Originally published October 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. In addition to writing, she hosts a local radio show called Hashtag.
When one starts a Google search on the best wines around the globe, the top results are found in Europe and as you scroll down, you'll read something about new world wine production in Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia. Brazil won't really show up in the first page, not to mention the ones we produce here in Brazilian Northeast, specifically at the Submedium São Francisco River Valley - a 78-mile region producing 6 million bottles of red, white and sparkling wine every year.
In this area south of Pernambuco and north of the Bahia states, the terroir is unusual: the soil is rich in minerals, but poor in organic matter. It's located inside the caatinga forest - a desert-like vegetation found only here, with semiarid climate and in the heart of Sertão, a large region historically marked by poverty in Brazilian history. But thanks to the irrigation systems implanted in 1983, agriculture was made possible and transformed many lives. Today the region is responsible for about 80% of table grape and mango exports in the country. If quality table grapes could be harvested, why not wine grapes?
We have 3,100 hours of sunlight a year. There's no real winter, just some rain in the first trimester of the year. There are no wind or ice storms threatening the bud break, the flowering, or the maturation. The maturity of the grape comes faster and it's possible to harvest up to two and a half times a year. You'll also find grapes in different stages of maturity. It's like seeing spring, summer, fall and winter all at the same time, in just one place.
Even though it's mostly hot and dry every month, the organoleptic characteristics of the wine vary throughout the year. In the first semester, when the nights are colder, the grapes have more time to mature. As a result, the wines are well balanced and complex. For the ones elaborated in the second half of the year, when the temperatures are higher, ripening happens faster and the wine comes up with fresh.alcoholic features, pronounced aromas, and acidity.
But, generally, our Valley makes great fruity and young wines which are ready to drink just after you bottle them, especially with Syrah and Tempranillo grapes, and also the whites Chenin Blanc and Moscato Canelli. Syrah is one of the grape varieties that has best adapted to our terroir and early studies held by São Francisco Valley University showed that the water stress applied to the plant helps to build higher levels of antioxidants, like resveratrol. A great share of the sales are also held by sparkling wine - representing 60% of the Santa Maria Winery production.
According to the documentarist and sommelier José Figueiredo, the first vineyards were seeded in this region by Spanish friends José Molina Membrado and Alex Garulla, from Barcelona, in the sixties. But only in late 70's, when Molina met Mamoro Yamamoto, an entrepreneur and dreamer nissei that had just moved to Submedium São Francisco River Valley, was the first winery built. The winery was called Fazenda Ouro Verde and was located in Casa Nova, Bahia. The first vintage came as a Christmas gift in 1983. But it was not until May of 1990 that the region won its first award when Botticelli Cabernet Sauvignon was chosen as the best national red wine by the Brazilian edition of Playboy Magazine.
Every year, our bottles have proved themselves to be quality choices with their great performances in competitions around the globe. In 2016, during the Brazil Wine Challenge, an event organized by both the International Organization of Vine and Wine and International Union of Oenologists, four Brazilian labels won awards out of a selection of 623 wines from 17 other countries. The Rio Sol Winemaker's Alicante Bouschet 2013 e Rio Sol Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine won gold and Rio Sol Reserva 2013 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet assemblage), Rio Sol Rosè Sparkling Wine all received a silver medal. Ouro Verde Winery, owned by Miolo Wine Group, has amongst its awarded labels Terranova Moscatel Sparkling Wine and Testardi which has a bronze medal for its 2012 vintage at Syrah du Monde in France and won best in the National Red Wine Category, for its 2010 vintage (the first!), at Expovinis 2012.
Petrolina, in Pernambuco, and Juazeiro, in Bahia, are the largest, most developed cities in Sub-medium São Francisco River Valley with touristic structure. These cities are where you'll stay if you want to start a trip through the wineries located in nearby cities, like Ouro Verde, Santa Maria, and Bianchetti (Lagoa Grande, in Pernambuco). Petrolina, in fact, has daily flights coming straight from Recife (capital of the state) and São Paulo.
The medium temperature is about 86º F throughout the year, dropping to 68º F between June and September, with cloudy days (but almost no rain). It's nice to visit the region in June because of the folkloric and religious June Festivals, which celebrate a number of Christian saints with bonfires, fireworks, a great range of recipes with corn, and music shows with forró, a brazilian musical genre mostly played with accordion, zabumba, and a triangle. Because of the warm temperatures,, it's interesting to sail through the São Francisco River, visit its islands and balnearios, and eat grilled river fish. The vivid blue sky with very few clouds enchants the visitors. Don't forget extra sunscreen, shades, your favorite hat, and fresh clothing.
If you rent a car in Petrolina or Juazeiro, it's easy to get to the wineries using GPS. Santa Maria (45 miles), Bianchetti (46 miles) and Ouro Verde (30 miles) charge R$ 10 for each visitor, but with a few distinct features.
