Natalie MacLean brings a rare blend of wit and wisdom to the genre
Wine writing can some-times be lip-puckeringly dry. Maybe that’s why Natalie MacLean, an irreverent, lively and often self-deprecating wine writer, is so popular.
Her first book, Red, White and Drunk All Over, won Best Wine Literature Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and sold 50,000 copies in Canada alone.
MacLean was in Vancouver recently, for Whistler’s Cornucopia wine and food event in Whistler. Her second book, Unquenchable had just hit bookstores.
The book is sub-titled A Tipsy Quest for The World’s Best Bargain Wines. Those bargain wines, she said in an interview, can be found in wines from “less fashionable” regions such as Languedoc, Sicily and Portugal.
“Portugal’s been known for port and they’re now revitalizing dry table wines and are producing terrific dry reds but no one thinks of them for any-thing but dessert wines. Germany’s recovering from a bad rep for the kind of wine you drank behind the high school portable. They still have some work to do but I find their Rieslings incredible and low-priced. Their labels still tend to be hard to read.”
Canada’s Niagara and Okanagan regions offer great Pinot Noir bargains, even at $20 and $25 a bottle. “You look at Burgundy and prices are double, triple or more.”
Less fashionable grapes, too, offer great value. “You’re going to pay up for Cabernets and Chardonnay. Nero d’avola isn’t well known but delivers a robust red and is always low-priced. Carmenere is the same grape stock as Merlot and you get the same taste, if not better for a third to half the price. Malbec is better known but it’s still a deal. It’s like a cab – robust and luscious but smoother and not as tannic.”
She loves the thrill of the chase for a bargain bottle of wine. “Sure you can slap down $100 and get a great bottle but it’s like shooting deer in a zoo,” she says. “Maybe that’s not the best way to put it,” she adds.
She threads stories of wine-makers and other personalities along with her experiences in eight countries, visiting 312 wineries, imbibing 15,267 wines.
In Australia, she encounters a ribald Wolf Blass (of Wolf Blass winery). “I call this wine the leg opener,” he told her as he poured a glass of Red Label Shiraz.
However, she rescues it from turning tawdry with wine intelligence.
The wine, she wrote, “dominated by shiraz, is full and lush on the mid-palate, with a mocha-coffee character that backs off the spice and pepper. I can just taste the black-berry hint of cabernet at the tip of my tongue, which is quickly flooded by fleshy plums before I swallow.”
In Unquenchable, she says she comes “from a long line of alcoholics.” Ahem, isn’t she tempting fate?
“It’s a thin red line,” she answers. “But I also believe what you know well, you abuse less. I’m drawn for very obvious genetic reasons but I always felt more safe to have it close to me and know it well.”
Wine writers, she says, require an obsessive nature to start with.
“It hits us on so many levels: the intellectual, historic and cultural. I always say wine could be an organizing hub for a liberal arts degree. It connects into so many cultures. Then you have the sensory part that food shares with wine. How it smells, how it tastes and goes with food.”
“But then there’s that third element which I’m not afraid to talk about. It’s the hedonistic buzz. It’s the reason we don’t have orange juice critics. That’s the magic of it. The mystery, the nuances.”
The people behind the wines are what interest her.
“I get the feeling I might get through 10-15 per cent of what I want to explore about wine by the time I’m kicked off this planet. It’s human nature I write about, with wine as the calling card.”
Winemakers, she notes, shares some of the traits of wine writers. They’re passionate, they’re curious and often, perfectionists. They’re proud of what they do. It’s a very personal thing. Your name is on it, like a billboard. And it’s very much family and generational.”
Wine snobs, she says, are a diminishing breed. “Wine consumption has increased so much, so broadly and most of us are drinking on a budget but we don’t want to give up good taste.”
She met Peter Mayle, the English writer who moved to Provence and, as some might say, ruined the region by popularizing it. (He wrote A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, Toujours Provence, A Good Year). “I’m light entertainment, I’m not Proust,” he told MacLean.
“Writing, like wine, doesn’t need to be complicated to be good. I can tell a good story because I enjoy what I write about.”
If you know her books, it’s plain to see, that is pretty much MacLean’s take on writing and on wine.
Natalie MacLean’s Holiday Wine Recommendations
A Hostess Gift
Wente Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Southern Hills, Livermore Valley, Calif. ($17) This is an elegant hostess gift because it’s full-bodied, but not heavy. Aromas of fleshy black-berry and black cherry mingle with a satisfying, mouth-watering finish that makes you want more. Pair it with classic dinner party fare such as filet mignon or prime rib. MacLean’s score: 90/100
For the Wine Know-it-all
When it’s time to bring out the big guns, head straight to Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($40). This blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, petit ver-dot and Cabernet Franc grapes is a mocha blanket wrapped around succulent black fruit. Full-bodied, beautifully concentrated and superbly rendered. It will silence even the most talkative wine bores. MacLean’s score: 93/100
Wine for a Christmas party
The Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand ($20.99) is just what you want for a Christmas party: zesty and vibrant with broad appeal to many tastes. I love the pure herbal refreshment in this wine with a streak of zippy lime running through it. Mouth-watering and terrific. It’s a great match for hors d’oeuvres, seafood and lively conversations at the party. MacLean’s score: 89/100
An Affordable Bubbly for New Year’s Eve
Why pay $50 for champagne, when there are bubblies that are half the price with all the taste? Try Santa Margherita Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut, Italy ($20), a sparkler packed with peach and pear notes that will make your holiday merry. Its refreshing swarm of bubbles dances with oysters, caviar and potato chips. MacLean’s score: 89/100
This review also ran in the food sections of the Ottawa Citizen, The Province, Windsor Starr and Edmonton Journal with a holiday theme…
You can read more reviews of my new wine book Unquenchable here.