Traipsing around the world sampling the finest wines each region has to offer is the burden Natalie MacLean has chosen for herself — an unlikely career for a Nova Scotia-bred, Ottawa-based wine writer who didn’t grow up drinking the nectar of the gods. “It was beer and whiskey on the table,” says MacLean, adding that she only began tasting the stuff in graduate school when she met her husband. “We started going out for dinner and he would order a bottle of wine and it was unlike anything else. Wine just held this fascination for me and I thought I have to learn more.”
And learn more she did. An accredited sommelier, MacLean has won more international writing awards than this 900-word article has space to mention. Her pieces have appeared in more than 60 newspapers and magazines and her 2006 book, Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine- Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, sold 50,000 copies in Canada alone.
For her latest book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for The World’s Best Bargain Wines, MacLean again travelled the globe — but this time looking for great, affordable wines in the $10-15 price range. On her journeys, she visited some beautiful places and met some rather obsessive personalities. The result is a 340-page book filled with humorous character sketches and mouth-watering descriptions of both food and wine.
It’s also an entertaining read. “Because you’re entertained, because you’re laughing and enjoying the stories about these colourful characters and winemakers, you actually end up learning a lot about wine without even realizing it,” she says.
“This book is an attempt to try to take some of that apprehension out of wine because, you know, drinking wine is fun so buying wine should be fun.”
Unquenchable has eight chapters, each focusing on a different country or region that offers great wines – places like South Africa, Argentina, Australia and Sicily. At the end of every chapter she offers practical tips on how to find the wines in your liquor store, how to pair them with food and how to serve them.
MacLean chose to focus on value wines because, for one thing, it speaks to our times. “Who has the budget to slap down $50-100 for a bottle of wine?” she says adding, “Even though I write about wine, when I’m buying for personal consumption I chose very affordable wines.”
These days, quality can be found at decent prices because production costs have come down, technology has improved and there’s more competition from new regions. “If you look at Sicily, it’s because it’s not as fashionable or as well known as Tuscany and Piedmont in the north of Italy. Sicily makes terrific Italian wines but they’re a fraction of the price of their northern neighbours.”
And she says Germany is trying to revitalize its dreary reputation from a few decades ago. Anyone who drank Blue Nun, Black Tower and Mateus knows what I’m talking about. “Today they make nice, bone dry white wine — in particular their Rieslings — that are a bargain on the liquor store shelf.”
When it comes to describing the wines, MacLean’s adjectives are not always the standard-issue highbrow babble that makes plain-speaking folk roll their eyes. “I call it the fruit salad school of wine description where you get every berry and fruit under the sun. I try to limit that because, not only is it confusing but it’s also boring to have a long list of fruit no one’s ever heard of describing a wine,” says MacLean.
“I try to make it fun and more interesting for people. I think people are more interested in what food the wine should pair with. Is it a full-bodied wine or is it a light wine? Like, give me some things I can relate to.” Non-connoisseurs can sometimes feel intimidated when selecting wines at a restaurant or at the liquor store. Part of it is the snobbery and tradition, but MacLean adds that wine is unlike most other consumer products. “You can try on a dress or a suit before you buy it; you can flip through the first chapter of a book before you buy it, but you can’t try wine — at least not legally — before you buy it.”
Another factor is the sheer choice. “There are more than a million wineries worldwide, each of them producing anywhere between, say, five and 20 different wines — and they change every year.”
For this reason, more than125,000 people subscribe to her free wine newsletter (www.nataliemaclean.com) where she helps readers make choices, match wine with food, and get good value. “What I try to do for folks on a weekly basis is give them a handful of wines that are terrific, not expensive, that they can find, and that they’ll find delicious,” she says.
“People just want a shopping list because it is overwhelming.”
You can read more reviews of my new wine book Unquenchable here.