Tamlyn Currin reviews The South America Wine Guide: The definitive guide to the wine in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru by Amanda Barnes in this review which was originally published on JancisRobinson.com
In February 2020, just before the full reality of the pandemic hit and the world went into a lockdown from which nothing would emerge the same, Jancis went on an epic trip to Argentina. In one of her post-trip reports, she reserved particular praise for English and (usually) Mendoza-based wine writer, Amanda Barnes, who helped to organise the trip. ‘Amanda’, she wrote, ‘is a fount of knowledge on South American wine via her South America Wine Guide and, soon, a self-published book with beautiful maps, images and up-to-date information on all the important producers.’
That book is now on the shelves, after a bit of a rocky ride thanks to the pandemic. Barnes was visiting family back home in the UK for a few weeks in March 2020 when Argentine borders closed. She still hasn’t been allowed back. The book had to be finished long distance, with, reading between the lines, much tearing of hair.
Amanda Barnes grew up in Hampshire to an American mother and an English father. While studying literature at King’s College, London, she fell in love with the writings of Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. So in 2009, just two years out of university, she packed her bags and moved to Mendoza. For the last decade or so, writing about wine and travelling the length and breadth of the continent, Barnes has lived and breathed South American wine – on more than one occasion being the first journalist to visit a particular producer. She’s also, I might add, founder and editor of Around the World in 80 Harvests and editor for the Circle of Wine Writers Update. In 2019 she won the Derouet-Jameson Award, which got her accepted into the MW programme, and the Geoffrey Roberts Award, which, she adds, ‘partly funded this book’. Does she ever sleep, I wonder?
Before I say anything else, I will say this: it is, without doubt, the most strikingly beautiful book I have ever looked at or touched. Owning this book is like owning your own little Frida Kahlo (and will save you $5 million). The cover alone – a vivid, tropical, floral tumble of intensely coloured, brightly stylised, artfully symbolic images – seems to touch the pulse of the continent. It’s a celebration, before you’ve ever opened a single page, of South America’s dark and light, its complexity, its diversity, mystery, boldness and eloquence. Elena Cutri’s book design and illustrations are stunningly beautiful as well as clever – she is a designer who has captured the soul of a turbulent, complex and compelling continent. She’s filled the pages with a riotous festival of colour and yet she’s created the quiet spaces the reader needs for the words to fall softly and be heard clearly. Starkly vibrant, slightly surreal. Welcome to Amanda Barnes’ South America.
Once you open those pages, it will be you tumbling into a vivid world, slightly surreal, and so magical that you will never look at a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc in quite the same way again.
I will have to rewind. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Practically speaking, the book covers Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador. The last four countries, which have microscopically tiny wine industries, are covered together in three pages, which means that there is probably more detail about their wine production here than anywhere else in the print world. She is nothing if not fair and thorough. The other six countries are covered in staggering detail.
A good region-focused reference book covers all the bases: history, politics, geography, ampelography, regional boundaries, regulations, glossary, wine styles, producers and wines. There should be photos, maps and a few wine-tourism and wine-buying tips. Tick, tick, tick – on every count. Barnes not only offers up a depth and breadth of detail on these regions and their wines that has never, ever been matched, but she is meticulously organised with the way that she presents this data.
History is detailed without being heavy; always relevant. In every case it sweeps the arc from ancient to up-to-the-minute current with effortless grace. The analysis of terroir and varieties balances academic detail and rigour with human interest. She goes into regional depth, case by case, with superb insights and, again, the perfect balance between depth of detail and reader comfort. Her ‘At a glance’ sections for each country, region and variety offer the efficient snapshot that any writer or researcher needs, without having to labour through pages and pages of text. The vintage guides are crisp and to the point. The chapter on the little-known, little-understood Criolla grape varieties, including a family tree, is particularly seminal.
And the travellers’ tips are, hands down, the BEST I’ve ever come across. There are a number of reasons. The first is one that you may perhaps only appreciate if you are female. It’s called ‘Toilet Talk’. Barnes, in the way that only a woman would understand, gives a toilet guide to travelling in South America. In Bolivia? Take your own, biodegradable loo roll; bushes are your best friend. She also gives the honest insider tips that can only come from someone who has done extensive, unglamorous travel in the local regions. This is a perspective from someone who hasn’t gleaned her experiences from the usual PR-smoothed, swoop-in-swoop-out press trips.
