What wine goes best with ketchup (or sweet chilli) crisps? What’s ‘ice cuvée fizz’? How to pair Netflix with wine? How good is Canadian wine, and which are the best ones to buy? Most importantly, how can you win prizes up to the value of CA$400 (or £260)?!
It’s all here, a small wine universe in a podcast. We’re talking to globally renowned wine communicator and proud Canadian Natalie MacLean, who hosts the excellent Unreserved Wine Talk podcast (among MANY other things), and recommending a range of top Canadian wines.
Natalie touches on many fascinating topics in our interview, from how she first fell in love with wine to her top wine tip, her advice for those looking to make wine a career, how women should aim high, dealing with an alcoholic father, how the pandemic has changed online wine learning, podcasting highs and lows, and food pairings.
Not to mention ketchup crisps…which gives us an idea…
NB: the wines below are available at VINVM
Plus, with the sweet chilli crisps:
Intro question: we’ve just done a Valentine’s podcast and we asked people how and when they first fell in love with wine…so how did you fall in love with wine?
Natalie MacLean (NM): Well, there’ve been many memorable bottles. Perhaps the first one was a Brunello that my husband and I tasted at an Italian restaurant. But I also have the memory of this magical Rhône Valley Syrah. We had rented a cabin – that was our version of camping, that’s as much as I was going to do camping-wise – and this storm was blowing across the lake in front of the cabin. And I just remember, the windows were rattling, the rain was hitting the tin roof, it was coming down the chimney and sizzling in the fire. And we opened up this Rhône, full bodied, smoky wine, drinking it in front of the fireplace and I remember thinking: it can rain forever, I don’t care, and the more the wind whipped across the lake and the harder it rained, the more I loved that Rhône. It filled my senses, it was a magical evening, I’ll never forget that wine.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): Sometimes Rhône wines can be overlooked and under-estimated. But the northern Rhone is one of our favourites. So that was your moment – one of our early podcasts was how wine can be a career, or a second career, what would you say to people who maybe love wine and are intrigued and are wondering if they could make a career, or a second career, like you did, out of it?
Absolutely. Explore it. Sometimes folks think: I love this, as a hobby, but could I get paid to do it? There are so many possibilities to do that, as you know Susie, you and I and Peter have made a living by being writers or commentators. But there are lots of careers: tour guides, tasting room personnel, winemakers. You have to think: what do I love, what skills do I have, what do I enjoy other than drinking wine?! And marry those skills up to a particular career. Because it’s one thing to love wine – and it’s a great thing! But you also need to ensure that you have the skills that would be a fit for one of the many careers in wine.
SB: Continuing that theme, given you moved into wine as a second career, what’s your biggest regret of your career?
NM: Before I started and jumped into wine, I didn’t have the confidence to go to journalism school. I loved writing, that was my passion, going through elementary school and so on. But I just didn’t have the confidence to think I could ever get paid to write. So I didn’t go to journalism school, I got very practical, and got an MBA. We discussed this when I interviewed you folks on my podcast. There are similar notions – that, as a woman, you feel you need a credential, in my case an MBA, in your case the Master of Wine, to always know that I could be financially independent, could get a good job and so on. I was raised by a single mother in Nova Scotia, small town and she really taught me the importance of being financially independent. So I don’t regret doing the MBA but I just wish I’d had the confidence to go for that journalism degree as an undergrad.
SB: And on a slightly more positive note, what’s been the high point for you?
NB: Well, I think getting past that mental block as a woman. I know sometimes, personally, women friends tell me, we often discount ourselves out of a job before we even apply for it. I know I’m generalising. But when I went off on maternity leave for the birth of my son, about 20 years ago, I wasn’t writing, but I’d taken a sommelier diploma programme. But I knew I loved writing and I thought: I’m gonna take a flyer. I’m gonna pitch an article about wine on the internet to a local magazine. So instead of saying: oh no I could never do that. Maybe it was maternity brain that actually made me take that leap. But I was so glad that I did because that led to my career in writing about wine. And that’s why often when I talk with women: take a chance, even if you don’t have all the credentials or everything lined up, just try it. And see where it might lead…
SB: And if you never give it a go, it’s never going to happen, is it?! So before we talk more about you, I’d love to ask you about Canada and Canadian wine. You’re speaking to us now from Ottawa, in Ontario. Now, Voltaire rather unkindly described Canada as, ‘a few acres of snow’… But I’d like to know how you would describe the country and its wine industry?
