Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth-largest in the world. With roughly 205,000 acres (83,000ha) of vineyard, it ranks just behind its near-neighbors Argentina and Chile in terms of acreage under vine. Only a small proportion (about 10%) of these acres are planted with vitis vinifera vines, however, so this large acreage does not translate large volumes of quality wine. There are concerted efforts underway to improve this ratio, and although not yet recognized on an international scale, the quality and quantity of Brazilian wines are increasing year on year. Brazil's best-known wines are arguably its sparkling whites, which are made in a similar style to the spumantes of Italy.
Brazil's wine industry was relatively slow to develop, particularly when compared to that of Chile or Argentina. The country's vast size and hot, tropical climate made it difficult to establish a national wine industry of any scale or efficiency. Without reliable trade routes it is prohibitively difficult to move grapes from vineyard to winery, and wine from winery to consumer. Most of Brazil's wine is produced in the far south of the country, in Serra Gaucha and Campanha, so it was only when roads were carved through the plains and forests (in the early 20th century) that these regions were connected with the rest of the country.
Grape vines first arrived in Brazil in the mid-16th century, introduced by early Portuguese colonists. The warm, humid climate proved too much for these early vines, which suffered from numerous fungal diseases. At that time vine husbandry was primitive, so disease-resistant vine clones were not available (and vineyard-management techniques not sufficiently advanced) to combat this problem. Subsequent attempts were no more successful, and it was not until the arrival of Isabella vines in the mid-19th century that Brazilian viniculture began to make progress. This was later followed by other American hybrid vines including Norton, Concord, Catawba and Clinton, and later a flotilla of Italian wine varieties brought over with migrants from Italy: Barbera, Moscato and Trebbiano were among them. Tannat was also introduced from southern France, although it has not proved as successful here as in Brazil's smaller southern neighbor, Uruguay.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Brazil began producing wines of export quality. This progress was largely due to the arrival of several international wine companies, who contributed significantly to the country's wine-production infrastructure. They brought with them new winemaking technologies and vineyard-management techniques, and the French grape varieties which at that time were rapidly gaining popularity all over the world: Chardonnay and Semillon for whites, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for reds.
Despite spanning a full 39 degrees of latitude (from 34°S to 5°N), this vast nation lies almost entirely outside the 'wine belt' (the band of latitudes in which effective viniculture is traditionally thought possible). In the southern hemisphere, the wine belt encircles the globe between 30°S and 45°S, leaving very little room in which to develop the Brazilian vineyard. Thus the vast majority of Brazilian wine comes from Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul.
Of all the Brazilian states, Rio Grande do Sul ('great river of the south') is the only one with land south of the 30th parallel. It is home to two key regions: Campanha (on the border with Uruguay) and Serra Gaucha, home to Brazil's sparkling wine capital, Bento Goncalves.
Far to the north, the state of Bahia is home to a developing wine region which, at 9°S (just 650 miles / 1050km south of the equator) defies expectation: the flat, arid Vale do Sao Francisco.