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Wine World

8 countries, 312 wineries: Natalie MacLean’s tipsy trip around the world in 15,267 wines

Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, by Natalie MacLean, 368 pages, Doubleday, $29.95

The universal problem with most wine writing is that it tends to be pretentious or boring or both. Natalie MacLean’s second wine book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, is definitely not typical wine writing. As with her first book, Red, White and Drunk All Over, MacLean displays her passion and encyclopedic knowledge about the subject in a way that brings the reader into every vineyard, dinner table, and wine glass she has encountered in her worldwide travels in search of the best wine values.

The chapters of Unquench-able are organized by days of the week, showing there is plenty of pleasurable wine from different regions that can and should be enjoyed every day of the week, without breaking the bank. Make no mistake that when MacLean talks about “cheap wine,” she is talking about seeking out value and good taste without sacrificing quality, as opposed to the industrial plonk in the category she describes as the “vinous ghetto,” wines produced in high volume at low prices for purposes of generating revenue.

MacLean starts her journey in Australia and takes the reader through different varietals and wine regions, from Australian Shiraz on Sunday, German Riesling on Monday, Canadian wines on Tuesday, South African wines on Wednesday, Sicilian wines on Thursday, Argentine wines on Friday, Portuguese wines and port on Saturday, and back to Sunday with Provençal Rosés.

Her portraits of the winemakers she meets on her travels are genuine, colorful, humorous, and always respectful. Carmen Stevens is a diminutive black woman winemaker in South Africa who wants her barrels organized in such a particular precise manner without using machinery that she moves them all herself to show the crew of large, male cellar workers how she wants things done. Katharina Prüm, the daughter of the reclusive Manfred Prüm of J.J. Prüm, became a winemaker because she loved spending time in the vineyards with her father, walking and smelling the grapes, even though she has a doctorate in law from Münster University. Michael Halstrick of Bodega Norton in Argentina frankly expresses his wine philosophy: “A very expensive wine makes only a few people happy. We want to make a lot of people happy.”

The only hiccup in this otherwise enchanting book is MacLean’s repeated references to her other extensive accomplishments and credentials in addition to her wine expertise. At various points in the book, she reminds us that she knows a great deal about literature (she studied 19th century literature at Oxford University) with grandiose similes and references to Rainer Maria Rilke, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Thomas Mann, and was even a finalist to be a Rhodes scholar. I preferred learning that she “enjoys the great indoors” but is not a great cook, that she considers herself to be a “highly functioning liver with a few superfluous organs attached,” and that she is a “drinker with a writing problem.”

If you were not inclined to try wines other than the typical Chardonnay and Cabernet, this book will convince you to open your mind and your wineglass to all the lovely possibilities of unusual grape juice around the world available for prices far below the typical Chardonnay and Cabernet. At MacLean’s urging, I am going to give Pinotage another chance. Who knows what other inexpensive hidden wine treasures may still be out there to be discovered?

MacLean makes wine fun and enticing rather than serious and intimidating.

She has not only taught me the remaining possibilities of the wine world but also a new word:  cenosilicaphobia — fear of an empty glass. I may take another pore over this book, after pouring myself a large glass of port that I will raise in her honor.

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