An Expert Tastes New Changes In Wine

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Natalie MacLean, author of Red, White and Drunk All Over, joins Host Liane Hansen to discuss how global warming, competition in the wine industry, and organic standards are changing the wine we drink. MacLean also reveals her favorite wine, after more than a decade as a sommelier.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Every year, Americans reach for more and more wine. Last year we drank enough to set a record for the nation, 304 million cases. We even surpassed Italians for the first time. That's thanks in part to the growing variety of wines. On our show last week, we asked accredited sommelier Natalie MacLean to help us pair those wines with our favorite foods, like nachos.

Ms. NATALIE MACLEAN (Author: "Red, White and Drunk All Over"): A simple, very ripe, red wine like a California Zinfandel.

HANSEN: This week we continue our conversation with MacLean about wine. She says the drink is changing as demand increases, but change isn't necessarily bad news.

Ms. MACLEAN: The good news today is that there is so much competition around the world between new producers of wine, new regions, the new technology is allowing winemakers to make better wine at lower prices and all of that means that we don't have to pay a lot of money anymore for delicious wine.

Now, we're always going to pay super-premium prices for brand name regions like Bordeaux, you know, your California Cabernets at the highest end, Burgundy and so on. But if you look at value regions like South Africa, lesser known regions of California, Chili, Argentina, you're going to find spectacularly delicious wines in the 10 to 15 dollar range.

HANSEN: Really?

Ms. MACLEAN: Really. A lot of the value-priced wines, as they'd have us say it, are made to be consumed immediately. In fact, most wines are consumed within about 17 minutes of purchase, the time it takes to drive home. So winemakers know that. Ninety-nine percent of wines today are not meant to be aged. So the wine style today is accessible. It's fruity, it's delicious, it's consistent and it's cheap.

HANSEN: Is alcohol percentage a factor?

Ms. MACLEAN: Yeah. Alcohol affects wine profoundly. These days, wines on average seem to be getting higher and higher in their alcohol level. Some say it's global warming. Others just say that it's the market driving the wine style. People want more bang for their buck so the winemakers are letting the grapes hang longer on the vines. That translates into more sugar in the grapes, sugar is what makes alcohol.

In the old days, 10 years ago, maybe 10, 12 percent was average for alcohol level. Now we're seeing 13 to 16 percent. I, actually, am very sensitive to that because when wines get that high in alcohol, the heat of the alcohol starts to overwhelm the other flavor elements in it.

HANSEN: You made an aside to climate change, perhaps, affecting the increasing alcohol percentages. Do you find that climate change is affecting the wine industry in other ways or are observations being made?

Ms. MACLEAN: Absolutely. I was in Germany in September and Germany is renowned for it's ethereal, delicate Rieslings. They are usually or traditionally have been in the seven to nine percent alcohol range. But what's happening is that the alcohol levels are going up but also, there are no longer bad vintages. Bad meaning the grapes didn't ripen enough or there was just too much rain. So overall, the vintages are getting riper, there's more sun, more warming of the grapes and so on.

HANSEN: What about buying locally and organically? How do you go about finding something good?

Ms. MACLEAN: Well, organic wines, for starters, are very well made these days. A lot of us still have the image of the bad, old '70s when organic wines were...

HANSEN: Lighter fluid.

Ms. MACLEAN: Yeah. Exactly. If that. But these days organic wines have to compete on taste. People buy primarily on taste and price. So I'm finding that the organic wines I taste these days are extremely well made. So the organic wine section of the liquor store is also one of the fastest growing. It's growing by 20 percent a year. I think there are some misperceptions about organic wines that they are somehow more a healthful beverage. They are not because fermentation takes care of all the pesticides. But when you buy organic wines, you're making a statement both for the environment and those who work on that winery, which is essentially a grape farm.

Buying local is also a great thing. I mean, you know, again, you're making a statement about the environment. It's supporting your local farmers. And you know, there's so many pockets of great wineries, you know, these days, from Texas to Michigan to upper New York State. It's a great reason to explore what's in your own backyard.

HANSEN: Two quick-fire questions. Favorite wine.

Ms. MACLEAN: Oh, my goodness. The one someone else pays for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That's good. That's a great answer, great answer. All right. Here's the other one. Which country produces the best wine?

Ms. MACLEAN: Oh, you know, I'm a fan of Pinot Noir worldwide. So I love it from cool regions of California, Carneros, Russian River. I love it from Oregon. I love it from Burgundy. I'm such a fan of Pinot Noir and it's becoming a cliche. I've got to, you know, redo my wine wardrobe ever since "Sideways." It's old news but I love the seductiveness of Pinot Noir. It packs so much flavor and yet it's not heavy. Anyway.

HANSEN: I thought you're going to be diplomatic and say, the country you're in when you drink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I mean, look, Natalie, give me a break. You have this book, "Red, White and Drunk All Over." You take us all around the world of wine. In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you'd make a living drinking wine and writing about it?

Ms. MACLEAN: No. Although I think everybody who starts into this business, whether they're writing about food or wine, comes in through a back door somehow. And it's about discovering a passion that you always thought would be a hobby.

The people in this industry who make wine, they are often refugees from another industry. They, too, have found their passion, whether they're sommeliers or winemakers or retailers or whatever, and it's not just another product. I mean, you know, there's a reason we don't have orange juice critics. There's something in that glass that combines the hedonism, the sensuality and the sheer buzz of it to make it something we love to talk about, write about, and of course, drink.

HANSEN: You're reminding me of the song, "Wine Fodie Odie(ph)." Sommelier Natalie MacLean is the author of "Red, White, and Drunk All Over." She spoke to us from the studios of the CBC in Ottawa. Thank you very much.

Ms. MACLEAN: Thank you, Liane. Cheers.

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Red, White, and Drunk All over

A Wine-soaked Journey from Grape to Glass

by Natalie Maclean

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