Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Book Review: Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, The Complete Guide

Malbec is from Argentina, Carmenere is from Chile, and Shiraz is from Australia. Oh, New Zealand makes good Sauvignon Blanc, and South Africa produces a brooding wine you can’t find anywhere else called Pinotage. What more do you need to know about wines from the Southern Hemisphere?

Turns out, there’s plenty more to discover from the vineyards below the equator, and this tome by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (a.k.a., “The World Wine Guys“) provide the ultimate guide for your wine journey across the bottom half of the Earth.

Wine reference books are like dictionaries and encyclopedias in that they have two major requirements: they must be correct, and they must provide information difficult or impossible to find via an internet search. Several of these thick textbooks sit on my bowing bookshelf, and I refer to them regularly to look up one fact or another. Generally speaking, after leafing through the index to find or confirm a fact in one of these publications, it’s immediately replaced on the shelf — because, unfortunately, most of these books are like a Petit Verdot: dry, angular, and austere.

Among the exceptions are David Lynch and Joe Bastianich’s brilliant Vino Italiano, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, and my well-worn, dog-eared, perpetual standby, Wine For Dummies. The rest of my shelf is stacked with books that provide incredible information, if lacking in entertainment value. Regardless of intrigue level, my shelf had a wide, dusty hole waiting for an all-inclusive atlas on wines from Down Under, South America, and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere. Finally, that space has been filled.

Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide is, refreshingly, not Petit Verdot. Rather, it’s more like a bright and lively Pinot Noir: light and easy, yet well-structured and complex, inviting you to pour another glass — or turn another page.

Facts are easy to find thanks to a thorough index and logical organization. What’s not easy is putting the book down, because the authors write in a storytelling style not often found in a reference guide (and never on Wikipedia). Each chapter is devoted to a country — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and Uruguay are all covered exhaustively. The depth and breadth for Brazil and Uruguay specifically is unprecedented; where else are you going to find 45 fact-packed pages on the winegrowing in those two countries? I’ve never seen more than a page or two on either, even in high-level study guides.

Each chapter begins with a broad overview and history of winemaking in the particular country, followed by a quick primer on major grape varieties. Next is the meat and potatoes: a discussion of each wine region, including its top wineries. This is where I usually get lost in the book for a half-hour or so, because each entry is succinct enough to breeze through, and most include a unique angle in the winery’s history and/or a personal anecdote by the authors that humanizes previously faceless “wine producers.” DeSimone and Jenssen are called “The World Wine Guys” for a reason: they travel around the world to learn about wine, developing long-lasting friendships with the people behind the vines. In this book, they recount their experiences meeting and dining with the families of many of the SoHem estates, discovering their hardships, blessings, and motivations. You get a virtual taste as well, as each entry includes copious tasting notes on the winery’s flagship wines.

Chapters conclude with two can’t-miss sections: “Recipes” and “In Their Own Words.” As you might expect, the former is a recipe indigenous to the country, provided by a local chef (Australia: Char-grilled Spatchcock; South Africa: Braai Pie; New Zealand: Paua Fritters). The latter consists of Q&As with top winemakers and native personalities who share their secrets about vines and themselves. It is this last entertaining part of each chapter that makes you forget you’re reading a reference book. You learn — among other personal tidbits — that Chilean winemaker Marcelo Retamal likes to wind down by drinking a beer while watching The Godfather; New Zealand’s Helen Masters stocks her personal cellar with Burgundy; and South Africa’s Adam Mason dreams of one day owning a coffee shop serving air-dried hams and home-distilled grappa.

An impressive accomplishment, I’d love to see a few tweaks in upcoming editions (from what I understand, it will be updated every few years). For one, full-color photos of at least a few of the vineyards, estates, and people so eloquently introduced. Additionally, being someone who appreciates the link between wine and regional foods, I’d be thrilled with an extension of the recipes found at the end of each chapter; perhaps each region’s section could finish with a short discourse on typical food and wine pairings by the locals — an apt request considering the background of the authors (who also wrote The Fire Island Cookbook, and frequently perform cooking demonstrations on TV).

For wine geeks, a volume on the Southern Hemisphere has been long overdue, and this one delivers comprehensively — it’s an absolute must-have for your library. Even if you’re not a cork dork, you’ll be regaled by this reference, and find yourself seeking out SoHem wines on your next visit to the liquor store.

Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide can be purchased on Amazon.com.

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