Belo Horizonte is the Johannesburg of Brazil. They’re about the same size (metropolitan BH is home to around 5 million rainbow souls) and both date from the late 19th century. Both have more fashionable twins (Rio and Cape Town) on the coast and mining is the business of both. But that’s where the similarities end. Brazil is seriously different and even buying a bottle of wine in a supermarket brings that point home.
I’ve just walked back to the Ouro Minas Palace Hotel from Minas Shopping, a Sandton City-scale mall where I bought a couple of bottles of wine at Extra, a 24-hour hypermarket – not too many of those in SA. Each mall entrance is manned or womaned by a private armed guard and security staff with Rays Bans, ear pieces and head phones à la CIA, maintain a visible presence.
Supermarket wine in BH has quite a few differences to the SA experience:
1. No bottles have screw caps – it’s like Norman Goodfellows, only bigger.
2. In spite of a large local wine industry producing a couple of vintages a year, most offerings are imported. Portugal, Chile and Argentina are well represented. SA puts on a good show with brands like Two Oceans, Oracle and Fleur du Cap but there are no independents. With a hot and humid climate, SA Sauvignon Blanc could make a killing if producers came here rather than to that Mega Tasting in London. And they wouldn’t have to put up with Heathrow.
3. SA prices are mid-range, around the $R20 mark (R75). Brazilian wine is the cheapest (around $R6) while Portuguese wines are the most expensive – $R75 (R300) for a bottle of the marvelous Esporao 2003 from Alentejo. And of course, Champagne from France is well represented and not cheap.
4. Supermarkets sell liquor: cane, run and whisky – big names like Johnnie Walker and Chivas as well as producers you’ve never heard of. Amarula is a feature with the “big five” promotional tins each featuring one of the Kruger Park’s big five elephants making a most effective display.
5. Extra sells wine and spirits 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No fenced-off areas for Sunday observance, à la Woolworths, here.
6. None of the wines have any show medals on them and there are no wine guides dangling from shelves on dirty strings.
7. Wines are arranged by country and then grouped by cultivar.
8. Expensive ones are on the top shelves; as you drop towards the ground, prices decrease.
9. Reds outnumber whites by 4:1.
10. Plastic bags are free.