Her valuable tips/insights on language, food, managing money and tipping, what to wear, Wi-Fi, safety, health, visas, coping with altitude and when to travel are not glib travel-mag-style ‘top tens’. These are the tips, advice and stories of someone who spent months on local buses, in the homes of local winegrowers, who felt the change of seasons on her skin and knew exactly what drought felt like and what it means to stand there on the morning after a hailstorm looking at broken vines. You sense, too, that she knew what it meant to need to the loo in a godforsaken place without a clue of how to go about it or where to go…
If you love food, you’ll soak up her suggestions for where to eat, and salivate at her suggestions of what to eat; and, like me, you’ll want to rattle her cage for more recipes (please post more!) on her South America website. Barnes loves food. Her appetite, and refreshingly humble I’ll-eat-anything approach to food embraces culture over western squeamishness, delighting in everything from the 2,000 varieties of Bolivian potato to the cuy chactado (fried guinea pig) of Peru. She even named her cat after pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread.
Then the photos. The photos! This could almost be a photography journal, if it weren’t for the richness and depth of the text. They charge the book with colour and light: haunting vistas, faces as furrowed as folded canyons, stark rocks, the shimmering flung stars of the Milky Way, native costume as bright as tropical plumage. Between photographers Matt Wilson, Stéphane Rampon, Greg Funnell and Darren Armstrong, as well as Barnes herself, they’ve created a story within the story, captivating the reader on every page. I could easily lose myself, spellbound, in the pictures alone.
It would be remiss of me, at this point, not to mention the maps. ‘Developing these maps’, Barnes writes, ‘has been an enormous labour of love for this first edition. In most cases, it is the first time any of these wine regions has been mapped out in such detail.’ The maps are everything good maps should be: big, clear and easy to read, brightly colour-coded, detailed and layered without being crowded, and contextual. True to Barnes’ generosity of spirit, these maps are available to download for free on her website, which is really an essential companion to the book.
On the subject of generosity, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve written this in a review, but it was one unusual thing that came across very strongly throughout the book, from the cover to the very last page: humble generosity. ‘Amanda Barnes & Amigos’ is the author credit on the front cover. She continually refers to, credits and thanks people who helped her, in every chapter and, of course, on the final page of acknowledgements. She writes as if the entire book is the collaboration of friends and the result of the kindness of the people around her. She has always struck me as someone particularly modest, despite having formidable drive, intelligence and ability. I think few could argue with me that Barnes is probably the most informed English-speaking authority on South American wines, and yet, to meet her, you’d never guess that. She carries her talents lightly.
This book is the outstanding result of a project so vast in scale, both literally and metaphorically, that most people would quake to undertake it. But The South America Wine Guide is just so, so much more. Barnes writes beautifully! Lyrically! Her descriptions of these regions read like a work of art, a work of heart, a love poem. Her writing is powerfully evocative, painting the landscapes and the people with her words just as vividly as the photographs that lie beside them. This is one of those rare reference books that you can read, cover to cover, enthralled by her stories, her words weaving spells over your imagination. You can smell the molle trees, you can feel the enormity of Argentina and hear the lonely flapping of shrine ribbons in the wind along dusty highways, you can taste the cold Pacific fog rolling into the Elqui Valley. And yet she’s managed to keep her writing lean, avoiding mawkish sentimentality and self-indulgent gush. She peppers her fact-structured prose with humour, honesty, a sense of wonder and appreciation, and a wide range of perspectives pulled in from people she’s encountered.
The South America Wine Guide is indeed a magnus opus – an outstanding piece of academic research. It is the most comprehensive work on South American wine ever published in English, and will be for years to come, of that I have no doubt. It is also the first time I have read a wine reference book in which the prose moved me to tears, set off a sense of longing, haunted me with history, and inspired me with excitement for the future. Bolivia is now on my bucket list.
If you’re racking your brains to decide what to give that wine lover in your life for Christmas, go no further. (As for the price, this book is worth at least double what it’s retailing at.)
Going back to Frida Kahlo, I was reminded of a quote of hers as I read Barnes’ last words of the book:
‘I hope that through [this book] your life has been infused with a little of the magic. After all, the pursuit of magical realism is in finding lo real maravilloso: the marvellous moments in your reality. And I believe wine is one of the best ways of doing that.’
Or, as Frida Kahlo said, ‘They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’
Review by Tamlyn Currin
The South America Wine Guide: The definitive guide to wine in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru is self-published and available online for £35