Catastrophe Strikes Brazil’s Vineyards

The South of Brazil has been hit by torrential rains that have killed at least 90 people and displaced 155,000 more. Brazil’s vineyards are also badly damaged. Lucia Porto reports.

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Devastated vineyards at Vignobles Marchetto
Devastated vineyards at Vignobles Marchetto

Rio Grande do Sul, the state located in the far south of Brazil, is experiencing the worst moment in its history, a catastrophe of gigantic proportions of which we still cannot fully grasp the losses — and perhaps we will never know for sure.

As of 7 May 2024, 388 of the 497 municipalities are affected—approximately 80% of the state's territory. Around 50,000 people are in shelters and more than 155,000 were displaced. There are  361 injured, more than 132 missing and more than 1,300,000 gaúchos (dwellers of Rio Grande do Sul) directly affected.

And so far, at least 90 confirmed deaths.
 

Rio Grande do Sul is in shock

The rain that has been falling insistently since the end of April has been merciless, causing an increase in the level of Lake Guaíba, which borders the city of Porto Alegre, the state capital. The lake’s waters have reached the historic mark of 5.73 metres; the previous record was 4.76 metres, from the flood of 1941. Today, a large part of the city is under water.

The rain has not stopped, and the south zone of the Rio Grande do Sul is on alert.
 

Vineyards have been hit

The first regions to be hit were the valleys of Taquari, Central and Serra Gaúcha.

This is the main wine-producing hub of the country, where about 80% of Brazilian wine production takes place.

The cities of the Serra region—Bento Gonçalves, Pinto Bandeira, Monte Belo do Sul, Barão, Garibaldi, Caxias do Sul, Veranópolis, Roca Sales, Santa Tereza, Carlos Barbosa, Flores da Cunha, and Nova Pádua—are facing catastrophe.

Situated amid the slopes, the municipalities have been devastated at an astonishing speed. Barriers came down, taking with everything in their path along with them: trees, stones, mud, vineyards, cars, houses, and people. Many died and are now buried in their homes, without time to save themselves.

The Serra Gaúcha, a region which includes the Rio das Antas River, as well as several streams, creeks and springs, has shown the havoc that nature can wreak.

Vineyards of 10, and 20 years of age were torn from the ground as if they were made of paper, as in the property of Heleno Facchin, a resident and owner of a vineyard area in Pinto Bandeira, one of the highest points of the Serra Gaúcha. 

Bento Goncalves, 'capital of wine' in Brazil
Bento Goncalves, 'capital of wine' in Brazil

"The landslide, the flood, passed 30 meters from my house. And only God could have diverted it,” he said. 

The vineyards included one hectare of Merlot and half a hectare of Tannar. “Rebuilding a vineyard takes three years for it to be in a productive state. In this case, it is a work that we do not know how to do,” Facchin went on. “It is actually a reconstruction: an engineering work. We have to clean and build the area in order to prepare it again to be able to welcome a new vineyard.” Ten years of work, gone.

Then there are the 30-year-old vineyards belonging to the Marchetto family in the interior of Linha Clementina. In just half an hour, the collapse of the barriers devastated two hectares planted with Cora and Magda.

Despite the examples above being from the municipality of Pinto Bandeira — which since November 2022 has had the recognition of the 1st D.O. for sparkling wines of the New World — it’s expected that there will be more losses from the municipality of Bento Gonçalves. According to data from the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Company (Emater), which provides support services to family farmers, at least 250 hectares of vineyards in Bento Gonçalves have already been destroyed.

"The loss estimates are based on drone images and on reports from producers and technicians," explains Thompson Didone, head of the local office. "Visiting on site is practically impossible. We will wait for the Civil Defense's permission.”

It is important to provide context: according to data from EMBRAPA Grape and Wine/SIVIBE, in the 2022/2023 harvest, Rio Grande do Sul as a whole had an area of 40,769.7 hectares of planted vineyards, Bento Gonçalves just over 10%, 4,430.1 and Pinto Bandeira, 1,545.5.
 

More losses expected

Elson Schneider, president of the Rural Union of the Serra Gaúcha, which covers six municipalities—Santa Tereza, Monte Belo do Sul, Bento Gonçalves, Garibaldi, Pinto Bandeira and Carlos Barbosa—has a similar assessment: "We estimate the direct damage to the vineyards above 200 hectares, between 200 and 250 hectares, only in the municipalities of Bento Gonçalves and Pinto Bandeira," he says, "the survey is not yet complete." This count does not include the other four municipalities that are part of the Union's area of coverage - Santa Tereza, Monte Belo do Sul, Garibaldi and Carlos Barbosa. "You can be sure that there is a very high probability that more than 300 hectares of vineyards are affected".

In Barão, about 30 kilometres from Bento Gonçalves, Valparaiso wines and vineyards still have no idea of the damage the storm caused.

“The river widened, opened arms and modified its course so much was the violence and the volume of water. The two bridges we have are compromised. There is no way to pass a tractor or even for us to walk," says Naiana Argenta, one of the owners. "We never thought the water would rise almost a metre inside the winery, for days. And that water underneath forms a sludge, a mud, and after it starts to dry it's horrible to remove.”

She says it will take months of cleaning to remove. There are machines submerged inside the winery that have been there for days, along with overturned tanks. Everything inside them has been lost.

The wine trade is also affected

In addition to the vineyards, stores that sell Brazilian wines have also been affected.

Adega Refinaria Terroirs do Brasil, which has more than 1,100 labels in its catalogue, had the store flooded. It was closed for days and it will take a long time before the losses can be calculated and operations resumed. 

Lucia Porto is the co-founder of wine news site Brasil de Vinhos. This article was translated by sommelier Júlia França. 

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