Book Review: “Unquenchable” by Natalie MacLean
In the opening chapter of her first book, Red, White and Drunk All Over, wine writer Natalie MacLean visits the famous Burgundy wine estate of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Her latest book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, is predicated on the idea that the wine world is much broader than such famous wines, which the vast majority of us will never share a room with, much less taste.
Nominally structured as “a wine for every night of the week,” the book takes MacLean to eight viticultural regions around the world, aiming to introduce the reader not just to great wines, but to great values. They may not have the cachet of “DRC,” but these are wines meant for everynight drinking, not special occasions. While it would be tempting to achieve this by plumbing the margins of the wine world (Eastern Europe, say), she avoids this pitfall, giving play to both Old-World standards and low-cost New-World regions like Australia, Chile and Argentina. Even in France and Italy, she suggests, bargains can be found.
Still, her definition of “bargain” runs into rocky terrain in some places. Living just over an hour away from the region, I was pleased to see Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula given its due. It’s a region I’ve explored pretty thoroughly, and one that has lots of great values, especially in cool-climate white varietals. So I was a little surprised to see that MacLean’s “first pick” for the region is Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Pinot Noir, which retails at the LCBO for $30 a bottle. Maybe I’m showing my income bracket here, but I don’t consider a $30 bottle an everynight wine, especially not on a Tuesday night where she has it positioned. (To be fair, she does comment on this selection that, “[V]alue is relative. […] Niagara pinots are a bargain compared to those in Burgundy, which easily top $50 a bottle as a starting price.”)
Her writing is at its strongest not when she’s discussing wine qua wine, but when telling the stories about the people and places behind the beverage. As an embedded (or should that be “immersed”?) reporter, she provides immediacy and context for what’s in the glass. No tasting note has ever made me want to rush out and buy a wine quite like MacLean’s depiction of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Red, White and Drunk All Over; similarly, Unquenchable’s descriptions of Australia’s wine regions renewed my long-dormant interest in those wines, which I had long ago, wrongly, written off as jammy and over-oaked across the board.
There’s no question that MacLean has a real talent for evoking terroir in words in a way that adds to the drinking experience. She also confesses, “I am more interested in people than in wine.” It’s more than evident that she enjoys both, and it’s an enormous benefit to her writing. If I want the soil type of a given wine region or chemical details on malolactic fermentation, I’ve already got the Oxford Companion to Wine. MacLean offers a more humanizing perspective, which helps you overlook the occasional technical fault, such as “estuary compounds” (perhaps that should be “estery”?) and “malo acid” (it’s “malic.”)
In addition to the entertainment value of the stories – referring to a pinotage tasting note of “skid marks on a hot tarmac,” she says, “Was the tarmac on a small airport or a large commercial one?” – there’s information here for many different levels of reader: before this book, I was only loosely familiar with the concept of “ladder brands,” and I even learned a thing or two about cooperage. At the same time, I found her rehashing of the screwtop vs. cork debate to be old hat, and was surprised to learn that, even in 2011, there are people who might not know that South Africa was a winemaking region!
The only thing I found jarring about the book was the hard-sell cross-marketing approach: each chapter ends with several references to MacLean’s website which, while useful, felt a bit pushy to me and interrupted the flow of the narrative.
Ultimately, I would recommend this book to anyone who has more than a passing interest in wine. Those who are already knowledgeable will appreciate MacLean’s humour and insight, while those who are still learning oenological basics will pick up a lot of information here, in a very accessible format.
This book was sent to me as a review copy.