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How a British Expat Ended Up Running Rio de Janeiro's Only Wine Bar

“Everyone told me it was a big risk,” says Dominic Parry, owner of WineHouse bar in Rio, a city where cold beer rules supreme. “Brazilian wine is very different. It’s fresh and fruity, and it’s easy to drink.”
December 25, 2015, 1:00pm
All photos by the author.

When British expat Dominic Parry decided to open a wine bar in Rio de Janeiro, everyone told him he was crazy.

Brazil is unquestionably a beer country. It is the third biggest beer market on the planet, with Belgium-Brazilian company Anheuser-Busch InBev recognised as the world's biggest brewer. In recent years, the country has even started to embrace craft beer, diversifying beyond its "stupidly cold" cheap lagers that quench drinkers' thirst on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.

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Wine, however, usually veers between expensive imports and chilled red plonk.

"Everyone told me it was a big risk," says Parry, who went ahead and opened his WineHouse bar anyway. "But I was confident. I spent a year living here with a few Brazilians and a few Portuguese, and we noticed that we never drank wine together out of the house. There were no places for us to drink wine in Rio."

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WineHouse bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All photos by the author.

While Brazilian wine is still far less popular than beer and its reputation not as revered as that of neighbouring Argentina and Chile, its domestic market has been quietly thriving.

According to industry bodies, sales of wine increased by almost 85 percent between 2013 and 2014, with a rise in exports this year driven by sparkling wine, a product that has become something of an unlikely success for Brazil and sells around 20.5 million bottles a year.

READ MORE: This Wine Bar Isn't for Snobs

More than 300 hectares are devoted to the Pinot Noir grapes used for sparkling wine, while the most grown varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Meanwhile, the number of Brazilians drinking wine has increased by 30 percent, according to Wines of Brasil, a promotional partnership between the Brazilian Wine Institute and investment agency Apex-Brasil.

"Brazilian wine is little known," says Mari Balsan, project manager at Wines of Brasil. "Few recognise Brazil as a producer but those who have contact with Brazilian wine find something different, something pleasing."

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WineHouse owner Dominic Parry.spumante

Investment in production technology over the past decade has also improved the quality of Brazil's wine, while consumers have been turning to cheaper, native produce over expensive imports as the recession bites. Indeed, as Brazil's economy contracted for the third consecutive quarter this year—prolonging the recession—its wine sector seems to be bucking the trend.

Most of the country's wine production remains in the mild south of Brazil (near Uruguay and the north of Argentina, and where Italian immigrants brought their tradition of sparkling wine) but other regions are starting to develop their own vintages.

"Compared to Argentinian or Chilean wine, Brazilian wine is very different," says Balsan. "It's fresh and fruity, and it's easy to drink."

In the meantime, Rio's drinking culture has changed, with an increasing number of restaurants, bars, and bistros now offering wine lists. In fact, some reports put the city as second only to the southern, wine-producing state of Rio Grande do Sul in terms of wine consumption per capita.

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Yet Parry claims WineHouse remains the only authentic wine bar in the city.

"I was quietly confident because I knew there was a market but I was never over confident," he says. "But it has been better than we predicted."

What had started as a joke among friends—who even considered selling wine on the beach—turned into a reality when Parry opened the bar in the affluent neighbourhood of Botafogo in Rio's south zone almost two years ago.

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READ MORE: What It's Like to Hold a Food Festival in a Rio de Janeiro Slum

"Our idea was to be accessible, we wanted to be affordable for young people," he explains. "People before were scared about knowing enough about wine to consume it. There's a whole mystique to wine that discouraged people from choosing it."

While WineHouse has a list of imported bottles ranging from a R$65 (£11) Argentinian Chardonnay to a Barnaut Champagne Grand Cru at R$299 (£52), the house wine is a Merlot produced by a small, family-run business in the south of Brazil. Full bodied and oaked, it comes from the Valmarino winery in Rio Grande do Sul, which also produces a Brut Champenoise carrying the WineHouse label.

It must taste pretty good because WineHouse continues to attract new customers, despite Brazil's economic climate.

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"It's not logical because we expected to be hit harder," says Parry. "A lot of our customers are not hit very hard, they are more high level in their companies. We're actually selling more expensive wine than we were before the crisis but it's still accessible."

And with Christmas around the corner, Parry hopes to attract even more wine fans. But will Brazilians be drinking mulled wine at WineHouse this Christmas? Remember that December falls during Rio's summer.

"We did ceviche on the summer menu last year so we'll be doing that again and we're doing sangria as well," says Parry. He also has plans to serve his homemade Pimm's, which is unavailable in Brazil. "Christmas is usually a good time for us anyway, with people doing end of year parties."

There can be few better ways to toast the festive season than with a glass of Brazilian Pimm's.