Monday, 12 December 2011

Unputdownably Unquenchable

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...” smells of pine and clove and dew, not forgetting apricots, benzene, berries and vanilla... sorry, Christmas was posted to me early this year with a book by international wine writer, Natalie MacLean and I have already got carried away.
When I was asked to review this book, it was in the heart of a tornado of chaos that is my life: moving house, Cordon Bleu course, exams, balancing friends with college, oh and being mugged (welcome to London!) This was of course the past three weeks! However, I am so glad it waited. This book is so unputdownable that it is a pity to finish it (I guess I can always read it again or wait for a new instalment).

I think Natalie would, justifiably, gouge my eyes out with a rusty old corkscrew and at best, replace them with crown caps like some Tales of the Vault wino snowman (did they do that programme?) if I start a review with the words “education can be fun”. However, the written style is so full of humour that it lends itself to teaching you new, relevant and interesting facts without you realising you are being taught; a style that has you laughing at the quips, smirking at the observations and thinking ‘interesting’ at the same time.

Aimed at the best bargains and value for money wines (and written by a self confessed 'cheapskate' - her words) it is divided into days, regions and grapes, as well as having an index at the back that matches food with the discussed wines (an asterisk for the best wine/food match to the chapter’s grape), and links to the recipes. It also quirkily has additional reading (Jaws by Peter Benchley brought a shark like cheesy grin to my face). This is brilliantly thought out. And just before you can draw breath a new day and adventure take you to further into this book.

We start off in Australia, learning what kick started the industry there. Wry comments such as describing Syrah as a “new sensation” bring a chuckle (as a grape it was first cultivated in Roman times even though it was introduced to Australia much later on). Insightful observations show her interest in the makers as well as the subject. This she does with tongue-in-cheek humour, the bubbling energy of Wolf Blass (so non-PC you can sense his PR spokeswoman cringing and Natalie’s eyebrows going stellar), and with genuine fondness, meeting the Penfolds and the Henksches make for a melodically whimsical ending in the starlit Southern Hemisphere over a supper that, frankly, you wish you were eating with them.

A completely different environment but similar characters and observations take you to the Mosel the next ‘day’. Here we start in a serene manner, the descriptions as undulating as the river itself, the eccentric and high octane characters, however, bring a vitality to this section; Again, it is the descriptive narrative that takes you to the moment that she tastes the wine, palpable or at least truly imaginable without doing a ‘me’ and throwing the full dictionary of similes and metaphors at the description; like the tasting, just enough. And again, we have the personal observations which bring the people to life as much as the wines: the elusive Prüm owner, blind tasting with his glamorous daughter; the wildly enthusiastic Löosen’s discourse at full throttle, all bring us the delights of Riesling.

The whirlwind tour continues in a ‘whirlybird’ over Niagara and is a revelation for me having only ever drunk Canadian wine from Okanagan. Niagara on the Lake, just minutes from the top tourist spot, the precarious nature of the landscape, from blights of starlings (do they come in ‘blights’?) to the climate, to natural methods for cultivating the land and organics (enlightening). Words and observations flow like the falls themselves and like the Pinot Noir of the chapter this is bursting with facts and observations that leave you wanting to rush headlong into the next one.    

Picture from Natalie MacLean's own website
Mack the Knife starts humming in my mind with the opening paragraphs of the next chapter, for obvious reasons. Natalie takes a slightly different focus in South Africa, it is a more intense chapter as it covers the full spectrum of wine, politics (apolitically), people and history in steady gulps; Syrah, Pinotage, Mourvedre , Grenache, Chenin, and Sauvignon Blanc in glassfuls; a rainbow of subjects and characters from the Rainbow Nation. One lady stands out amongst the others as a truly inspirational wine ‘activist’: Carmen Stevens, a wonderful story of hard graft being rewarded with success. Again, the chapter ends in similar mood to its beginning, landscape, beauty, peace and gloriously described flavours to match the environment.

The smouldering slopes of Etna provide a look at a lesser known wine growing area of Italy and perversely one of the oldest ones. Precarious heights match greater depth of flavours as she describes the local grape varieties, although the concentration is on (an old favourite and much maligned grape) Nero d’Avola. Laugh out loud moments come when she is seemingly leered at by an overtly familiar wine maker and then shown the level of intensity by another producer (“You should never talk to me during harvest”, to quote!) If the Sicilian’s philosophy of acceptance to change and events, coming from the island’s history of invasion from the Phoenicians to the Normans, highlighted by references to The Leopard (one of my favourite books), then passion is the overriding sentiment of the growers in one of the most precarious wine growing regions in the world.

From fiery passions of Sicily we move to the more seductive and darker rhythmic passions of Argentina. Contrast this with the newness of Argentina. Here, Natalie battles with recalcitrant ponies (I wish this book had been illustrated) in the foothills of the Andes. Vines imported by hardy immigrants from the old world to the new, battles with exports thanks to its history and politics, which caused Argentina’s wine market to stagnate and their volte face to keep up with competitors in the modern age, it’s all here. We are introduced to Malbec, the black wine grape of Cahors, imported and translated into a palatable mouth pleaser by the likes of Nicolas Catena. Each point in the chapter fascinates and with that comes the odd emotional twinge as you read the beautifully described tastings of “I want some!”

Another chapter and another river; safely taking us to the dark heart of the Douro Valley (no helicopters, Autobahns or horses on this voyage). From slate to granite and from light white Rieslings to rich ruby and tawny blends of Tourigas and Tintos, there is a “hurrah” for Port as the fortified wine, as opposed to the prevalence of growers to make wines from the ‘Port’ grapes. There are suggestions for cocktails to invigorate the port market and again, Natalie matches foods (quite unusually, but brilliantly) to the rich plummy, mulberry fruited liquid. One seminal moment is being offered a drink from an 1893 Port (which makes my 1952 champagne tasting seem like non-vintage, I have age envy!)

The final chapter takes us to the glamorous and overly chic Provence, tempered by colour not grape: rosé is another misunderstood wine that needs to be shouted about, its pastel colours not one for discerning palates (I love it, but then again...) as highlighted in comments about teasingly labelled rosés from the Languedoc or New Zealand, though the mention of manly, Hemmingway and pink wine in one paragraph did raise my eyebrows (see Truman Capote’s views on the great man). The view is that rosé inspires a degree of irreverence in growers that other wines wouldn’t. The meal with Nathalie Vautrin-Vacoillie of Domaine du Clos d’Alari based on Provençale ingredients has me salivating, and there is final visit to an ex-Pat Brit of well known best sellers. The appeal of the south of France and their Provençale rosés sadly brings the book more or less (Algonquin aside) to an end. Thankfully, I have a warm and comforting Barbera in my hand to get over it.

The book gives glass sized gulps of information that can be put down and picked up. I challenge anyone to do that though, I raced through it. I have had such fun reading this book that I am loathe to say goodbye to the author. As the front cover quote states “Natalie MacLean is a new force in wine writing”, I have to agree. It is, in short, brilliant.

Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines
by Natalie MacLean

Hardcover $24
Perigee/Penguin USA

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