You don’t have to pay a lot to get a great bottle these days, with regions around the world and right here at home producing consistently good wines at lower prices.
Natalie MacLean had the enviable task of researching and writing about these wines in Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, her follow-up to the award-winning Red, White and Drunk All Over. CityLine sat down with the affable MacLean in Toronto recently to talk wine, and where to find the good stuff.
“My search in the book was for those wines in the $10-$15 range that taste twice as expensive as they cost. They’re easy to find, (because) there are a number of factors bringing the cost of winemaking down,” she explains. “Technology has improved, winemakers are more knowledgeable about which grapes work best in that region so that helps, and also I think really compelling is the amount of competition in the liquor store. There are a lot of new regions — Argentina with its fleshy, robust red Malbecs, Chile, and also new producers like Niagara, one of my personal favourites. I’m not sure what the run rate is but there are at least 10, if not 20, new wineries every year in Ontario. It’s really encouraging. The prices are coming down but the quality isn’t suffering.”
So who’s currently making the world’s best bargain wines? Along with the aforementioned Argentina, Chile, and Ontario, MacLean cites a few unexpected places, among them, Sicily.
“Everyone knows Tuscany and Piedmont and their wines are very expensive, but if you go down south to Sicily, (the wines there are) terrific,” she enthuses. “It’s a warm climate so they’re consistent, but they don’t have the brand name of Tuscany or the brand name grapes. They have a red that reminds me of Malbec but it’s called Nero D’Avola. When you’re not using a brand name grape like Chardonnay or Cabernet, you have to price very competitively to get people to even try it.”
Germany and South Africa are two other sources for good wine at a decent price — in the case of Germany, MacLean explains that they’re battling a reputation for syrupy sweet wines dating back to the 1980s, where the current reality is a range of styles, well-made and well-priced. South Africa was off the market for years due to apartheid, so their wines are also priced lower — MacLean recommends their Shirazes and Sauvignon Blancs.
Closer to home, there are more Ontario wineries than ever before and many of them are producing excellent bottles. You may pay closer to $20 for these but it’s still a bargain, MacLean notes.
“Niagara wines aren’t bottom-of-the-barrel prices. Countries like Argentina and Chile can really go in at $12, $13, but I find Niagara is more in the $15 to $20 range but what you get in the bottle for the quality is a bargain,” she says. “If you take a Pinot Noir from Niagara, which is probably going to be somewhere between $15 and $25, and you compare that to comparable quality from Burgundy, France, you’re paying a fraction of the price.”
MacLean praises Ontario’s cool climate, saying it tends to produce edgy wines that are nicely balanced — for instance Gamays and Pinot Noirs.
“They’ve got this nervy acidity, which awakens your senses and the fruit and it really balances, it just dances nicely together,” she observes.
Like Red, White and Drunk All Over, Unquenchable is as much about the people behind the wine as the wine itself, and one of the most interesting characters in the book is none other than Australian winemaker Wolf Blass, described by MacLean as “a sound bite a minute.”
“He’s colourful and provocative, and I love that, but he also cares very much about his name on the wines, that there’s really good value in the bottle,” she says. “I love the stories about him paging himself over the intercom system at airports (so people at the duty free shops will think of his wines). He’s a hustler, in a good way, because he had to do it all. He had to market his wines and make them in the early days. He just doesn’t stop. Now he’s a brand ambassador. A lot of people think he’s a brand character, like Duncan Hines, but he’s real!”
She adds: “I think by telling the story of really interesting, passionate people, you tell the story of wine as well. First and foremost, a wine book has to entertain. There’s so much snobbery and so much boredom, that if you don’t entertain, you’ll lose people.”
Unquenchable is now available in stores and online.
5 Bargain Wines from Natalie MacLean’s Unquenchable:
Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia)
Malivoire Courtney Gamay (Canada)
Fairvalley Sauvignon Blanc (South Africa)
Planeta Nero d’Avola (Italy)
Catena Zapata Malbec Cabernet (Argentina)
Download Natalie’s mobile app here.
You can read more reviews of my new wine book Unquenchable here.