- Wir über uns
by Eckhard Supp
Rio and the Amazon River are far away, instead of Carnival they celebrate the Oktoberfest, fog and rain are common weather features, unemployment seems unknown, the average income is twice as high as in the rest of the country and the sweet and oxydized stickies of the past have been at least in part replaced by wines made from noble European varieties. Brazil's South is different. And: It's the home of the country's viticulture. As for the present, Brazil's wine industry, hardly woken up from a long and deep slumber, is trying to get at exports. On markets though which of course have not exactly been waiting for new producers and new wines. Does the world really need these wines? And are they up to our expectations? What in particular does the country have to offer? Questions over questions, and our short exploration in Brazil's main winegrowing region, the Serra Gaúcha, has not delivered all the answers.
No one, really no one, during my trip to the country of the Gaúchi, was able to give a satisfying answer to my main question: Why on earth should a consumer in Germany, in Europe, ask for Brazilian wines at all? What is so particular about them? What do they offer, that no one else in the world offers? Which is their unique selling proposition?
The mere fact that many of the wines we tasted were good, some even very good - our recently published tasting report has given proof of it - could not be a sufficient answer, was no real singularity, too many good or even excellent wines being produced around the world, too many top wine growing areas competing on the markets. And the usual buzzword of the "incredible variety" of wine styles, which is generally forwarded by every newcomer or underdog in the run for the world's wine shelves, obviously convinced my Brazilian counterparts themselves so little, that they didn't even try to use it as an argument and I didn't have to argue against it. They perfectly knew it was no conclusive answer, no solid marketing concept anyway.
Of course, I was aware that the modern viticulture of the world's fifth largest country and seventh largest economy was far too young to be able to already give such a conclusive answer. Although the first grapes had already been planted by European immigrants who arrived in the 19th century, it was only as recently as in the 1990ies that people started to produce "fine wines" from vinifera grapes on a commercially relevant scale. Before that, hybrids had dominated the scenerey such as Isabella, a crossing from vitis labrusca and vitis vinifera which made its first appearance in North America in 1816 and which ripens even under tropical climates - that's why it is mainly planted in countries like Brazil, Uruguay, India or Japan. Even today, about 80 % of Brazil's vineyards are dedicated to Isabella which mainly serves to produce grape juice, at present the "big thing" of the country's drinks industry, its consumption having even surpassed that of orange juice.
Not only the country's viticulture is still very young, it also does not show off with a grape variety which would give it some singularity. Other New World newcomers to the markets had such a variety - Chile with Carmenère, Argentina with Malbec, South Africa with Pinotage and Chenin blanc - Brazil does not. Some people here believe having found such a variety in Merlot. But hey! Merlot! One of the universal globetrotters par excellence? And one, and this is even more important, which in its own right does not even produce outstanding wines in Brazil as our tastings have shown.
The Brazilians themselves don't make things much easier. They prefer to consume for about 70 % foreign wines if you only consider vinifera wines which themselves account for only 30 % of total wine consumption. Just as they like to consume foreign everything. The fact that domestic wine is subject to a special wine tax of about 53 % whilst imported wines go whithout that burden, does not really help the local wine industry either.
Chile and Argentina are the profiteers of that situation, but they also have the merit of, indirectly, helping the Brazilian wine industry onto the right track when, in the middle of the 1990ies, the Brasilia government decided to open the country's borders for imported goods. Flavio Pizzato, one of the best producers of the Serra Gaúcha, admits it without ado: "Learn or die was the cry of the time, and he who did not convert quickly enough to vinifera varieties, had no chance to survive."
The winery of the Pizzatos, one of the many families whose ancestors immigrated about 150 years ago from Italy - not very long after the first Germans whose traces we encountered from Novo Hamburgo to the German-only-speakers in Bom Princípio - was one of the highlights of our trip, notwithstanding its slightly nerving boss. It convinced most of all with its red blends called Verve and Concentus, but also with a single variety Alicante Bouschet. Yet, although the quality was high, our group in vain searched for wines with identity-establishing potential.
This was certainly much more the problem at Salton's winery, a huge industrial wine factory, with its discrete "refinery" charme only scantily covered up by some murals. Not even the buyer of a German discount store who at about the same time as our group toured the Serra Gaúcha, could find anything positive about their wines. The proudly exhibited "Faces" range of Lidio Carraro, the official selection for the upcoming FIFA soccer world cup, could not really convince either, although other ranges of the same producer showed more quality. As far as the conditions and wines of one winery owned by a renowned oncologist are concerned, I prefer to wrap it into a charitable mantle of secrecy.
Our little group with participants from Germany, Great Britain and the US came somewhat closer to the ideal of wines representing a certain uniquenes whenever sparklers were opened. They seem to be one of the absolute big points of the Serra Gaúcha. In particular Pinto Bandeira, a village and, since some weeks independent appellation close to Brazil's wine capital Bento Gonçalves seems to be qualified for the production of refreshing yet well structured, in some cases even astonishingly complex bottle fermented sparkling wines. [...]