The South Feature
The first grapevines were brought to Brazil in 1532 by early Portuguese colonists, but it was the Jesuits, who settled in the South decades later, who were the first to establish true vineyards and wineries (to produce wine for the Catholic mass). Viticulture didn't gain importance in Brazil until Italian immigrants arrived, with the blessing of Italian-born empress Teresa Cristina, wife of Dom Pedro II, in 1875. In the next decades at least 150,000 Italians came to settle the Serra Gaúcha. They were the first to produce significant quantities of wine.
Although the South is suitable for growing grapes, the rainfall is often excessive from January to March—when the grapes reach maturity. This has traditionally made local winegrowers true heroes for being able to produce decent wines despite difficult conditions. Traditional grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet were grown to some extent, but most of the wine produced originated from less impressive American stock—Concord and Niagara grapes. These average wines are still produced for local markets.
New agricultural techniques and hybridization of grapes have brought modern viticulture to the area and allowed a dramatic expansion of higher-quality grapes. This has significantly improved wine quality and attracted such international industry heavyweights as Almadén, Moët et Chandon, and Heublein. In 1992 Almadén broke new ground and established vineyards in the hills near the city of Santana do Livramento—about 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Porto Alegre, on the Uruguay border—where, according to current agricultural knowledge, climate and soils are more apt to produce quality grapes.
Other wineries are following its steps. Today there are more than 100 cantinas (winemakers) in Rio Grande do Sul, primarily in the Vale dos Vinhedos (Vineyard Valley) near Bento Gonçalves. The wine producers' association of the Vale dos Vinhedos, IBRAVIN (www.ibravin.com.br), has registered a government-certified system similar to that used in European countries for controlled-origin wines to promote and warrant the quality of their products. A recent trend in the local wine industry is to focus on sparkling wines, which are considered outstanding due to the environmental conditions and grape varieties grown.
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