North of Porto Alegre is the Serra Gaúcha, a range of hills and mountains populated mainly by the descendants of German and Italian immigrants. The Germans, who settled in Rio Grande do Sul between 1824 and 1859, spread out on fairly low-lying land, establishing small farming communities, of which Nova Petrópolis is just one that still retains strong elements of its ethnic origins. The Italians, who arrived between 1875 and 1915, settled on more hilly land further north and, being mainly from the hills and mountains of Veneto and Trento, they adapted well and very quickly specialized in wine production. Caxias do Sul has developed into the region’s most important administrative and industrial centre, but it is in and around smaller towns, such as Bento Gonçalves and Garibaldi, that the region’s – and, in fact, Brazil’s – wine production is centred.
To the east, and at much higher altitudes, are the resort towns of Gramado and Canela, where unspoilt landscapes, mountain trails, refreshing temperatures, luxurious hotels and the café colonial – a vast selection of cakes, jams, cheeses, meats, wine and other drinks produced by the region’s colonos – attract visitors from cities throughout Brazil. Beyond here lies some even more rugged terrain, this highland area largely given over to cattle ranching. What little population there is you’ll find concentrated in the small towns of São Francisco de Paula and Cambará do Sul. Although both centres remain first and foremost ranching communities, they’ve become important jumping-off points for visiting the majestic canyons of Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra, one of southern Brazil’s most impressive geological sites.
The cattle communities of São Francisco de Paula and Cambará do Sul are both good places to use as a base for visiting the Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra. In SÃO FRANCISCO DE PAULA, the larger of the two towns, you’ll pass the tourist office on the way into town, where you may be able to get advice on getting to the park. There’s a wide choice of places to stay in and around São Francisco, much the larger though the less attractive of the two towns. Two good places to try, both a couple of kilometres from town and well signposted, are the Pousada Pomar Cisne Branco (t 51/244-1204; R$71-120 including dinner) and the Hotel Cavalinho Branco (t 51/244-1263; R$41-70). The best place to eat is the Pomar Cisne Branco, which serves superb, inexpensive home-style meals.
Approach BENTO GONÇALVES, 40km west of Caxias, from any direction and there’s no doubting that this is the heartland of Brazil’s wine-producing region. On virtually every patch of land, no matter the gradient, vines are planted. Wine production entered a new era in the late 1970s as huge cooperatives developed, local cantinas expanded and foreign companies set up local operations. The results have been somewhat mixed. In the past, the locals relied almost exclusively on North American grape varieties and produced their own distinctive wines. Gradually, though, they were encouraged to join a cooperative or agree to sell their grapes exclusively for one company. New European and, more recently, Californian vines enabled companies to produce “finer” wines of a type that until then had been imported. All this means that the colonos now rarely produce more than their own family’s requirements, and high-tech stainless-steel vats and rigidly monitored quality control have rapidly replaced the old oaken-barrel tradition; with few exceptions, the resulting wines are, at best, mediocre.