Wines of South America: The Essential Guide
University of California Press
Reviewer: Neal D. Hulkower
This volume, with the immodest but entirely appropriate subtitle, indeed lives up to its billing. There is so much to like about and learn from it. To help one get oriented, ten maps are provided at the continent, country, and regional levels. The first chapter begins with a two-page history of the earliest viticulture and winemaking in South America, starting with the first planting of vineyards south of Lima, Peru, in 1548. We then jump to the late twentieth century for an overview of the wine industry in the four major producers, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.
Before delving into each of these, as well as lesser players, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela, Goldstein dedicates a substantial chapter to grape varieties grown in the continent. “Official sources indicate commer- cial plantings of 165 different grapes in Argentina, 117 in Brazil, 65 in Uruguay, and over 60 in Chile” (p. 13), we learn. Not surprising, vinifera cultivars originating in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, and Germany were brought by immigrants who needed something familiar to drink in their new lands. A class of vinifera varieties called criollas came over with the Spanish conquerors and settlers in the 1500s and remain significant sources of everyday wines. But some, like the three different Torrontés in Argentina, have been gaining favor especially in the American market. When attempts to grow vinifera failed in the less congenial climates, hybrids and even labrusca varietals like Niagara were imported from North America.
Individual chapters are dedicated to each of the four largest wine-producing countries, with the two chapters on Argentina and Chile comprising half the book. This is appropriate since each has over half a million acres planted to wine grapes, far more than any other country on the continent. The lesser players are covered in a single chapter. The format for each of these chapters should serve well the needs of the casual reader, the wine buyer, and the prospective tourist. Each starts with a quick summary of statistics, leading grape varietals, and memorable vintages. An introduction includes Goldstein’s personal obser- vations based on his visits to the area and a general discussion of the lay of each land. A short history of winemaking in the country follows. Game-changing person- alities in the industry are then introduced. Next is an extensive discussion of each country’s wine regions, along with maps and a list of recommended producers in each. Winery profiles conclude the chapters. These are conveniently presented alphabetically with addresses, both physical and web, and information for the visitor. Key personnel, important grape varieties, and signature wines are also listed. A crisp, chatty, and generally appealing paragraph variously touching on the particular history, distinctive bottlings, and other factoids concludes the coverage of each producer.
Malbec has become synonymous with Argentine wine and “for most wine lovers, Mendoza means Malbec” (p. 55). Goldstein cites low rainfall, most of which is in the summer, and a wide thermal amplitude as the reasons for its success. I have sampled a lovely Malbec from Susana Balboa, one of Goldstein’s game changers, as well as an enticing Torrontés she bottles under her low-cost, high-value Crios label. The rustic Bonarda, known as Douce Noir in France and Charbono in the United States, is popular for beber diariamente and can be quite pleasant either in a blend with other red grapes or on its own. A reasonably priced 2006 La Posta Bonarda Estela Armando is one example of the latter that I have enjoyed. “La Posta makes single-vineyard wines from selected old-vine plantings … each of which have been identified for their depth of character, the history of their land, and the personality of the families who own them” (p. 92), Goldstein tells us.
And then there is Argentine Pinot Noir. In 2010 and 2014, Bodega Chacra was the country’s sole representative at the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) held annually in my hometown of McMinnville, Oregon. Goldstein notes that wines produced by Chacra from older vineyards “are frequently considered the grand crus of Argentina’s Pinot Noir” (p. 77). I wrote about a less exalted but none- theless charming bottling from this winery in an article on the Passport to Pinot 2014, the abridged version of IPNC: “The 2012 Barda from Northern Patagonia was something of a revelation with funky aromas competing with floral notes and an elegant palate with lots of acidity and good tannins. Winery proprietor Piero Incisa, who showed interest in my connection to the American Association of Wine Economists, promised to stay in touch and could become my latest friend in the industry” (www.oregonwinepress.com). Piero’s economic concern is that inflation will once again raise its troublesome head.
Though the Sauvignon Blancs and Carmenères I have had from Chile were cer- tainly solid and good values, I cannot recall drinking any of note. Nevertheless, the chapter on that country excited me the most, perhaps because Goldstein’s enthu- siasm about what is going on there is contagious. As he explains: “Signs of a renais- sance in Chilean wine can be tasted in many new terroir-focused wines being produced in new regions by gifted young winemakers” (p. 112). In response to the very large dominant wine companies that make a broad range of wines, including those considered some of the best in the country, the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI) was formed “to promote smaller-scale terroir-focused wine- making operations” (p. 111). Significant wine regions can be found all along the almost 3,000-mile length of the country, covering a wide range of temperature zones. Many of the wineries are within a reasonable distance from the capital, Santiago, making them readily accessible to tourists.
The chapter on Brazil emphasizes sparkling wines. “Almost one-third of the coun- try’s domestic wine sales of fine wines, and close to one-fifth of total domestic wines sales, are in bubbles. The range is staggering” (p. 182). Credit for the success of bubbly is due to Mario Geisse who “first came to Brazil in 1976 with Moët & Chandon” (p. 183). Vitis labrusca dominates the still wine produced in the country.
Relatively tiny Uruguay has been making something of a splash with approach- able Tannat. First planted in 1870 by Pascual Harrigue, this grape was known by his surname in the country until the 1970s. As the world began to discover “what’s Tannat like,” the original name was adopted. Uruguayan winemakers seem to have mastered the tannins producing for Goldstein “the best Tannat any- where in the world” (p. 33).
Of the six remaining countries with vineyards, some have a limited amount of fine wine production, especially Bolivia. Criticism should be both credible and kind, two characteristics that do not necessarily go well together. Yet Goldstein pulls it off in his assessments of wineries that are not quite there. His paragraph about a relatively new producer in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region concludes by saying: “To date, Uvairenda has just a few vintages under its belt, so it is too early to rush to judgment. The winemakers have the vision but not yet the wine” (p. 247). While the first vine- yards in South America were planted near Lima, “Pisco rules the roost in Peru” (p. 241). Columbia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Venezuela each have three or fewer wineries, so their inclusion seems to be justified only by a desire for completeness.
Since this book succeeds on so many levels, being able to find things easily is almost as important as the content. As complete an index—26 two-column pages—as one could ever hope for facilitates the search for the most obscure reference.
Anyone considering a trip will want to study “Touring South American Wine Country” (pp. 253–259) and “Dining South American Style” (pp. 261–264). Suffice it to say, Goldstein, a frequent visitor to those parts, makes it clear that things are very different there. “Traveling the wine regions of South America is not like wine tourism in other places. In the Napa Valley or New South Wales, all you really have to do is rent a car, add a GPS or map, and set out. Taking that approach in South America is a ticket to adventure” (p. 253). Goldstein shares a list of English-speaking drivers who make sure that the adventure is restricted to the tasting part. For those planning a trip soon, consider the e-book (at this writing, the Kindle version costs a hefty $27.06) so that the information can be readily accessed.
Goldstein has gifted us with a thoroughly authoritative, reader-friendly, and, yes, essential exposition of a current and future source of fabulous wines of all styles. Even if you have no travel plans, his wisdom will guide you to a whole continent of wholly contented drinking possibilities.
Neal D. Hulkower