In this ambitious and thoroughly entertaining book, Natalie MacLean chronicles her travels to five continents and eight countries in search of quality wines at good prices. Along the way, she meets the quirky personalities behind the wine and picks up a wealth of practical information about where they're made, what to pair them with and how to find out more on your own.
Like some of the winemakers profiled, MacLean is a master blender, expertly crafting a pleasing concoction of seamless storytelling, voluptuous food and wine writing and easy-to-use punch lists. This book is also part personal confession for MacLean, though you won't find her sheepish about anything she's owning up to.
Unquenchable serves up the same infectious enthusiasm for wine as MacLean's first book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over. But here we see a more confident and boldly irreverent approach, a wine writer and personality who has come into her own. Utterly unapologetic for her "neurotically personal" reactions to wine, she criticizes the male-dominated world of "fancy-pants" wine writing.
Established wine writers have taken her to task for daring to put pleasure before business, but it's easy to dismiss them when you're chuckling at MacLean's clever humour. A mock "fancy" tasting note for a homemade wine: "Under an initial layer of rotting roadside tomatoes, I detect nuances of a burning Fiat tire floating on a lake of rancid olive oil. Pair this wine with nasty divorce settlements or grand jury second appeals."
Clearly capable of playing the proper wine-writing game, she chooses not to. How lucky for her readers. The wine descriptions in Unquenchable are bursting with sensual pleasure, personal associations and wit, sweeping us up into the pulsating experience of wine.
A Sicilian nero d'avola "is a heady aroma cloud of blackberries, sage, and dark chocolate. A potent core of dark, fleshy flavours roll over your tongue, finishing with a blast of black raspberries and anise. Dare I liken it to the smouldering, dark bride in The Godfather? Slap me twice if I try to weave The Sopranos into this chapter."
Unravelling the equation that equals a bargain wine is no simple task, and occasionally MacLean loses the thread. Not hard to do when visiting Penfolds or dining with the Ferragamo-loafer-clad.
But the quality of her research inspires trust. Some regions are trying to establish a reputation while others have the advantage of cheap labour. Little-known grape types may be delicious but suffer from a lack of name recognition. Some wines, no matter how well made, just aren't on consumers' high-end radar. It's complicated, but that's what the book is for.
MacLean is smitten with wine in the widest sense – the drink itself, of course, but more importantly the alchemy of people and place that creates wine.
She talks with big names that many will recognize, treated, for instance, to the philosophizing of Ernie Loosen, of Dr. L Riesling, Charles Back, of Goats do Roam, and Wolf Blass, who alternates between mentioning unmentionables (the wine he likes to call the "leg opener," for instance) and exclaiming, "Well, don't bloody write that down!"
MacLean says nothing is off the record, and I'm inclined to believe her.
Just as interesting are conversations with lesser-known players, women, in particular. Carmen Stevens, South Africa's first female winemaker of colour, and Ontario's own Louise Engel, of Featherstone, provide compelling counterpoints. Engel's hands-on approach to starling control – keeping a Harris hawk to scare them off – brings us back to the nuts and bolts of winemaking that fascinate MacLean.
Unquenchable will appeal to several audiences. For wine novices, it offers an exciting introduction to eight major wine regions. The wine-savvy will learn of promising, affordable varietals – insolia from Sicily, touriga nacional from Portugal, torrontés from Argentina (not to be confused with the Spanish grape of the same name) – as well as industry trends (port marketed as a cocktail ingredient). Those who simply enjoy good writing will not be disappointed, and the foodie will rush to download the recipes for the meals MacLean describes from her website.
Some readers might be put off by being repeatedly referred to the website. While it's true that a marketing moment is taken advantage of here, it's also true that one book can include only so much information and that wine is always changing. I suspect the interplay of printed books and dynamic websites is just getting started. Here, it helps to make a charming book a useful tool as well.
The bottom line: Buy it, savour it, use it.
Kate Parsons is an accredited sommelier and occasional wine writer based in Boston.
The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia Don't let the "encyclopedia" designation scare you: This is an accessible, beautifully designed guide to the wines of the world from one of the trade's leading authorities. It's unmistakably British: Bordeaux and Burgundy get prime billing and space while less celebrated (but, to many drinkers, more interesting) regions like Spain's Priorat barely get a mention. A fantastic reference and read nonetheless.
Larousse Wine: The World's Greatest Wines, Estates and Regions Part coffee-table book, part wine course and part reference work, this doorstopper has plenty for newish wine lovers and also for juice-stained grape monkeys. There are vintage charts, well-illustrated tutorials and even a very smart multipaged breakdown of what wine labels mean.