New world—not so newby Barry Smith / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Many vine growing regions resent the description of their wines as “new world.” As they will tell you, they have been making wines for well over a hundred years. It simply took the rest of the world time to discover what they were producing. In the last three decades we have caught up with wines from Australia, California, New Zealand, and more recently Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Each of these regions have placed their stamp firmly on particular grape varieties. The savoury shiraz from Australia, the forceful Californian zinfandel, and the richness and tropical fruit New Zealanders found in sauvignon blanc. Producers all over the world have been seeking to discover what extra flavour dimensions their regions could give to familiar varietals. Argentina had spectacular success with the malbec grape, previously known for producing the black wines of Cahors. When it was grown at high altitude in Mendoza, on the edge of the Andes mountain range, it found extra floral notes and a rich fruit core of blackberry and blueberry flavours. The Chileans achieved similar success with the dark and coal-like carmenère grape. Meanwhile, in South Africa, winemakers found additional notes and a ripeness in chenin blanc. New wine regions are being discovered, all the time, each hoping to make its mark by producing something distinctively local but celebrated globally. However, the later one joins the search for success, the harder it is to find promising grapes that are capable of rejuvenation. Not surprisingly, it’s the major players in the new world economy who are keen to develop their nascent wine industries, and China and Brazil are both developing fast. While the former created a new wine culture, the latter has taken an existing one to a new level. So far Brazilian winemakers have only been producing wines for the home market but as the quality has continued to rise, it is time the rest of the world knew more about these wines. Almost a century ago, an Italian community moved into Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul and started making spumante. For red wine they planted the nebbiolo grape on slopes like those of their native Piedmont. From here grew the wine industry you can see thriving today in the Vale dos Vinhedos, close to the city of Bento Gonçalves, and near Pinto Bandeira. The nebbiolo vines no longer exist. They were pulled up and replaced by merlot and cabernet sauvignon in the hope of making fashionable, international wines—so many producers feel they have not made it as winemakers until they produce a “Bordeaux blend.” This is a mistake and it’s much better to fashion a wine from grapes more suited to the climate. Cabernet franc is much more successful in the high but humid conditions in southern Brazil, where the concentration needed for cabernet sauvignon is hard to achieve. A particularly good example comes from one of the largest and oldest producers, Casa Valduga, established in 1875. Their young winemaker, Daniel Dalla Valle, endlessly strives for better quality in all his wines. The last 30 years have seen enormous improvements; but he wants to go further. “Give me another 30 years and see what I can do,” he tells me. I like the ambition. So far, the search for Brazil’s flagship grape has proved elusive. And with so few options left to explore, producers have been experimenting with unlikely varietals such as tannat, a thick-skinned grape that fared much better in Uruguay. But they have no need to worry. Brazilian winemakers are exceptional at making sparkling wines using the méthode champenoise—the traditional and labour-intensive method of turning the bottles by hand. This is producing fine examples of lees-aged wines from a variety of chardonnay and pinot noir blends. Cave Geisse led the way in 1979, after Chilean-born Mario Geisse left his job at Moët et Chandon to start it up. He now produces several cuvées including a Brut rosé from 100 per cent pinot noir aged in oak barrels. The wines show complexity and distinction. And Geisse is not alone. Along with Casa Valduga, smaller producers like Don Giovanni are turning out excellent wines. Perhaps the greatest success for Brazilian winemaking comes in the form of Sparkling Nature—a zero-dosage wine made from fully ripe grapes. In brut wines, the dosage of sweet liqueur added during bottle fermentation can be anywhere between six to 12 grams per litre; and while in France there is a growing craze for zero-dosage champagnes, these are often austere and acidic wines due to the lack of ripeness in the grapes. By contrast, the ripeness found in the hills surrounding Pinto Bandeira allows winemakers to produce elegant and palatable wines, which let the quality of the fruit speak. Don Giovanni’s Nature, with its elegant bubbles and gentle mousse combines fruit, freshness and lees-derived complexity. A pity that this wine is not known outside Brazil: it should be. It’s the epitome of a wine culture that began with the early makers of spumante. If only they had preserved their nebbiolo grapes who knows what we might be drinking now. The reds will come in time as a new generation of winemakers master the arts of grape, place and technique. Already, there are signs of significant developments at Almaúnica. It may be a while before we see Brazilian wines join the ranks of the internationally available new world wines, but they will come and they will be worth waiting for.