The global reach of South American wines cannot be denied. The quality of the very best are accepted to be on a par with icon wines from around the world, and the value that South American wines offer can be incredible. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere wines of Chile and the Malbecs of Argentina have led the charge but Tannat from Uruguay is gaining considerable acclaim. Anybody with an awareness of South American wines knows that the Spanish established vines, grapegrowing and winemaking in the continent during the 16th Century, so the culture of wine has been present for centuries. However, it’s not that simple. In wanting more detail, a greater understanding of the history and a fuller knowledge of the breadth of South American wine, I delved into Evan Goldstein’s book ‘Wines of South America – The Essential Guide’, only to find that much of what I thought I knew was based on misconception.
Although the Spanish brought vines and established winemaking in the 1500s, this didn’t lead directly to the present state of the wine scene where South American wines are becoming highly regarded around the world. The Criolla varieties that the Spanish introduced were cultivated to slake their thirst and that of the locals. These varieties remain today, these including Cereza, Criolla Grande, Pais, Pedro Giminez and the more highly regarded Torrontes. The grapes are used today for undistinctive beverage wine, pisco spirit and the like. Hybrids are also abundant, and these go towards jellies, jams, table consumption and raisins.
The classical vitis vinifera varieties were imported from the late 19th Century, but the South America wine scene is really the result of the changes of economies over the last 35 years. The outlook of the main winegrowing countries of Chile and Argentina turned to export. Along with this came the input of foreign investment and expertise, and the introduction of new clonal material as well as more sophisticated viticulture and vinification, and the development of new growing districts aimed at producing fine and contemporary wine. While a number of winemaking firms have a venerable history, the explosion of new and innovative, quality-aspirant producers is the major drive in the modern South American wine scene. The older producers have had to move with the times.
Capturing the Excitement
Evan Goldstein has quietly captured the excitement of the South American wine scene with this book. One can’t help but be impressed with the on-going development that Goldstein uncovers and presents. A Master Sommelier working in San Francisco, he has a slightly different take to that of a purely wine-focussed writer or critic. The book has a holistic perspective that takes in the history, culture and setting, business, and includes the consideration of tourism and of course food. Acknowledging the wine scene is a moving target where “laws are modified, winemakers move on, wineries are sold or closed, and great vintages sell out”, he hasn’t taken the role of a critic where wines and wineries are scored or rated. He sees himself as a “tour guide with opinions”, and this comes through in reading, not even between the lines. His writing isn’t emotive or judgemental, but more matter of fact; he’s reporting what he’s found, and what his trusted friends have told him.
The book starts with an overview of the South American scene, this settling some misconceptions, as mentioned above. Goldstein then covers the grape varieties prevalent, emphasising the classical varieties, telling in which country they are grown and where distinctive wines are made from them. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the leading whites, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec (in Argentina), Merlot, Carmenere (in Chile) and Syrah as the leading reds. The large acreage of the Criolla varieties surprises.
The book then covers the ten South American countries making wine. First up is Argentina followed by Chile, these countries each with over 200,000 ha of vineyard, and the material presented approximately the same. Smaller chapters on Brazil, with 92,000 ha and Uruguay with 9,000 ha of vines follow. These chapters follow the formula of an overview with history, and pen portraits of people who Goldstein regards as ‘game changers’. He goes on to discuss the different winegrowing regions, this alongside clear, but basic maps. He recommends producers within each region, but this exercise is made somewhat redundant, as for each country, Goldstein profiles most of the important wineries. The pen-portraits of each winery includes founding date, address, owner, winemaker and viticulturist, as well as key or signature wines. It is very clear that a high proportion of these wineries are relatively new ventures, and that there is considerable international involvement. Goldstein then moves on to discuss Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela in much the same fashion, but more briefly.
The broader wine approach of a Master Sommelier comes through in the final chapters which give advice on touring the different countries and enjoying the cuisine. Although Goldstein avoids the judgemental approach in the book, he concedes to a critical vein with his ‘Super South American Selections’, where he lists his best wines by variety and style and other criteria.
I left the book with the feeling I had read a very useful, benevolent and up-to-date overview of the South American wine scene. As a wine enthusiast with an appreciation for the critical, I would have liked to have seen Goldstein rate the wineries, maybe by a simple star system. As far as it being an ‘Essential Guide’, I don’t think a book of around 300 pages could do justice to the title, but I’m sure glad I’ve read it, have it in my library for reference, and would use it to make the initial plans for visiting what is clearly a remarkable continent for wine.
Wines of South America, By Evan Goldstein
University of California Press, Oakland, California 2014 ISBN 978-0-520-27393-1