From iron ore and coffee beans for Chinese consumers to transvestite prostitutes for wealthy footballers, Brazil has always been a cornucopia of commodities. But beyond the well-documented raw materials, there are more sophisticated products garnering attention...
Ignore the gasps from the French grand dame and her European cousins Cava and Prosecco: Brazil produces exemplary sparkling wine. The clue to the South American nation's effervescent skills can be found amongst its 30 million oriundi - the descendants of Italian immigrants. The Italians who poured into Brazil in the 19th Century came from all parts of the peninsula, but Rio Grande do Sul, the fiercely independent southernmost state, received only Northern Italians from the regions of Veneto, Trento and Piemonte.
Conveniently, Brazil’s extreme south has a temperate climate ideal for viticulture and, unsurprisingly, the Northern immigrants brought their particular wine traditions with them. Today, their fair-haired and Italian accented descendants - some still speak a rare Venetian dialect - produce prosecco, spumante (pronounced 'spumantchee' in Portuguese) and sparkling wine with aplomb.
Unknown to most is that Brazil is a large producer of wine, supplying about the same amount as New Zealand or Austria. Howevever, Brazil’s ascension to international wine recognition is recent and it has only been five years since the national agency Ibravin started promoting Brazilian wines abroad, supporting export and inviting journalists to its vineyards.
Opinions on Brazilian wines converge on several points: surprisingly good - and good value - sparkling wines; red wines better than white; wines that are juicy, fresh, with moderate alcohol and stylistically closer to Europe than Brazil’s New World neighbours Uruguay, Argentina or Chile.
90 per cent of Brazilian wine comes from one small region in the south - the Serra Gaúcha, nicknamed the 'Vale dos Vinhedos'. These rolling hills are located near Caxias do Sul, the cradle of Italian culture in the south, and just north of Porto Alegre, the state capital of Rio Grande do Sul.
The first vine cuttings were brought to Brazil in 1532 by the Portuguese Martim Afonso de Souza - the first official Portuguese expedition to the new colony - although his chosen terrain near modern-day Santos quickly proved unfavourable for viticulture. It was Brás Cubas, a young nobleman from the same expedition, who is credited with producing the first Brazilian wine in 1551 after planting the vines on the high inland plateau and on a slope that would eventually become the neighbourhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo.
From then, wine cultivation gradually shifted south as the first Jesuit missionaries - as featured in the film The Mission - and then Azorean immigrants settled in the cooler hills. Despite the Portuguese Royal Court banning grape production in 1789 in order to protect its own local industry, production resumed after the opening of the Brazilian economy in 1808 with the flight of the Royal Court to Rio de Janeiro to escape Napoleon Bonaparte's invading armies.
The Englishman Thomas Messiter began introducing sturdier American varietals - including Vitis labrusca - to Rio Grande do Sul in 1814. Over the next 100 years, newly arrived Portuguese, French, German and Italian immigrants would bring their experience and skills to bear on the fledgling industry.
Yet it was the 1875 deluge of Northern Italians that would drastically change production and techniques. In 1883, the Italian consulate made the first official record of wine production in the Vale dos Vinhedos: 500,000 litres in the colony of Garibaldi alone.
In the 20th century the industry steadily grew through a system of cooperatives and state support from the proactive government of benign dictator Getulio Vargas, himself a gaúcho. In 1951 the famous French champagne house Georges Aubert transferred itself to Brazil and ushered in a new cycle of improved sparkling wine production.
In line with the industry's 21st century trends, Brazilian wines are being increasingly appreciated for their freshness and lower alcoholic content. The proof of this can be seen in the record number of medals won at some of the most prestigious international competitions over the last few years.
The Brazilian Association of Oenology (ABE) revealed that 1,966 national wines won awards in recognised international competitions between 2002 and 2011, with over half the awards going to sparklings. At the International Wine Challenge 2011, Brazil presented only 36 samples, almost 70% of which were awarded medals, including the country’s first gold, given to the Gran Legado Brut Champenoise sparkling wine. And people are starting to notice: upmarket UK supermarket Waitrose and most major British and European supermarkets are now purveying Brazilian wines.
Brazil’s sparkling wines have even enjoyed success in Champagne’s motherland. In the first months of 2011, 11 awards were won at French competitions, of which special note should be made of the three gold medals at Vinalies Internationales 2011 (won by the Aurora Espumante Moscatel Rosé, the Garibaldi Espumante Moscatel, and the Ponto Nero Espumante Brut, by Domno do Brasil).
Richard Hemming published reviews of Brazilian wines for wine authority Jancis Robinson and rated four Brazilian wines in the four star 17+/20 category, with a 1998 Cave Geisse Brut 1998 sparkler topping the list. Three Brazilian wines even made the 2014 Top 100 Wines list of the WAWWJ.
In the words of Oz Clarke, the British wine critic, Brazil's muscatel sparklers are "the most fantastic in the world...I highlight this beautiful version of white muscat, which [Brazil] seems to have and no one else does, with a higher acidity and lovely perfumed fruit".
Brazil's "Charmat sparkling wines, the dry ones, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are fantastic", he enthused. Mr Clarke went as far as to include a Brazilian in his 9 Preferred Sparkling Wines list - the Cava Geisse Brut Rosé even outmuscling a Charles Heidsieck champagne in the rankings.
Luiz Horta, wine writer for Brazilian newspaper 'O Estadão de São Paulo', offered his top picks for 'The Financial Times' in their 2013 Brazilian supplement.
Encouragingly for the future, the grape variety Goethe, named after the teutonic Romantic, is the closest Brazil has to its own grape. The variety was created over 150 years ago and almost died out in the 1960s. In the last several years, an association has sprung up to protect the interests of Goethe wines in its terroir - Urussanga in the southern tip of Santa Catarina state, also colonised by northern Italians and not far from the Serra Gaúcha. Of the 900,000 bottles produced annually, 60% are sold within Santa Catarina state. This should change as appreciation of Brazilian wine continues to grow.
This attractively priced bottle-fermented champenoise has garnered a number of international awards and attention.
‘Bronze Medal’ INTERNATIONAL WINE CHALLENGE (London, 2012)
‘Commended’ DECANTER WORLD WINE AWARDS (2012)
“Nicely made and fresh” Susan Hulme, Master of Wine VINEXPO (2011)
‘Gold Medal’ PLAYBOY MAGAZINE (2011) - this is no joke. The panel was stellar
'What a revelation! One of the most impressive sparkling wines I have tried in a long time!' 18.5/20 JANCIS ROBINSON
95/100 Steven Spurrier DECANTER MAGAZINE