Tidbits Book Review – Unquenchable
Comparing herself to writer Brendan Behan, Ottawa, Ontario-based wine scribe Natalie McLean reveals, “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” The line concludes her second book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, and emphasizes what the author likes most about booze, namely, drinking the stuff.
While tomes purporting to reveal the best wines/best wine buys have seen numerous incantations, McLean goes a step further than just offering a shopping list by actually taking readers on a journey to the wine regions and wineries where, in her opinion, the best buys can be found.
From the sprawling vineyards of Australia to the slate-hewn slopes of Germany’s Mosel Valley to the back-yard wineries of Ontario’s Niagara region (and a handful of places in between), McLean talks to the impassioned, the talented, and, in at least one instance, the downright randy winemakers who turn fruit into fun. And fun, ultimately, is what McLean suggests wine is all about. She wonders why most wine writers never really mention that they actually enjoy the intoxicating effects of wine. “Are they afraid of not being taken seriously if they’re having fun?,” she muses. I’ve personally been to enough “professional” tastings to observe first-hand that fun is indeed being had, so her point is well taken. And as a book about wine (and we all know how dour they can sometimes be), the tone here is much like a fine sparkling wine: light, refreshing and celebratory.
More a series of essays than a single narrative (meaning it’s a convenient read for those on the go), each chapter focuses on a region, a selection of its wineries and discussions with the personalities behind them. They conclude with “Field Notes from a Wine Cheapskate,” “Insider Tips,” “Wineries Visited,” (web links) “Best Value Wines,” “Top Value Producers,” a dinner menu for each day of the week, “Terrific Pairings,” “Resources,” and “Related Reading.”
McLean goes (mercifully) light on technical fiddly bits and perhaps this is a good thing as she does slip up now and again when it comes to practices surrounding viniculture and viticulture. For example, she cites the practice of chaptalization as a way to increase the sweetness of a wine (in this instance those of Germany) by adding sugar. In fact, chaptalization is used to increase the alcohol percentage. However, adding süssreserve (unfermented grape juice) to the finished wine will increase the sweetness.
In talking about the moderating effect of the Niagara escarpment and Lake Ontario on the area’s vineyards, McLean states, “The moderating effect of the lake and escarpment is limited to the Niagara Peninsula, which is why you don’t see vineyards in Toronto or Hamilton.” Okay, so how do you explain vineyards on the north shore of Lake Erie, Prince Edward County or the vineyards springing up north of Toronto. True, the moderating effect may be unique to Niagara, but it is not always a necessary condition for the existence of vineyards. (As an aside, considering Toronto’s ideal southern exposure, it could probably be the home of some very good vineyards).
Minor quibbles aside, McLean has achieved what she no doubt set out to do: to offer a revealing, informative and, more than anything else, fun – and tipsy – romp through the world of wine while finding bargains along the way. She’s gutsy enough to admit that “objectivity” (the sin qua non of the true “expert”) is not even a word in her vocabulary, honest enough to admit she enjoys getting a bit looped and new enough to the game that she still hasn’t lost sight of what wine is really about — pleasure.
Natalie McLean Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines
Hardcover / 320 pp/ Doubleday Canada / $29.95 / 978-0-385-66848-4
Release date: 10/25/11