide a temperate climate with soils derived from granite and limestone. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tannat, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir whereas the whites are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. The coolest region is Planato Catarinese (average max 19 C, min 9 C) is at an altitude of 1150 meters.
Brazil is unique in having a tropical wine region at 9 degrees south of the equator. The São Francisco Valley in the north east is flat and very dry. Temperatures average 20 degrees in winter and 31 degrees in summer. It is the only Brazilian region where irrigation is required. Very fruity wines are produced from Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, also Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and other varieties.
Tannat is considered the national grape of Uruguay. It was introduced from France by Basque settlers in the 1800’s and flourished in its new climate. It is a red wine grape now often blended with other reds to reproduce a Beaujolais and Port. Some is fortified with brandy to make a powerful dessert wine. The new plantings of Tannat are producing wines with softer tannins and less acidity, with blackberry fruit notes.
The dominant Uruguayan regions are Canelones district around Montevideo, and Colonia further west along the coast around the port of Colonia. Wine tasting tours emanate from both centers.
A favorite aperitif drink in Uruguay is “medio y medio” which is a blend of moscato and sparkling pinot blanc. It has honey flavors and a crisp fresh finish and is not too alcoholic. When iced it makes a refreshing summer drink.
The long wine drink in Brazil and Uruguay has an important share of the wine market and competes with the beer market. This includes fruit drinks mixed with usually white wines (also called medio y medio) which are a favored drink at a churrasco barbecue, particularly if you have to drive home. Also, it is traditional to dilute house wines with soda water, or even tonic, and ice. These are refreshing quaffing drinks in contrast to the sipping of the French classic wines which are more akin to imbibing whisky.
Wine is certainly the “happy drink” in southern Brazil and Uruguay. It livens up the traditional churrascarias with their never ending supply of succulent barbecued beef cuts. Whether the beef or wine is the bigger attraction is debatable, but it is well worth the experience.