NM: Sure! Well Voltaire, my hat’s off to him, he’s great on philosophy but I wouldn’t trust him as a travel guide cos no one would ever visit us! So yes indeed we do have lots of snow here but you learn to embrace the weather wherever you are, or you’re just miserable. Personally I enjoy the great indoors, as I tell Miles my partner, so rather than being outside skiing and snow-shoeing, I like to have the drinks ready for when everyone comes back from those activities. So I still love where we are. But in terms of the wine industry, that cool climate has a profound effect on the wines we produce. Our industry is relatively small. Perhaps like the English. We have around 700 wineries, 31,000 acres of vines planted, our main regions are Ontario and BC…
SB: And it’s grown quite a lot recently, in the last 30 years?
NM: Absolutely. Even in the last 5 years, the growth has been phenomenal. It seems like every week we’re hearing about a new winery opening in Niagara or the Okanagan.
SB: Is that to do with climate change? We know it’s a cold country, England is cold so we know about that. Is that having an effect, a positive effect?
NM: I think it is. For example, 2020 was the hottest vintage here. And that’s happening in a lot of regions. So it was hot and dry. So the red wines we produce struggle to produce here, especially the fully bodied ones like Cabernet, ripened beautifully, so it’s gonna be a banner vintage for big reds. But at the same time, the ice wine harvest, for which we’re famous, dropped 30%. Because winemakers decided not to make ice wine, or it didn’t get cold enough. Of course, Covid has hit duty free sales in airports, and that’s where you buy a lot of your ice wine. But certainly climate change is impacting the decisions, not just about new wineries opening up but which grapes we’re planting and what types of wines we’re making.
SB: We don’t see enough Canadian wines here in the UK. But what we do see can be very impressive. What would your tips be for what we and our listeners should be looking out for and trying to buy?
NM: Our specialities are Riesling and Pinot Noir. Ice-wine is a given, it’s what we’re known for. Luscious golden elixir dessert wine. But Riesling and Pinot Noir thrive, as you know Susie in a cool climate. And we do them so well. They have that nervy, edgy acidity, that vibrancy, that aliveness in the glass, that I think makes them wonderful either on their own or as food partners. So those are the wines that I’d look for.
SB: I’m not familiar with Canadian Riesling. Do they tend to be dry or semi sweet or a mix of the two?
NM: They tend to be either dry or slightly off dry. There aren’t really many sweet styles unless you jump all the way to ice-wine. So you tend to get fairly dry versions here.
SB: Coming back to you, Natalie, and your personal experiences. To be fair, wine and alcohol haven’t always been a panacea for you – you mentioned before your father was an alcoholic. How has that experience shaped your approach to wine?
NM: It’s had a profound influence. I grew up in a Scottish east coast family where wine wasn’t even part of the table. It was beer and whisky. Not that I was drinking it as a child! But wine wasn’t part of the culture. And it wasn’t until I got into university, even post uni, that I started to get into wine and appreciate it. And knowing that, there is an allure to wine beyond all of the heady topics we talk about, the way it intersects with so many fascinating subjects, there’s also the pure buzz of it. And so I like to say that’s why we don’t have orange juice critics. There’s something magical about wine and it ties everything together, and it illuminates all our senses, including those that love the buzz. So having a father who was an alcoholic really made me acutely aware of moderation and so on, and I believe now what you know and love and truly understand, you don’t abuse. What I mean by that is: if you can gain an appreciation for wine, if you learn about it, you can make your way to moderation through that appreciation. It’s why I teach wine and food pairing classes online as well.
SB: I was going to ask you. Beautifully put. Wanted to touch more on your family – your mother and grandmother were teachers, and a big part of what you do is teaching online, particularly food and wine pairing classes. How has the pandemic changed what you do and how people are engaging with it?
