How Brazil managed to produce wine in the middle of the savannah

. Jul 16, 2020
wine brazil brasilia savannah exotic Vinícola Brasília, or simply "Brasília Vineyard." Photo: PAD-DF

Spread over 2 million square kilometers and encompassing 12 Brazilian states, the Cerrado is South America’s second-largest biome. Its name comes from the Portuguese word cerrar, meaning “to close,” in reference to the region being an “inhospitable, closed up space” that is hard to cross. For centuries, that is how this tropical savannah has been seen, but Brazil is beginning to find out that there is so much more to this vast expanse.

Far from inhospitable, the Cerrado is actually one of the Americas’ biggest regions, home to 5 percent of the world’s fauna and flora and the second-largest body of subterranean freshwater on the planet, as well as three enormous river basins. And thanks to massive efforts by the state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), the Cerrado has also become one of the world’s largest grain producers in the world — and one of the main driving forces of the Brazilian economy.

The Federal District, a tiny portion of land where the capital city Brasília was built in the 1950s, has stood out by posting the highest productivity rates for several crops — something that flabbergasts even Brazilians. But this wasn’t always the way.

</p> <p>The soil in Brazil&#8217;s Cerrado is notoriously acidic and lacking in nutrients. Embrapa set about developing new forms to clean up the land, prepare it for crops, and correct its soil acidity. It also came up with innovative fertilization formulas —&nbsp;a process the company <a href="">calls</a> &#8220;the construction of the agricultural Cerrado soil.&#8221; To make this successful, Embrapa relied on a group of agricultural &#8216;guinea pigs,&#8217; launching a settlement program in Planaltina — a satellite city on the outskirts of Brasília — taking several families from the south of Brazil who were up to the challenge of farming on the hostile Cerrado soil.&nbsp;</p> <p>Forty-three years later, the settlements are producing multiple crops all year round, with a productivity rate 158 percent above the national average. Wheat crops in Planaltina, for example, harvest 6.2 tons per hectare in comparison to the national average of 2.4 tons.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="800" height="531" src="" alt="How Brazil managed to produce wine in the middle of the savannah" class="wp-image-44589" srcset=" 800w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" /><figcaption>PDF-DF is one of Brazil&#8217;s most productive places. Photo: Pedro Ventura/Agência Brasília</figcaption></figure> <h2>Making wine in the savannah</h2> <p>Moving to the geographical center of the country in 1978, the Triacca family from the <a href="">southern</a> state of Paraná became one of the pioneers of <a href="">planting grains</a> in the Federal District. Today, they largely cultivate soy and corn across various different plots, splitting the cost and use of equipment with other farmers. One of the Triaccas, however, went even further. After being able to preserve the majority of the original forest on his own property, Ronaldo Triacca constructed a luxury eco-hotel and recently put together a vineyard where, last September, he started his first vintage, harvesting 100 kilograms of Syrah grapes.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Triacca took the <a href="">fruits</a> all the way to the Agriculture Research Company of Minas Gerais (Epamig) in the city of Caldas, where he received advice from winemakers. At the beginning of this month, the first wine ever produced in the Federal District was ready for consumption.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="576" src="" alt="vineyard savannah brasilia" class="wp-image-44606" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>The project for Vinícola Brasília (Brasília Vineyard)</figcaption></figure> <p>Labeled Seu Claudino, Mr. Triacca&#8217;s wine is part of a larger project. He and another nine farmers from the area recently began construction on the first vineyard of the Brazilian Center-West region. It will be built along the BR-251 highway, beside a sunflower plantation. Like Mr. Triacca, the other participants of this venture are hoping to produce grapes in order to make their own wines. They plan to produce a blend using all of the grape varieties produced in order to identify the vineyard as a whole. &#8220;We could only call it Vinícola Brasília (Brasília Vineyard),&#8221; says Ronaldo Triacca.</p> <p>The success of viniculture in the Center-West impressed winemaker Marcos Vian, from Rio Grande do Sul, who has been brought into several vineyards across the country to make wine. And he will be in charge of making Brasília&#8217;s next Syrah from the 2020 vintage, to be harvested in August.</p> <p>What contributes significantly to the quality of Brasília wine is the temperature changes between day and night, which favors the accumulation of polyphenols, the intensity of color, and the production of tannins, essential for the structure of the red wine. “Beyond the intense luminosity, the temperature here can vary between 6 degrees Celsius in the morning to 28 or 30 degrees at midday,” explains agricultural engineer Gabriel Triacca, Ronaldo&#8217;s son.</p> <h2>Organic specialty coffee</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="800" height="531" src="" alt="Coffee producer Valdemar Cenci. Photo: Tony Winston/Agência Brasília" class="wp-image-44590" srcset=" 800w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" /><figcaption>Coffee producer Valdemar Cenci. Photo: Tony Winston/Agência Brasília</figcaption></figure> <p>Though the planted area of coffee in the Federal District is tiny compared to the more traditional coffee-making regions of Brazil, producers in the capital have been able to count on consultants and technology to make the most out of the crops in the smallest space possible. Therefore, the productivity of coffee in the Federal District is one of the highest in the country, harvesting an average of 60 bags of 60 kg per hectare — twice the national average.</p> <p>The capital city has the characteristics necessary to produce high-quality products. The coffee grows on irrigated plantations at an altitude of 1,000 meters.</p> <p>Valdemar Cenci came to the Cerrado in the 1980s, being the last of his four brothers from Rio Grande do Sul to move to the capital. As was the way of many of his compatriots, he invested everything in agriculture. He began planting rice and soy on a rural area of Planaltina, before beginning to cultivate coffee seven years ago. &#8220;Coffee is a cycle. One year, the harvest is great. The next, it&#8217;s bad. But on average it&#8217;s a good crop,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>&#8220;The best part is the productivity,&#8221; says Mr. Cenci. &#8220;In order to make as much money as I do from one hectare of coffee, I&#8217;d need to plant eight hectares of soy.&#8221; Between his harvests of 2014 and 2016, Mr. Cenci harvested 75 bags per hectare. His end product is sold to grains traders, where it is sent to various other states, roasted and sold with beans planted and harvested in many parts of the country.</p> <p>Ten years ago, the Fontenelles family decided to dedicate itself to the production of specialty coffee crops, planted and packed at Fazenda Santa Rosa, 70 kilometers from the center of Brasília. His coffee is sold at over 150 restaurants, coffee shops, sweet shops, and supermarkets in the Federal District. Eurípedes Fontenelle began cultivating coffee on his farm 20 years ago, and in 2008 he decided to gamble on the coffee market in the capital city. He created his own brand, Café Fontenelle, with the intention of being known for its high quality, for which he studied extensively and hired consultants.</p> <p>Not even Eurípedes&#8217; death interrupted his dream. While his family sold the farm on the side of the BR-251 highway, the new owners continue to produce the coffee, which became the first gourmet coffee in Brasília.</p> <p>This move toward high-quality products is not restricted to the Cerrado, as all over Brazil producers are pursuing <a href="">origin seals</a> to establish gourmet markets in cheese, wine, and coffee. Using the example of coffee, Brazil is the world&#8217;s largest producer of the bean but spent most of its history exporting it as a commodity, ignoring the specialty market domestically. This changed dramatically in the 2010s, however, with producers all over the country investing in the unique flavor and aroma profiles their beans possess.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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