Natalie MacLean knows a bargain when she browses the aisles at the wine store.
In fact, she's written the book on it — and she has advice that will be apt not only for local consumers, but especially those who plan to attend this weekend's A Taste of Wine show, which showcases low-cost, high-flavour bottles from Chile and Argentina.
The NLC is hosting the show — the third winter show to celebrate particular regional wines — at the St. John's Convention Centre on Saturday night.
Arguably Canada's best-known wine writer, MacLean was in St. John’s last week to wrap up a 17-city tour to promote her second book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines. A chapter of the book focuses on Argentina, with a number of the profiled wines to be on exhibit at Saturday's show.
After returning to her home in Ottawa, where she writes on wine for numerous publications as well as for her own website (MacLean also offers a popular mobile app that can scan barcodes and provide quick reviews and tasting notes), she plans to start a new book next year: a cross-country tasting tour of Canada's wines.
I caught up with her on Sunday at a downtown St. John's coffee shop to talk about finding bargains, and why this weekend's show would be an excellent place to start.
CBC: With this show focusing just on Chile and Argentina, what should people look for and what can they expect?
MacLean: They both produce incredible wines for the price points. In Argentina, the flagship is Malbec, which to me is kind of half-way between Cabernet and Merlot. It’s fleshy, it’s full-bodied, it's robust, but it’s not as tannic as cabernet. So quite a few people like it. It’s like merlot on steroids. It has a bit more heft to it.
CBC: And it would taste familiar to people who like either.
MacLean: Yes. And in Chile they make more of the classic grapes, but you’re going to pay less there because both Chile and Argentina have those natural-cost advantages. They have warm climates, as opposed to the cool climate we have in Canada or in northern France where you’re fighting mildew and pests and rot. Now, I love cool-climate wines because of the style, but it is more expensive to produce wines in a cool climate. In Chile and Argentina, you have consistently ripe vintages, you don’t have as much crop loss, land is cheaper, labour is cheaper [and] you have the natural ice melt in the Andes to irrigate. So, the whole cost base is much lower. They’re trying to go more upscale, but they come in that $10 to $15 range, and they’re incredible wines for the money. There [are] a lot of them that do taste twice as expensive as they cost, and that’s my definition for a bargain. Bargain isn't cheap — it’s that price-quality ratio. For me, that’s the magic price point.
CBC: We've seen low-price wines, though, such as those from Australia, go up in price, and they stop being so much of a bargain.
MacLean: I think that is the strategy with lots of product categories, like cars. Wine producers are trying the same strategy. That said, there is now more competition than ever for your wine dollar, so I think that the prices aren’t going to go crazy. Even in Napa and Sonoma, where wines are pretty pricey, you’ll see new producers coming into the market, and they will price very reasonably. I don’t think overall prices will get out of reach. They can’t compete if they go too high ... There’s also a growing interest in lesser-known grapes, like Albarino from northern Spain or Torrentes, the floral white from Argentina, because more and more we’re seeking out different tastes, different experiences. Cooking has definitely changed too. So we have these zippy, vibrant white wines that are very aromatic really stand up to those different flavours without being heavy or [having too much] alcohol or oak, or those elements that sometimes can clash with food.
CBC: Wine shows have the advantage of introducing labels we've never seen, but then it's hard to find them later in the actual stores. How hard is it for producers to get shelf space?
MacLean: They have to be not only very competitive, they also have to have some marketing dollars behind them. You have to have a fairly substantial budget to launch. I think the liquor boards also look for certain products to fill certain niches. They will want a Chilean chardonnay that’s in the $12 to $17 range, and that may be what they’re missing now, and if that’s not what you have, then it’s tough that way.
CBC: The liquor board here has really changed in the last few years and become much more eclectic with what it offers. You don’t see all the same labels filling as much space, which is inviting. It makes you want to look around.
