Brazilian Cuisine is Begging for Wine
Wine is not the first pairing that comes to mind when you’re talking about Brazilian cuisine. Coffee, fruit drinks, cachaça, and beer are all more traditional and have longer histories with the food. Portugal has a long history of wine production, but the first settlers in the 1500s found the northern regions near the equator too hot and too wet for proper viticulture. Instead, that land was ideal for sugarcane and the rest is history. Even today, the average Brazilian only consumes a third of a liter of wine a year, roughly equivalent to half a standard 750mL bottle.
The modern Brazilian wine industry has its origins in a massive wave of Italian immigration starting at the tail end of the 19th century, when over a million Italians settled in a big wave that later continued with the turbulent European first half of the 20th century. Today over 30 million Brazilians claim some Italian heritage compared to only 60 million Italians back in the old country. A lot of this settlement (along with German immigrants) happened in the cooler, drier, higher altitude regions of the south. A forgiving climate and technical know-how allowed for lots of table grape production with limited, small batch wine processing.
I’ve had a couple dozen Brazilian wines (mostly at a Snooth tasting in New York), and the industry is still developing from the introduction of modern technology and wine production from outside investors in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re on an interesting path, and it will be great to watch how they grow over the coming decades. Unfortunately, right now there are not a lot of Brazilian wines available in the US market, so I’ll be focusing on what I think are good matches for the incredibly delicious food of Brazil.
In addition to having Brazilian food with friends’ families in high school, I’m also lucky to have a Brazilian restaurant near my house where I’ve been able to experiment over the past month. The fact that I’ve been able to share these with the owner, cooks, and fellow diners (no wine list there yet!) has also been a lot of fun.
The first exposure an American is likely to have with Brazilian food is at a churrascaria, often presented in the form of “eat grilled meats until you burst and gently turn over the green card to reveal the red side”. Ideally you’d have different pairings for the chicken, sausages, beef, lamb, etc., but in a situation like this I prefer something milder than a red and more versatile than a white, which is why a rosé is the perfect choice.
$18, 12.5% abv.
While a gentle pink wine, there is still a considerable amount of fruit and acidity that indicate this can stand up to a wide range of foods. Light salmon in color, it has gentle aromas of raspberries with a light floral undertone. Cheerful and refreshing, which can be helpful when you’re on your third pound of grilled meat and the sweat is beading on your forehead.
Now that we have churrasco out of the way (and I love churrasco), it’s time to focus on the more everyday dining options that you’ll find, sourced from around a diverse country that occupies a big chunk of South America. And you’ve got to start with salgadinhos, the word for “little salty snacks”. Coxinhas are sort of like the original chicken nugget: a blend of shredded chicken molded into the form of a chicken leg before being battered and fried. I always have to add hot sauce, but two or three of these can make an entire meal.
Proprietary blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Ugni Blanc
$25, 11.5% abv.
The white sparkler opens up with aromas and flavors of green apples with a little toast. Firm acidity and a crisp finish, which means that this goes along quite well with snacks. Sparkling wine with fried chicken is a guilty pleasure and there’s a reason why it works so well: something salty and greasy needs a bottle that is crisp and palate-cleansing. If you have the discipline, try to just have one glass of bubbly and one coxinha before a larger meal.
Pastéis are little flaky pastries filled with lots of different things, and surprisingly seem to have been influenced by Japanese immigration to Brazil in the 20th century. I’m particularly fond of the cheesy ones, though cooks get creative and use all sorts of meat, vegetable, and fruit fillings. Lighter and more delicate than something like the Cornish pasty, they remind me a lot of the fried pies of my own Mid-South region, except that savory versions are not common to this area. My suggestion below is for a simple one stuffed with mozzarella.
$15, 10.5% abv.
Gentle quince notes, light pear flavors, medium sweetness and a gentle finish. The sweet elements balance out nicely against the salty and savory, while the lower alcohol is ideal for handheld appetizer that you might be enjoying at a bar. The fruits, while not exotic or tropical, do stand up and pair well with Brazilian cuisine in general. Once again, pairing a German wine with a Brazilian snack made with an Italian cheese is fully in line with the complex influences that make up the wide world of food in Brazil.
I can’t go much further without talking about feijoada, the national dish of Brazil made with kidney beans, assorted pig parts, and served over rice. That’s a simple way to phrase it, but the best way for me to describe my feijoada obsession is to say this: recently at a restaurant I had a side of black beans, and found them disappointingly bland without the added flavors of pig ears, pig feet, chouriço, linguiça, and other tasty bits. Slow cooked for hours, this is the perfect place where traditional South American cuisine can meet traditional American South cuisine.
76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Syrah, 7% Zinfandel and 4% Merlot
$12, 13.8% abv.
The wine opens up quickly with rich aromas of plum and strawberry, the latter being a little surprising for the grape blend. On the palate it shows mild tannins, big fruit, and a gentle finish. It’s even better the next day after it’s had some time to breathe, which works out well for the flavors of feijoada that are so tasty on the second day as the various elements have had a chance to blend and combine.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. However, I enjoy small, flavorful desserts when they’re offered. And if you’ve enjoyed chocolate truffles from Godiva or other confectioners, you need to try brigadeiros. They’re little dark chocolate truffles made with condensed milk and rolled in crunchy little chocolate sprinkles. They’re relatively recent but rich and decadent, so a single one is enough for me. And they are the best pairing for a somewhat obscure style of French dessert wine that is actually not too hard to find.
Banyuls AOC, France
$30/500mL bottle, 16% abv.
If you’ve never had it before, Banyuls is a fortified wine made in a fashion similar to Port but with an aroma and flavor that I’ve always associated predominantly with raisins. Intense aromas of stewed fruit, raisins, and black cherry. Dark fruit flavors and sweet but not cloying. The dark chocolate provides a powerful contrast of bitter notes which makes you go back and forth between the dessert and the wine, activating all parts of your palate.
Even if you have trouble pronouncing português, I would highly recommend checking out your local Brazilian restaurant or even trying out some recipes online. And if you do so with a nice bottle of wine, even better.