Here are the ins and outs of visiting Serra Gaúcha in southern Brazil.
For a traveler, there's nothing more invigorating than swimming against the stream, especially when the figurative “stream” leads to a literal oasis of sparkling wine. Such was the case on a recent trip to Brazil during Carnival, when the masses descended upon Rio for caipirinhas — and I headed to Bento Gonçalves for chardonnay, pinot noir, and merlot.
Bento Conçalves, about 900 miles south of Rio, is the epicenter of Serra Gaúcha, Brazil's largest and most important wine region. (The area produces around 85% of the country's fine wine.) If, when you think of South American wine, Argentina and Chile come to mind long before Brazil, you're not alone. Mika Bulmash, the New York City-based founder of Wine for the World, an import company that seeks out rising-star regions, explains that Brazil's vinhos remain under the radar because fine-wine production itself is relatively new to the country.
“For a long time [this area] was devoted to the production of ordinary, common table wines, which were consumed domestically,” she said. “About 40 years ago, the region began realizing the fantastic potential for the production of premium sparkling wines.”
Since then, Brazilian bubbles have earned more than 1,000 medals in international competitions. With that recognition, tourism is sure to follow — and Serra Gaúcha is ready. The “secret” nature of the destination is not by design; wandering oenophiles are welcome. The oversized wine barrel inscribed with “You Are Entering the World of Wine” at the entrance to Bento Gonçalves is proof of that.
Once you arrive — via a flight to Porto Alegre, followed by a two-hour drive — you'll find a wine region unlike any other. At times the terrain is reminiscent of Tuscany, but with palm trees, cacti, waterfalls, and parrots flying overhead. The wine, says Diego Bertolini of Wines of Brasil, is much like the local way of life: “fun, fresh and fruity.”
As for how to navigate your way through Serra Gaúcha, here's where to drink, what to eat, and the best places to rest between tastings.
Most vineyard visits don't involve 4x4s ripping through dense tropical foliage, but they do at Cave Geisse, in the Pinto Bandeira micro-region within Serra Gaúcha. I went on the “Terroir Experience,” which included a wild ride through the property's back trails, past a babbling brook and waterfall. Back in Bento Gonçalves, there was more adventure in store at Vinícola Salton, where I was asked to carry a lantern — our only light source — as my group meandered through narrow passageways in the depths of the winery's caves. (It felt archaeological in addition to vinicultural.)
In the Vale dos Vinhedos — the Valley of the Vineyards — between Bento Gonçalves, Garibaldi, and Monte Belo do Sul, there's Pizzato, which has outdoor seating and views as stunning as their sparklings. But the label does more than just bubbles; their Fausto Merlot 2016 is a standout. You'll also find top-notch vistas at the wine garden at Miolo, where you can lounge on cushions covered in the label's logo as you enjoy sparkling rosé and snack on empanadas from an onsite food truck. (Look out for lizards here. A sizable one, about the size of a cat, sauntered across the garden just before sunset during my visit.) Right next door you'll find Lidio Carraro. After you taste their tannats, take a stroll through the vines.
Vinícola Aurora — whose Marcus James Brut sparkling nabbed a silver medal at the Vinalies Internationales in France last month — has a tasting room in downtown Bento Gonçalves. Outside of town in nearby Farroupilha, Casa Perini has a shop, a tasting room and a tour. Just don't get too close to the process. An overly ambitious Instagram shot led me to walk away with a shirt tie-dyed in red wine.
Where to Eat
In a gastronomic twist, I ate more pasta — and some of the best I've had — in Serra Gaúcha than on any previous trip, save for maybe Rome. The local cuisine is still heavily influenced by the waves of Italian immigrants who settled in the region in the late 19th century.
For my first dinner, I went to Canta Maria Gastronomia, where I had no shame in licking my bowl of cappelletti soup clean. I also gobbled up every last bite of dessert, which was sagu — a tapioca pudding made with red wine and topped with whipped cream. Don't stress that you'll never find this dish again (like I did); fortunately, it's on just about every menu in town. Another standout spot for authentic Italian is Mamma Gema Trattoria. The tagliatelle with artichoke alone is worth cross-continental travel.
Once pasta-ed out, I headed to farm-to-table eatery Valle Rustico in Garibaldi. There, chef Rodrigo Bellora pairs produce-centric plates — such as flank steak stuffed with arugula and served with yerba mate farofa — with wines from the region (he calls it his “harmonized menu”). And finally, I kept my eyes peeled for pão de queijo at each wine tasting and on every restaurant menu. The cheesy bread is a common snack all over Brazil. (Imagine mixing a Wisconsin cheese curd with a cumulus cloud — that's the parmesan-infused fluffy wonder that is pão de queijo.)
Where to Stay
Anyone looking to go off the grid but remain within plucking distance of grapes should consider a stay at Don Giovanni, a winery in Pinto Bandeira with a bed and breakfast, or pousada. The main house has seven rooms plus an outdoor pool and restaurant, but it was the property's standalone cottage that really caught my eye. Tucked behind hydrangea bushes along a dirt path in the vineyard, it's the ideal place to write a viniculture romance novel. Or at the very least, drink a glass of Don Giovanni rosé brut and take a bath.
There's also a pousada at Casa Valduga winery in Bento Gonçalves. There, you can stay in one of 24 rooms — each named for an iconic wine from the label — as well as tour the cellars, have a tasting, and shop in the onsite boutique. The day I visited was during harvest, so I also got to pick grapes and do my best Lucy Ricardo impression during a stomping. Casa Valduga doesn't actually employ the less-than-sanitary maceration method. It's all for show — and the unforgettable sensation of the fruit's slimy skin wriggling between your toes.
Speaking of slathering grapes on your skin, one of the larger lodges in the area, the Hotel & Spa do Vinho, offers wine-therapy treatments, including body scrubs and wraps. I stopped by for a massage and a float in the pool after a day of tasting, but stayed nearby at Hotel Villa Michelon. There, the bottomless basket of pão de queijo at the breakfast buffet captured my heart. It was also hard not to appreciate the hotel's hiking trail, the peacocks wandering in the garden, and the way the lobby staff rallied around me on my last morning as I stuffed half a dozen bottles of wine into my suitcase.