MacLean: Exactly. I was going through the Howley Estates liquor store [on Saturday] and I was so impressed. It’s the flagship, and the selection there is so impressive. Lots of labels I haven’t seen before either, and from high — extremely high — [prices]
to the everyday drinking wines. The liquor stores are recognizing that people want that diversity of experience. They don’t want to buy the same brand over and over again, and they’re catering to that. Selection is always a good thing.
CBC: What do you make of wine shows, like the one this weekend?
MacLean: I think that's such a good idea. A wine is unlike most other consumer products. You can flip through a chapter of a book or try on a dress or a suit, but wine — you’ve got to taste it. So these trade shows are great for that.
CBC: Bargains are well and good, but the finest wines are expensive ... I would drink Barolo every night if I could, but I then I would also have a yacht and a summer home in Massachusetts. Why can’t someone make a Barolo-quality wine for, say, $20 or $25?
MacLean: You’re answering your own question there. It’s like Bordeaux. It really comes down to that they’ve established their brand and the demand and cachet of premium wines. In the book, I say, go south. So, in France or Italy, you’re going to pay up big time in the northern regions. Piedmont or Tuscany in Italy, Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. They have the market, they have the demand, they don’t have to price down. But if you go south — Sicily in Italy or Languedoc or Provence in France, that’s where you will get some incredible bargains. Well-made wines that have been made for hundreds of years, but — for whatever reason — they didn’t export, they didn’t establish themselves. The regulations are meant to preserve the integrity and the signature of those wines, but they also increase costs.
CBC: There's been increasing attention to organic and biodynamic wines. What do you think?
MacLean: All of the stats I’ve seen show that organic wines are the fastest-growing category in most liquor stores, and are growing at about 20 per cent per year. Some people think they are a more healthful beverage — they’re not. I think others are looking for a reduced impact on the environment. And others just gravitate towards it because there is a greater attention to the process. When you’re organic, you can’t rely on an easy fix. What you’re doing in the vineyard is better for the vines. That can translate in better quality, although organic doesn’t mean that they’re (necessarily) better wines.
CBC: What’s next for you?
MacLean: I’ve hibernated for five years writing the book, and then you actually get to meet people who actually read books, and who love wine, and that’s been incredibly satisfying. I do want to write a new book, starting in 2013. I’m going to start here with the fruit wines and go straight to the Okanagan. Just as long as I’m not sampling and driving at the same time!
Natalie MacLean’s 5 NLC bargain picks
Natalie MacLean took a look at what’s on offer at the NLC, and produced a list for CBC readers of great bargains.
Freixenet Cava Cordon Rosado, Spain: How festive is this pink bubbly? Aromas of ripe field raspberries tickle your nose. Float a raspberry on top for an extra touch. $12.65 Score: 87/100.
Dr. L Riesling, Mosel, Germany: This is a favourite of so many people I know and for good reason: packed with flavour, floral notes and melon essence. Light- to medium-bodied and low in alcohol. Pair with: mildly spiced seafood pasta dish. Drink: 2011-2014. $14.95 Score: 88/100.
Carmen Chardonnay Reserva, Chile: The 2010 Carmen Reserva Chardonnay wins the Best Brie Wine award! It’s caramel, toffee depths are a perfect backdrop for such a rich cheese. The green apple and citrus notes give the wine a mouth-watering vibrancy. Top me up! Pair with: lobster in butter, rich pasta dishes, lemon chicken. $10.00 Score: 87/100.
Wolf Blass Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Red Label, South Eastern Australia: Vanilla-cherry and cool mint on the nose, followed by lovely ripe blackberries and plums on the palate, rich, smooth and inviting. Pair with: prime rib, pot roast, brisket, red meats grilled or roasted; strong cheeses. $14.95 Score: 90/100
Alamos Malbec The Wines of Catena, Mendoza, Argentina: A pleasant sipper with lovely blackberry aromas. Medium- to full-bodied and smooth. A solidly made wine with terrific balance. Ripe blackberries and pepper. Perfect for barbecue and movie night. Pair with: lasagna. $13.95 Score: 88/100