The BRICs: Misunderstanding Brazilian Wine

This is the second in a series of articles on wine in the BRICs Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Intuition isn’t a very good guide to understanding the wine market in Brazil, so it is easy to misunderstand what’s going on there. Nearly everything you think you know about wine in Brazil is probably wrong. For example, a lot of people probably imagine that

  • Brazil doesn’t produce wine, or not much of it anyway. How could they? The country is covered with Amazonian rain forests (except for the beaches in Rio, of course).
  • Brazil probably doesn’t consume much wine, either. Everyone drinks those caipirinha things, don’t they?
  • If they do make wine, it is probably very bad. But I wouldn’t know – I’ve never had any.

Time to Think Again

What’s wrong with these statements? Where should I begin? Brazil produces a lot of wine – it is the fifth largest Southern Hemisphere producer (after Argentina, Australia, Chile and South Africa). Brazil’s 3.5 million hl production (2007 data from OIV) is more than twice the corresponding figure for new world wine power New Zealand (1.5 million hl).

While you might think of Brazil as a land of beaches and jungles, it is a very geographically diverse country with several major vineyard areas. The principal winegrowing region is the state of Rio Grande do Sul on the warm edge of the world wine-growing zone (roughly 30 – 50 degrees of latitude north and south). Serra Gaucha has more than 90,000 acres planted to vine.

Wine is grown in several parts of Brazil, as the map indicates,  including the São Francisco Valley, a hot desert area in the northeast just nine degrees south of the equator. Winegrowers there use plentiful irrigation and specialized viticultural techniques to more or less program grapevines to produce crops twice a year on a rolling schedule that keeps winery equipment in nearly constant use.

The Roots of Brazilian Wine

Wine in Brazil goes way back. The Portuguese planted grapes around São Paulo in 1532 and Jesuit priests established vineyards in Rio Grande do Sul in 1626. But it took a wave of immigrants from Italy in the late 19th century to firmly plant the vine in Brazil.  The migrants came from Italy’s northeast – Trentino and the Veneto – and were drawn to the climate and hilly terrain of the Rio Grande do Sul. They brought winegrowing knowledge and a taste for the wines of their homeland, especially sparkling wines (think Spumante and Prosecco). Their influence persists today.

Although average wine consumption for Brazil is low — less than 2 liters per capita — Brazil’s middle class is on the rise and the wine market is growing beyond its traditional immigrant base. Many people are betting on Brazil and hoping that it will become a more prominent player in the world of wine.

Grape Expectations

It is an old joke that “Brazil is the country of the future … and always will be.” Champagne-maker Möet & Chandon saw Brazil’s potential, especially for sparklers,  as far back as 1973, when it was making its big globalization push into the U.S., Australia and Argentina. They invested in sparkling wine production in Brazil figuring that if anyone was going to sell domestic “Champagne” to fizz happy Brazilians it should be the Champenoise themselves. Möet & Chandon were soon joined by other wine/drinks multinationals including Seagrams, Bacardi, Heublein, Domecq and Martini & Rossi, so the international presence in Brazil is quite strong.

Wine production 100 years ago was focused on quantity instead of quality, as it was in most of the world, and that meant American hybrid grapes rather than European-style vitis vinifera varietals because of climate concerns. Market problems led to the establishment of large cooperatives in the 1920s and 1930s, as growers, many with tiny vineyards, struggled for market power. As in Northern Italy, these cooperatives are still important today as the wine industry moves up the quality ladder.

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Unlikely Name for a Brazilian Wine

One of these cooperatives grew so large that it became more or less the Riunite of Brazil. Cooperative Vitinicola Aurora was receiving grapes from more than 1500 family growers at its peak in the mid-1990s and producing (and exporting) very large quantities of wine.

Even though you think you have never tasted a Brazilian wine, you may well have sampled the Aurora coop’s products.  The name on the label wasn’t Aurora – it was Marcus James!

Here in the U.S. Marcus James is now a Constellation wine brand imported from Argentina, but it began life in the 1980s as the Aurora coop’s brand. The very un-Brazilian name was derived from the first names of an Aurora executive and the son of his  American business partner.  The wines were simple and affordable (the Yellow Tail of their day?) and captured a substantial market. You probably tasted Marcus James if you were drinking wine in the 1990s, perhaps at a party or reception even if you didn’t actually buy any of it yourself.

By 1996 Marcus James was selling more than half a million cases in the United States – more than the entire Argentinean wine sector at the time – and exporting to 30 other countries as well. The Aurora production facility was the largest winery in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world.

The brand was so successful that Constellation Brands apparently had concerns about the ability to meet growing demand and when the contract came up in 1998 they switched wine sources to Argentina. Marcus James continues to be a successful brand here in the U.S. (it is the #3 Argentinean brand), selling Argentinean Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, Riesling and Malbec (plus some California White Zin). Aurora still sells Brazilian-made Marcus James wine at home.

Brazil in Motion

The Brazilian market is in transition today. Vitis Vinifera grape varietals have replaced the hybrids in most places. As Brazil’s wine market has opened up to imports, quality standards have  risen and although the basic wine market is still large, the quality sector is expanding. Wines are being produced that can compete on international markets.

Richard Hemming published reviews of Brazilian wines on the subscriber-only part of the Jancis Robinson website in 2009. He rated four Brazilian wines in the four star 17+/20 category, with a 1998 Cave Geisse Brut 1998 sparkler topping the list. The tasting note for a Lidio Carraro Nebbiolo 2006 describes it as “Very pale and brick-hued. Cherry, tobacco, floral, violets. The tannin is high and proud, the fruit sophisticated and there is a perfume that persists across the whole palate.” Sounds good enough to drink, doesn’t it?

The Miolo Group of wineries is often mentioned as one of Brazil’s quality producers and two of their wines received strong reviews in Hemming’s article. It is worth exploring their website if you are interested in where Brazilian wine is going.  They are clearly ambitious, producing wines in many quality ranges, including a reportedly Parkeresque icon-level wine (unsurprising since Miolo is one of Michel Rolland’s clients). World export markets are clearly in their plans.

This is the new new world of Brazilian wine, but the old world still lingers. I think this is a common characteristic of the BRICs today – one foot in the present, the other in the past, moving quickly toward the future.

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Brazil’s past is surprising, its present is promising and its future … well, I am optimistic that the promise will be fulfilled. Now on to Russia to see what we can learn there.

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5 responses

  1. Outstanding post – as good as the recent analysis of the US wine market. Never KNEW there was such a thing as Brazilian wine. Thanks, Mike!

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