‘The best wine is the one someone else pays for’ goes the cliché but it is a lifestyle statement for Natalie Maclean, the Canadian prolific writer, TV anchor and author of UNQUENCHABLE- her second book that was released a couple of months ago. The mongrel taster who spent her early childhood in tight economic environment knows the value of money and therefore has an eye for good bargains in wine, even as she warns you not to expect a good wine for $5.
As she writes, ‘I have tasted many inexpensive wines with flavors and aromas that lingered long after I swallowed. It is simply snobbery to suggest that only pricey bottles have the unexplained magic,’ she puts you in a comfort zone where you feel you are not in the hands of a wine snob who is talking down to you but a wine friend who is sincerely helping you look for good wines at affordable price, yet not dumbing down wine.
Perhaps inspired by Bridget Jones Diary, the book is written as a narrative in the first person and takes you through wines from 8 different countries and regions, matching food with the wines anchored around 8 different meals of the week. She starts with wine for a Sunday dinner and progressing through each day, ends with Sunday lunch. It is not a clinical description of the wines and listings; she transports you to various wineries and winemakers and makes you feel a part of the conversation-starting with Wolf Blass and Peter Gago in Australia. Like any good novel, she introduces the protagonist, the wineries, history, cultural background and heritage and soon you realize she is taking you beyond ‘what’s in the glass,’ be it Wolf Blass, Yellow Tail or Penfolds.
Before you are finished with the Sunday dinner, you have also met Stephen Henschke and his viticuturalist wife Prue and tasted their iconic ‘Hill of Grace’. But if you are a certified bargain hunter and before you are disappointed she lets you take a peek at her ‘Field Notes from a Wine Cheapskate’. There is useful information about Insider Tips, Wineries Visited, Best Value Wines, Top Value Producers -that include Angove, d’Arenberg, Evans and Tate, Lindemans, McGuigan, McWilliams, Peter Lehmann. Xanadu, Rosemont and Yalumba- some of the Australian labels imported into India. Point of observation- the ubiquitous Jacobs Creek is missing in the list.
Known to promote food and wine pairings passionately, she even suggests a few dishes for each meal followed by her ‘Terrific Pairings.’ Thus the First Chapter focussing on Shiraz, lists 18 dishes, including a sprinkling of vegetarian fare like ‘Grilled vegetables’ (the book is not written specifically for vegetarians). She does not claim to write in-depth for a country or region so she also gives ‘Resources’ for each section- for instance James Halliday Australian Wine Companion by the best-known Australian author, James Halliday.
Chapter 2-Monday, takes you to Germany- mostly Mosel where you meet the top producers J. J Prüm and Dr. Loosen. Ernie Loosen shares with you his vision ‘when I drink Mosel Riesling, I want to smell the blue slate soil that formed the fruit, taste the memory of the old vines and feel the rain and the sun that year.’ Her average reader may not excited by a Mosel Riesling but hopefully would get inspired by Ernie’s comments, ‘without all of this, wine is just another drink…Blue Nun and Black Tower don’t represent a region or style, they are Coca-Cola brands.’
Her evening is spent at St.-Urbans Hof with the owner Nik Weiss. She takes you through the German appellations system, styles and their characteristics before leaving you at her Field Notes. It is heartening to note that her Best Value Wines include Dr. L (imported by Brindco) and 3 wines from St- Urbans Hoff, available in India through the Wine Park, Mumbai.
On Tuesday, she takes you to her home country on a chopper ride over Niagara Falls. A tour through the ice-wine country is completed with Inniskillin. She focuses on Pinot Noir in Niagara as she spends time at Malivoire Winery where you learn about organic farming as well. It is natural that seemingly she spends a lot of pages on the wine from her own land which may not be as exciting to the non Canadian readers but provide interesting resource material for reference. Like in every Chapter he picks out her favourite wine for dinner from the Best Value Wine list- Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Pinot Noir. As she has pre-warned in the beginning of the book, vintages are avoided.