NM: The pandemic has made many of us search for ways to use our time at home not just more productively but more enjoyably. We’re missing those experiences of travel and restaurants so we want to elevate the food and wine experience as much as we can at home. So what I’ve noticed is a real uptick in overall numbers of people enrolling on my courses. But also different people enrolling. What I used to get were people who couldn’t commit to that one night a week physical course. Maybe they had kids, and needed flexibility to stay home or go at their own pace, or people who travel a lot for business, checking in from a hotel room, using the mini bar and taking my courses that way! But now it’s a much wider or broader swathe of people looking to take these courses online. Because they had to get over the mental hurdle that taking wine classes online can not only be effective but it can also be as or more enjoyable than in person. There are some things of course we can’t replace about in person tastings, but there are so many more advantages to online courses, whether it is that flexibility, or the ability to connect with people around the world who share your passion. So I’m getting a lot more of those people. And the last group I’d say I’m getting a lot more people from the hospitality industry, furloughed or otherwise, who want to sharpen their pairing skills so they are better able to earn a living when they do get back to working in restaurants.
SB: Now on that note, the whole food and wine pairing note. There are people who say: it’s sophistry, smoke and mirrors, a load of old rubbish. What is your response to that?
NM: Well, I think they are certainly entitled to their opinions, even if I don’t agree with them, obviously. But I think food is a lot less intimidating than wine. We go into a grocery store and we look at roast chicken and we don’t start worrying about which roast chicken to buy, where did it grow up, is it free range etc. Perhaps it’s because the choices aren’t as great as they are in wine. But I think we can bring people to wine through food first. And that’s what I try to do in the courses but also on my website. Cos if you know what you love – your taste in food – you can start to explore your taste in wine through those flavours you’re confident of when it comes to eating food.
SB: If you could recommend one really easy fun food and wine combination for our listeners to try out, what would it be?
NM: Well, I like to suggest things or pairings that don’t even require cooking, as I’m not a cook myself. There are so many different types of cheeses that go so beautifully with wine and the combinations are almost infinite, so I’d suggest: get three of your favourite cheeses (a creamy cheese, a cheddar, a Brie, a blue, whatever it is you like) and maybe crack open a wine or two, depends on how many people are there, then just mix and match. You’ll be amazed at the flavour combinations you’ll get. And one tip I always say is: make sure you try the wine first, then go to the food, you can have your wine in the mouth at the same time if you want. Afterwards, go back to the wine. And what happened to the wine? And people always say: it’s totally changed, it’s smoothed out or something happened. And of course we know the wine hasn’t changed, but your perception of it has changed, and that’s magical for a lot of people to discover that.
SB: Absolutely. What’s the weirdest food and wine pairing you’ve ever had?
NM: OK, this is a truly weird Canadian pairing. We have ketchup chips here, not sure if you have ketchup chips in England?
SB: We have ketchup. And chips. But not sure about ketchup chips. Also, with chips I mean potatoes cut and cooked. Cos I’ve had this experience before: chips are different from crisps.
NM: Oh it’s crisps! You’re right. So I’m talking about ketchup crisps then. I have a weakness for them. It’s an Achilles heel. I know that commercial ketchup is said to have more sugar than ice cream. So I thought: they will be sweet and ruin any dry wine. But I thought: for the sake of my readers, listeners, students etc, I’m going to try different wines. And what I discovered to my surprise is that these ketchup chips went beautifully with a dry rose. And the chips weren’t as sweet as I thought. And the strawberry, berry flavours of the chips went really well with the ketchup…now I don’t advise trying to slaver ketchup over French fries or crisps. That would be just cruel to your mouth. But this combination worked and it was completely weird and I loved it!
SB: I think we’re doing to have to get…Peter’s favourite chips are sweet chilli which is sort of similar so perhaps we should get him to crack open a bottle of dry rose and sweet what he thinks…
NM: I wanna know how that goes!
SB: So finally: it’s not just food that you pair with wine is it?! Give us a sense of other things you like to pair with wine.
