The Vale do Sao Francisco ('valley of Saint Francis') is a wine region in the state of Bahia, in the east of Brazil. Quite exceptionally in this tropical country, the region lies 1500 miles (2415km) and ten degrees of latitude north of Brazil’s core winelands in the Serra Gaucha. This places it on the ninth parallel, closer to the equator than almost any wine region on earth.
The eastern and western edges of the Vale do Sao Francisco vine-growing area are marked by the towns of Remanso and Petrolina respectively. The two towns are separated by more than 100 miles (160km), an indication of this region’s substantial size. In contrast, the world-famous Bordeaux wine region is one of the largest in France, and is markedly smaller than Vale do Sao Francisco. Geographical size is not a reliable indicator of a wine region’s productivity, however; once land usage and planting densities are taken into account, Bordeaux emerges as a giant compared to the Vale do Sao Francisco, which is still in its viticultural infancy.
The valley is named after the Rio do Sao Francisco river which flows through it from west to east. At almost 1865 miles (3000km), the river is the longest that runs entirely within the borders of Brazil (the vast Amazon also flows through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and the fourth-longest in South America. It rises in the Serra da Canastra hills and drops steadily north for approximately 1000 miles (1600km) before arriving at the massive Sobradinho Reservoir, and continuing east 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 Valle 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 which govern them. Unlike temperate zones, tropical vines need little encouragement to give two or more crops each 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 per 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 again, not long ago few would have predicted that wine could be made here at all.