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Vale do Sao Francisco Wine

The Vale do Sao Francisco ('Valley of Saint Francis') is a river valley in the state of Bahia, eastern Brazil. The most remarkable thing about the valley as a wine region is its equatorial latitude, just 9°S. This places it only 625 miles (1000km) south of the Equator, and a full 1500 miles (2415km) north of Brazil’s core winelands in Rio Grande do Sul. The climate here is classified as semi-arid tropical. It is hot and dry, with just 24 inches (600mm) of rain a year.

At first glance, the Vale do Sao Francisco seems to entirely disprove the idea of the 'wine belt', the band of latitudes in which effective viniculture is thought practicable. In the southern hemisphere, the wine belt encircles the globe between 30°S and 45°S. But in fact it is more of an exception that proves the rule; the vines are entirely reliant on irrigation from the Sao Francisco River, and their productivity cycles are dependent on human intervention rather than natural seasonal influences. It can hardly be said that this is a 'natural' place to grow grapes and make wine.

The grapes grown in this tropical environment are rarely, if ever, of fine-wine quality. But what they lack in quality they make up for in quantity; many vineyards here produce two annual vintages rather than one.

The eastern and western edges of the Vale do Sao Francisco viticultural area are marked by the towns of Remanso and Petrolina respectively. These are more than 100 miles (160km) apart, which gives an indication of this region’s substantial size.

The valley is named after the Sao Francisco River, which flows through it from west to east. At almost 1865 miles (3000km), the river is the fourth-longest in South America and flows entirely within the borders of Brazil (the Amazon also flows through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru). The Sao Francisco rises in the Serra da Canastra hills and drops steadily north for approximately 1000 miles (1600km) before arriving at the massive Sobradinho reservoir, after which it continues eastwards towards the Atlantic coast.

The Sobradinho dam and reservoir are of vital importance to life in the north of Bahia state, and particularly to local agriculture. The region's vineyards are entirely dependent on irrigation and suffer from the inverse problem of their often-waterlogged counterparts in the south. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Vale do Sao Francisco vineyards are located around the reservoir within easy reach of water.

At tropical latitudes (Sao Francisco lies halfway between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn), the stages of the vine life cycle become as blurred as the seasonal changes that govern them. Unlike temperate zones, tropical vines need little encouragement to give two or more crops a year. In unlikely wine regions such as Ecuador, Guyana, Cuba, Vietnam and Indonesia, pruning methods and other vineyard-management techniques have been adopted to limit vintages to just one or two a year. The same is true here in eastern Brazil, where vine dormancy is severely limited by the lack of a winter shut-down period. The average winter temperature in the valley is a balmy 68F (20C).

Opinion is divided over whether Vale do Sao Francisco wines will ever compete alongside those from cooler regions – but then, not long ago few would have predicted that wine could be made here at all.

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