In ‘Wednesday’ she is in South Africa, taking you to Sicily- Vino under the Volcano, on Thursday. There is sufficient history and background on Sicily and the grapes before she takes you to meet Diego Planeta and his 1000 acres owned by the family at 3 locations, followed by an educative meeting with his equal in Etna, Giuseppe Benanti . A couple of more producers and you are in her anchor territory-the Field Notes where the Insider Tips suggest why ‘Regional food and wine matches often make sense, since the food and wine ‘grew up’ together in the same soils and climatic conditions.’ It’s not a rigid rule as she admits but it partially explains why Indians do not drink wine with food-it was not around a couple of decades ago and we still drink mostly water with food even as wine producers thrust their wines down our palates and gullets.
If it’s Friday, it’s A Smoldering Liquid Tango in Argentina. Visit Cheval des Andes, a JV with Cheval Blanc. You get to meet Nicolás Catena, the well-known winemaker- owner of Catena Zapata. You learn more about the local signature grapes Torrontes and Malbec and how the Argentine wines have been doing well internationally and the country continues to be a place where a wine producer can write his own story. She takes you to Zuccardi Family Wines in Uco Valley before letting you on to her secrets, doling out the usual tips. Interestingly, there are 31 Top Value Producers-the highest number from any country. A great tip for importers in India or wherever they are looking for good value for money wines for their markets.
‘Saturday’ is devoted to Port and wines of Douro. As she moves along in the book, she also gives practical tips to help you travel to these regions. For instance, she recommends the ancient train to travel to Douro Valley and cautions you not to visit if you are a lonely person. After the chapter her reader comes out learning enough about Port and also gets to meet Port producers Sandeman, Symington, Warre’s etc as also Dirk Niepoort, the enfant terrible who teamed with the well-known Douro Boys. The special place the fortified wine from north-east of Oporto holds in her heart, comes through clearly with a rather detailed description of the Portuguese region.
There is nothing as refreshing as a glass of deliciously carefree Rosé from Provence with a lazy lunch on a Sunday, where Natalie takes you for an experience at Chateau de Roquefort and meet the vintner Raimond Villeneuve, a man who farms using the biodynamic practices. Not only wine but you also get to learn about other Provencal delicacy- black truffles at Domaine du Clos d’Alari. She also tries to break myths like a Rose being only sweet and does not mind sharing the Insider Tip to drop in a cube of ice for 10 seconds and take it out if the wine is too warm.
UNQUENCHABLE is an easy to read book that feels light in your head and is not only about World’s Best Bargain Wines as the title suggests. In fact, it is a primer on several interesting aspects of winemaking and glossary that a novice and wine connoisseur alike would equally relish. The book is based on her personal travel experiences and so is limited to Australia, Germany, Canada, South Africa, Sicily, Argentina, Douro and Provence in her tipsy quest as she tells you through her characteristic smile on the cover.
The 327 pages have been religiously compartmentalized into 40 pages for each country/region. While Germany concentrates on Mosel, the leading region that anyone would love to visit, and Douro may indicate her love of Port, her Australian readers may be appalled to see same treatment meted out to Australian wines in terms of space. Sicilians would love her passion for Etna, my own favourite area, but there are bargain wines in other areas of Italy. Her own countrymen may feel she has not devoted enough attention to all the wine making regions of Canada.
Though her writing style is very fluid and one does not see her carrying baggage, it does get a bit laborious to read in parts. She could have easily made it easier to read by inserting photos of the wineries she visited. Otherwise, she could have put sub-headings, giving breaks at appropriate places rather than imparting the text book looks.
UNQUENCHABLE is available at around $10 in the Kindle edition. Order from Amazon.com at $15.63 for the hard cover and $ 10.88 for the paper-back; similar prices from Barnes and Noble. Indian readers may check out for the hard-cover version at junglee.com, available at Rs.777 or the paper-back edition from Rs. 538
This is the second book from the author. The first one-Red White and Drunk All Over was named the Best Wine Literature Book in English language at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. She is an accredited sommelier and journalist. Her free eNewsletter goes out to 132,000 people globally. You may visit www.nataliemaclean.com or contact Natalie at Natdecants@nataliemaclean.com