Brazilian Sparkling Wine—Treat Yourself to a Tropical Gift / by Paula Theotonio

Originally published December 2016

Paula Theotonio is a food and travel journalist and social media analyst. She publishes the blog Terroir where she writes about her charming hometown (Petrolina) and its region—Val do Sao Francisco, located in northeastern Brazil. 

São Francisco River Valley Sparkling Wine is a hit at weddings, graduation parties.

São Francisco River Valley Sparkling Wine is a hit at weddings, graduation parties.

The consumption of local sparkling wine is on the rise in Brazil. The domestic sales grew 16.5% between January and November of 2015, in comparison with the same period in the previous year – according to the Brazilian Wine Institute (IBRAVIN). And Brazilians prefer their local product. At least 80% of the "espumante" consumed comes from local vineyards.

Specialists have tried to understand the phenomena. First of all, drinking wine is not a cultural thing in the country. According to IBRAVIN, Brazil's per-person annual wine consumption is only two liters. Also, sparkling wine has always been associated exclusively with moments of celebration for the rich, or with the tradition of popping corks on New Year's Eve. Reports from the Institute and from many wineries indicate that 40% to 50% of sparkling wine domestic sales are still concentrated around the holidays in the last trimester of the year. But sparkling wine consumption is on the rise during other parts of the year.

What's all the Buzz?

Brazil's main wine region is located in the southern part of the country, sharing the same latitude as the wine regions of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay – part of the global and traditional “wine-growing zone”. Known as 'Little Europe', Serra Gaúcha has a cold, rainy climate. Add these features to good drainage and little sun exposure, and you'll have what specialists might consider a great terroir for sparkling wine.

Over the last decade, the product has gained quality. Hundreds of bottles have been awarded platinum, gold, silver and bronze medals in worldwide competitions. In addition, all the traditional wineries–like Miolo, Salton, Pizzato, Aurora and Casa Valduga–started producing sparklers. An improving economy kept the prices at a a reasonable level.

But not only Brazilians are falling in love with these bubbly wines. According to Steven Spurrier, "Brazil makes the best sparkling wine in the Southern Hemisphere." The reputation of fresh and fruity glasses has flown overseas, towards the old world. Miolo Wine Group, for instance, is celebrating record sales in France. In 2016, at least 10,000 bottles of Miolo Cuvée Tradition Brut were sold at Soif D’ailleurs, a wine shop located in Marais, a Paris district. Another 90,000 were exported to other countries. The label is produced with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, using the traditional method, and ages for 12 months in underground caves before hitting the market.

The New Terroir

Wineries located in the Submedium São Francisco River Valley—a 78-mile-long region in Northeastern Brazil, and the country's second wine area—are taking a totally different path in the sparkling wine sector. This land, which has a capacity for multiple harvests a year, unlike most other regions, seems to have found its vocation for winemaking among bubbles.

Moscatel are, maybe, the fine expression of São Francisco River Valley's terroir

Moscatel are, maybe, the fine expression of São Francisco River Valley's terroir

The singer Alan Barbosa buys at least one bottle of a Brazilian brut sparkling wine a week in Petrolina, the biggest city in the São Francisco River Valley. "I love the flavors and the feeling of happiness it brings to me. It's fresher than other labels and a good option for us, here, in the Northeast, because of the hot climate. And I love how versatile it is: you can drink it anytime of the day and pair with almost any kind of food. I joke that it could be sold in gallons, just like mineral water," he said. In the São Francisco Valley, a bottle of local sparkling wine can be found for about $9 US.

The main product in the region is the sweet sparkling wine made of Moscato grapes, with 7 to 7.55% ABV. This may be the sparklers Brazilian people love the most. The consumption of these wines has increased 22.6% from January to November, in 2015, as reported IBRAVIN. But according to Viticulture-Oenology expert Giuliano Pereira, PhD, the numbers are higher in local wineries (about a 25 to 30% of increase).

What's it like?

At Terranova Winery (Miolo Wine Group), sparkling wines equal about 90% of sales and at least 444 acres of the 494-acre vineyard is devoted to espumante grapes. In that area, you will find the Moscato Italia grapes processed with the Asti method, which result in the Terranova Moscatel. You will also find Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo used in Terranova Brut (also known as 'Coconova Sparkling Brut') and Demi-Sec labels. The Terranova Brut Rosé is the first in the country made of Grenache. These three, I must say, are produced with the charmat method. This year, the company aims to sell at least 3 million bottles of sparkling wine.

Sparkling wine is also a great deal for The Santa Maria Winery/Rio Sol, now part of the Portuguese company Global Wines. The local business sells about 2 million liters of wine a year and 65% of this is sparkling. And the medals keep coming. This year, the company took silver for their Rio Sol Rosé Brut and Rio Sol Moscatel at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. The winery was also been awarded silver at the Brazil Wine Challenge for both the Demi-sec and Brut.

Since 2014, the company has targeted events that take place outside the holidays. Marketing campaigns have focused on marriages, birthdays, graduation parties, conventions and other private celebrations as targets for potential sales. "We've registered a growth of nearly 20% in these areas compared to 2015", said winemaker and manager Ricardo Henriques.

Rio Sol's sparkling wine labels

Rio Sol's sparkling wine labels

What's next?

For the upcoming holidays, Rio Sol has just released a new label—Espumante Rio Sol Natural Brut Premium. Produced from select Arinto, Viognier and Touriga Nacional grapes, the sparkling wine has a longer charmat process in lower temperatures, nine months of autolysis and a three-months in the bottle before hitting the shelves. But it is going to be hard to find it. Only 2,500 bottles were released nationally. "These grapes have been harvested with perfect balance and maturity. The wine has great complexity and longevity, perpetuating its distinction and class," remarked Ricardo Henriques.

The researcher Giuliano Pereira sees a bright future for the São Francisco River Valley sparkling wines. "[We must see] an increase in the consumption and the production, and decrease in the costs - because of the high productivity the wineries have been achieving. Also, we're going to test a new system that allows mechanical harvesting and might increase productivity in the vineyard. The results are expected for 2018", he announced.

Where to find it?

It's hard to tell the exact wine shops where you'll find these bottles, or even online, but I recommend Coconova Sparkling Brut from the São Francisco River Valley. Miolo Cuvée Tradition Brut or Pizzato Fausto Brut Rosé Tradicional, from Serra Gaúcha, are both popular in France. 

If you are traveling to Brazil, consider reading these articles about São Francisco River Valley and Serra Gaúcha for information on planning your trip.