Saturday, November 1, 2014

South American Wines - An Examination

Reference books on wine (or any subject) can be a great source of information. They can also be a bit boring at times, as the author can sometimes include vast information without much organization. Bigger does not make better in such instances.

That's why it's such a pleasure to read Wines of South America: The Essential Guide by Evan Goldstein. The author, a Master Sommelier, has taken this subject and injected it with his own opinions and has at the same time, truly given us a guide that covers the wines of South America as well as anything written to date.

Granted, there have not been a lot of books on the subject, as the topic of South American wines has not been treated with as much reverence, if you will, as wines from many other parts of the world, be it France, Italy or California. Too often the thought process on South American wines is that they are ripe, easy-drinking and inexpensive. That's part of the equation, but there are many excellent producers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and a few other countries in South America that have made the effort to tell the world about the potential of the viticultural qualities of their lands.

The author begins with a brief overview, recounting history and a few influential names that have taken the quality leap in South America. He follows with an excellent chapter on grape varieties, filled with plenty of statistics, such as acreage as well as specific territories where each variety is planted. Goldstein has done his homework here, writing about well-known cultivars such as Malbec and Carmenére, but also relatively obscure varieties such as Cereza, Criolla Grande and Uvina.

The book is then organized by specific chapters about the major wine-producing countries. History and geography are discussed both in a broad sense as well as in specific regions, such as Mendoza and Patagonia in Argentina, and San Antonio and Maule Valleys in Chile. For each region or subzone, individual producers are listed.

One would expect all of this in an "essential guide," so Goldstein clearly delivers the goods. But the most enjoyable - and pleasantly surprising - part of this book comes at the end with a number of lists the author has assembled. The subjects are varied here, ranging from "Super Sauvignon Blanc" and "Magical Malbec" to "Best Bottles for Beef" and my favorite, "Twenty Wines to Drink Before You Die." Among the wines listed in this last category are Almaviva from Chile, Catena Zapata "Adrianna Vineyard" Malbec from Argentina and "Pisano "ArretXea" from Uruguay. I've had the first two and agree with the author, so given the fact that I haven't tried the last wine here, I'm interested to taste it- that a sign of an engaging book!

I do have two problems with the book, however. First is with the photos. Number one, there just aren't many and what are there are primarily landscape shots. They're nicely composed, but they're in black and white and relatively small, so the reader cannot grasp the beauty of these lands.

Also, there aren't any photos of producers; I really would like to know who these people are and while the author does talk about these individuals, often in glowing terms, I'd like to get a look at these individuals - a human face tells so much. A photo of stainless steel vats that appears on the opening page of the chapter on several countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, et al is rather boring - a stainless steel vat looks the same everywhere. Why not a few photos of winemakers and winery owners?

I understand the reason why the photos are in black and white - it's obvious that the cost of printing these images in color would drive up the production charges. But in this day when visuals are so important, it's very disappointing to have such a valuable reference books as this filled with black and white photos and at very small sizes at that. I'm a photographer myself, so maybe this is more of a fault I find; it may not bother some readers. But I wish the University of California Press, which published this book - and has published several other outstanding wines books recently - would change their thoughts on black and white photos. Just take a look at the beautiful Matt Wilson photo that appears on the cover - it's an invitation to this world. Given that, it's a real shame about the photos that appear inside the book.

The other criticism I have of this book is on a more refined basis. While Goldstein has done an excellent job organizing this work and has given us as authoritative a look on the subject as anyone, I wish he could have done more, at least in one area, that being wine descriptions. For example, when writing about Casa Marin, situated in the San Antonio Valley of Chile - and truly one of South America's greatest wine estates - Goldstein delivers a nice summary of proprietor Maria Luz Marin and how she stayed with her vision of creating a great wine property, despite some complications. Later on in his list of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc, the author lists the Casa Marin "Cipreses Vineyard" offering. He's unquestionably right about this wine; I've visited the estate and have tasted several vintages of this wine. It is a great Sauvignon Blanc, not only one of the best from South America, but also one of the most distinctive produced anywhere in the world (much of that has to do with the fact the vineyard's proximity - less than three miles - from the Pacific Ocean. At this location, this wine has vibrant acidity, excellent structure and a razor's edge quality that separates it from other examples; I won't even go into the amazing aromatics of this wine).

But there is no description with this wine or the other recommended wines in the lists at the back of the book. Perhaps text such as this would have taken up too much space or maybe Goldstein simply did not want to include such writeups, believing that they would make the book just another study in tasting notes. I can understand that way of thinking if that's the case, and I do have to review the book in front of me and not the book I wish he wrote. Yet I did expect some marvelous descriptors for many of the wines; as a master Sommelier, Goldstein can certainly do this as well as anyone, but it was his choice not to do this, so I respect that.

Those two points aside, this is an excellent look at the subject. From travel tips to recommended restaurants to a wealth of information (very helpful to list websites as well as reasons why one should visit a winery - above and beyond the wines), Evan Goldstein has written what is so far, the definitive study of the wines of South America.

Wines of South America: The Essential Guide
Written by Evan Goldstein
University of California Press - 302 pages - $39.95

Purchase here

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