Serra Gaucha is a Brazilian wine region in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul ('great river of the south'), where Brazil meets Uruguay. Its name is apt: the hilly landscape here (serra means 'mountain range') is inhabited by the gauchos, 'cowboys' of the Brazilian pampas.
Small landholdings of just a few hectares are the norm here, which makes co-operative winemaking almost a necessity. The cost of buying and maintaining winemaking equipment is considerable, so local vignerons pool their resources and invest in shared, co-operative wineries (a practice which proved very successful in southern France and various parts of Italy). It was through similar collaborative efforts that a group of Serra Gaucha winemakers successfully campaigned for the creation of Vale do Vinhedos DO, Brazil's first wine appellation.
The Serra Gaucha terroir is characterized by the region's altitude and latitude, while the local culture is tangibly influenced by the immigrant populations from Germany and Italy. Porto Alegre is the state capital and, as its name implies, a harbor town. It lies at the eastern edge of the Serra Gaucha winelands, and from there the land rises from sea level to more than 2500ft (760m) at Caixas do Sul, the state's second city and local wine capital. The altitude and mountainous terrain here are vital to the area's suitability for viniculture. Without their cooling effect, the latitude here (30 degrees south) would combine with the coastal air to create an environment so hot and humid that healthy vine growth would falter, and fungal diseases and rot of all kinds would thrive.
Although German migrants began arriving here in the 1820s, there are still a number of locals here who speak 'Riograndenser Hunsrukisch', a dialect of German now almost unique to the Rio Grande do Sur area. The Italian descendants have also maintained traces of their linguistic heritage, and can sometimes be heard speaking Tailan, a dialect formed from a mixture of the local Portuguese and various dialects from northern Italy.
The local cuisine and architecture show significant Italian influences, and Italy is largely to thank for the birth of effective viticulture here in the late 19th century. Even the grape varieties which first took off here were Italian (Barbera and Trebbiano among them), although these have now largely been supplanted by international varieties of French origin: Chardonnay, Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
As is the case in most of Brazil's wine regions (all of which, with the exception of the Vale do Sao Francisco, are here in the south), sparkling wines are the specialty of Serra Gaucha. Many are made in the Italian foaming spumante style, but the popularity of French champagne terminology has now led to Brazilian sparkling wines being labeled as brut or even extra brut (dry or extra dry).
Although Caixas do Sul is the Serra Gaucha's administrative and commercial epicenter (it also hosts the biennial Festa da Uva harvest festival), nearby Bento Goncalves is arguably the viticultural capital, and is widely viewed as the wine capital of Brazil. The national Rota do Vinho wine trail passes through the town as it winds up the vineyard-strewn hillsides.