At Santa Maria Winery, you can walk through the vineyards, see the pruning process, the harvest, taste ripe grapes in the vines, and visit the wine cellar and the oak barrels. At the end, you'll taste two red wines and a sparkling one, that could be either sweet or brut. The tour is guided by experienced winemakers, maybe with the portuguese enologist Ricardo Henriques or even, on a lucky day, with explanations by the founder - the portuguese oenologist João Santos, a passionate entrepreneur that has spread his bottles all over the country over the last decade. If you want to have a typical lunch of fish and lamb, with an "open bar" of premium labels in the winery's fancy house, you might want to consider paying the extra R$ 80.
You can schedule your visit any day of the week, taking the 9 a.m or the 2 p.m tour (try this one to see the sunset!), here:
+55 87 3869.9410
+55 87 3869 9385.
At Bianchetti, it's a simpler tour that you can schedule on the same day you'll visit Santa Maria. With a smaller production - about 50 thousand liters a year of certified organic wines, grape, and sugarcane juices - you might not see the vines, but you'll learn a lot about the winemaking process directly from the owner, the oenologist and founder Izanete Bianchetti Tedesco. At the end, of course, you can taste their labels, specifically the ones produced with Barbera and Tempranillo grapes.
You can schedule your visit any day of the week, but you should get directions from the winery first because you may miss the entrance.
At Ouro Verde, your car will pass through the vineyards until you see a big yellow house. You will be greeted by the smiling enologist Rafhael Loura. He takes you to the crushing and fermentation salons, but doesn't let you go into the cellars. However, a wine tasting class with Terranova's Moscatel Sparkling Wine and Syrah (perfect for beginners who need to learn how to discover aromas and flavors) makes it worth the visit. At the end of the tour, a store filled with lower priced Miolo bottles, books about wines, souvenirs and wine-made cosmetics makes it difficult to leave the place empty-handed. If you have extra time, extend your stay and drive to Sobradinho Reservoir, with its perfect landscape and views of the wind power stations in the city.
You can schedule your visit any day of the week, taking the 9 a.m or the 2 p.m tour, here, calling any of these numbers below:
+55 74 3536-1132
+55 74 3527-4243
There are also two emblematic tours: The Vapor do Vinho and Rota das Águas aos Vinhos. Together they provide a complete view of the region, even though it demands an entire day for each.
Rota das Águas aos Vinhos (Lagoa Grande) - R$ 150,00 - from 8 a.m until 3 p.m.
Besides visiting the field, vineyards, cantin and wine store - with lunch and wine tasting included - you also sail in a catamaran to the Pontal Island, in Lagoa Grande. There's music, free sparkling wine and a pit stop for swimming in the São Francisco River. A delightful daylight party! The tourism agency picks you up at your hotel, so you may drink as little or as much as you’d like without worrying about transportation.Opção Turismo - www.opcaoturismo.tur.br. + 55 87 3862 1616.
Vapor do Vinho - R$ 145 - From 8:30 a.m to 5:30 p.m.
The Rio dos Currais Boat takes you through greatest artificial lake in South America, the São Francisco Reservoir. To get there, you must pass through a high navigation lock. Lunch is made of comfort food with regional ingredients like fried cassava and river fishes. There's also an acoustic show and if you go on Sundays, the boat makes a stop at the Fantasia Island. Once on land you will travel the same way you would have if you had gone by car. Vapor do Vinho - www.vapordovinho.com.br. +55 74 8805 1809.
WHERE TO STAY:
Velho Chico Plaza Hotel- Sete de Setembro Avenue, 100, Petrolina, + 55 87 3864-0100
Ibis Hotel Petrolina- Pres. Tancredo Neves Avenue, 1049, Centro, Petrolina, + 55 87 3202-2200
Quality Hotel Petrolin- Cardoso de Sá Avenue, 201, Orla II, Petrolina, + 55 87 3202-1222
WHERE TO EAT
Café de Fazenda (typical breakfast) - Cel. José Rabêlo Padilha Street, 2815, Centro, Petrolina. Opens only on weekends. +55 87 3862 2046
Bodódromo (grilled lamb gastronomic complex) $$ - Areia Branca Neighborhood, Petrolina
Flor de Mandacaru Restaurant (comfort food with regional ingredients) $$ - Nossa Senhora das Grotas Street, 155, COHAB 6, Petrolina. +55 87 3863 7607
Café de Bule (patisserie and coffee shop) - Antônio Santana Filho Street, 353, Centro, Petrolina. + 55 87 3861 3404
Cuscuzeira (tapioca and cuscuz) - Rua João Alfredo - 2060 - Centro, Petrolina. + 55 87 3861 7261.
THE FULL EXPERIENCE
Criatur (Receptive Tour Operator) - + 55 87 9 99420030 - fb.com/criaturismo