NM: We love to pair wine with music, especially while Miles is cooking. And I’m pulling corks. And I’ll read him bits of the latest newspaper/magazine. We love to pair it with binge-watching Netflix. So we’re binge watching not binge drinking. There are so many shows on, we’ve spent a lot of time doing that during Covid. We love sitting out in the backyard watching the sunset, I know that sounds clichéd but wine can infuse so many ordinary activities with some sort of special warmth that I think layers in those memories even more. Like that cabin in the woods. Cos you’re touching on so many more senses, not just the visual of watching the sunset but you’re tasting, you’re feeling the wine, it’s seeping through your body, and that’s what makes memories.
SB: You host your own brilliant podcast, we love it, Unreserved Wine Talk. Why did you decide to start a podcast? Was it a long time ago?
NM: I started near the end of 2018, been almost two years. But my love of the human voice goes back a lot further. It probably starts with my mother reading to me every night, bed time stories. So I was imagining the characters as I got sleepier. Even as a teenager I’d listen to satellite radio and it would blow in and out across the Atlantic, I was listening to the BBC, I loved their reporting and this whole other world they were talking about. So I’ve always loved the medium, of the human voice, it’s very intimate, you’re millimetres away from someone’s brain, it’s like: in the dark, pillow talk. And so that drew me to it. But I didn’t get started until 2018 because I had so many other projects. It was always in the back of my mind. But the driving force was definitely that love of the voice.
SB: But now you do your podcast, what do you love and don’t love about podcasting?
NM: I love it allows me to be nosy. I’m an introvert. And I ask questions on that podcast that I would not ask at a dinner party, even an impolite one. I just wouldn’t open up that way. I love that it allows me into peoples’ lives in a deeper, more meaningful connection. The conversations you can have on a podcast go so beyond the weather etc. I’m also making up for lost time – I was such an introvert as a child, I spent so many hours, years in the corner, not talking, at parties, that now I’m making up for it! In terms of what I found challenging – we’re in a very technical field you could say, you can get a lot of the facts wrong about wine, like the type of oak, whatever. I don’t focus on the technical aspects of wine on my podcast, cos I love story telling, but that said there’s a minefield of facts you can get wrong. So what I had to do was get past my own fear of looking stupid or my own fear of what will people think, she’s been writing about wine for 20 years and she doesn’t know that?! So I have to retreat into, reassure myself that I’ll always be an enthusiastic amateur and that’s the best service I can be for my listener. A lot of my listeners won’t know those facts either!
SB: Where you’re never imperfect is writing your books. You’ve written two and you’re on your third book now, a memoir, how is it different from your previous books and what can we expect?
NM: A memoir is a different type of animal, I’ve learnt, as I still progress through writing it. The first two books I did write from a first-person perspective. All stories about gallivanting round the world, meeting odd winemakers and learning about wine through their stories, but now I’m turning the camera on myself, that’s what a memoir is, it’s very exposing, it can make you feel very vulnerable, but that’s a good challenge to try to understand who you are, why you did what you did. People can still learn a lot about wine but this is from a much more intimate perspective, and the one thing I had to learn was: almost thinking about it like a movie script. So you have your opening shot, you have to think in scenes as opposed to one long exposition. People want to be engaged almost like watching a movie so even though they don’t know you they can identify with conflict, eg during this book I got divorced, during this book I suffered from depression, during this book I had to deal with alcohol consumption. So those major themes are just human themes but trying to shape the narrative as scene after scene rather than just one long explanation is the challenge.
SB: Finally, if you could give one tip to our listeners, what would it be?
NM: Just keep experimenting. One thing I advise my students to do is: when you go into liquor store, it can be intimidating, but just buy a mixed case of wines, rather than trying to find the one perfect wine or one perfect pairing. And don’t be afraid to ask the liquor store staff. Say: I like this particular Rhone Syrah, what would you recommend in this price range, in this style. And maybe they’ll take you to an Argentine Malbec and broaden your horizons. And de-risk the whole thing by getting a mixed case and experiment and find some new favourites.
SB: Natalie Maclean, thank you very much.
NM: Susie, this was a pure delight.