On October 4 1502, the Genoese sailor Amerigo Vespucci, scientific adviser to captain Gonçalo Coelho, arrived at the delta of a river at 8º latitude south on the cost of Vera Cruz, later named Brazil. Since that was the day of Saint Francis of Assis, Vespucci named the river Rio São Francisco. It was certainly not an area to grow vineyards, which by those days’ standards might have been considered a heresy anyway.
Nevertheless, in Brazil today, we are witnessing a pioneering venture to produce quality wines in tropical regions. This remarkable endeavor could make the country a world technological reference point in the production of grapes and wine in low-latitude tropical areas — a major challenge to the elementary principles of quality viticulture.
The Old Chico (Velho Chico), as the river is called today, flows north from Serra da Canastra in Minas Gerais, at an altitude of 1200 m, to the Caatinga biome at 8º latitude south. irrigating an arid valley of gentle hills between the states of Bahia and Pernambuco, 300 km before reaching the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Alagoas and Sergipe, 2700 km away from the riverhead.
The saga of wine production in the arid Saõ Francisco Valley began timidly in the 80s thanks to the eagerness to experiment and the willingness to take risks of the first pioneers, who had learnt from the extremely successful results of irrigated fruit crop projects. Only from 1999 was expansion recorded, pushed by new wineries that recognized the potential and invested with a focus on quality.
Valexport, the Association of São Francisco Valley Producers and Exporters, brings together 400 vineyards and nine wineries. The associates boast 600 cultivated hectares of land that produce six million liters wine per year — in other words, 15% of Brazilian winemaking —with an annual investment of € 4 million. Over the next four years, with the arrival of two new wineries, the cultivated area should increase to 1,000 hectares, with new investments amounting to € 13 million.
Muscat and Shiraz grapes, well adapted to the hot and dry climate of the valley, are responsible for most of the quality wines produced in the region today. The cloudy sparkling Muscat is produced using the Italian Asti method without the addition of sugar.
“The strong heat favors the ripening of the grapes, making the resulting wine fresher and aromatic with harmonic acidity and balanced sweetness”, says Antonio Miolo of the Miolo Winery, one of the major wine producers from southern Brazil who believed in the potential of the northern valley. In 2004 Miolo produced 1.4 million liters here, including Sparkling Muscat, White Muscatel, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz and Late Harvest dessert wine.
Due to the semi-arid tropical climate, with intense heat and low rainfall, the vineyards are watered using drop irrigation systems. The clayish, relatively unfertile fertile, acid soil is hard to drain; it receives 300-400mm of rain a year, concentrated in the winter and about 300 days of sun, with a continuous vegetative cycle and a consistent annual average temperature of around 26-27º C. The production cycle of the vines is determined by the vintners, who allow for up to two and a half crops per year, thus enabling the choice of an ideal period for the crop.
The amazing results have caught the attention of traditional European winemakers. In 2003, Project New Latitude established a partnership between Santa Maria Vineyards, a local producer with 15 years’ experience producing grapes, and the Portuguese Dão Sul, 2001 Best Winery according to the Portuguese magazine Revista do Vinho. The objective of the new enterprise in the São Francisco Valley is to produce quality wines, under the supervision of the University of Lisbon.
With recognition being gained and profits increasing, it is estimated that over 500 hectares will be planted this year with varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. There are also plans to produce Portuguese varieties, such as Touriga, Red Roriz and Alicante Bouschet.
Another point that deserves stressing is that over 200 families will be employed in the scheme, making it a project of major social impact in a historically impoverished region. Plans are being drawn up to produce organic wines in the near future, along with more sophisticated Reserve versions aged in oak barrels.
Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte