Cracking the codes on an Italian bottle

The Italians don't make it easy, but a sure bet is to choose a wine that grew up alongside the food you're eating.

I’ve got chilled comfort for anyone who finds French wine hard to understand: Italy makes France look simple by comparison. These are the world’s two biggest wineproducing nations – France is usually ahead but there’s not much in it – and neither seems bent on reassuring the novice.
If you’re a native of Barolo, in Piedmont, you are born knowing that one of the world’s great wines – the purest expression of the Nebbiolo grape – takes its name from your village. In fact, by the time you’re about three, if you’re lucky enough to have family vineyards, you’re probably making the stuff yourself. The idea that some foreigners may think Barolo is a grape is, to you, unimaginable. Which is presumably why the Museum of Wine in Barolo, though an entirely hilarious cacophony of multimedia fabrications, son et lumière and mirrored ceilings (really), tells you absolutely nothing about Barolo.
Italy is large and historically and geographically complicated, and most of it makes wine; it also has more than 300 grape varieties. Yet its classification system is loosely copied from the French – a combination that works about as well as Cornas with tiramisu. At the top of the hierarchy are DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCGs, the latter showing their superior quality, for some reason, by adding the word “guaranteed”. To make life more difficult, many great wines, including the legendary Super Tuscan reds, choose to break the DOC rules specifying which grapes are allowed in whose wines in what proportions, and have willingly downgraded themselves to Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) – if you can call a voluntary switch from focusing on the contents of a bottle to prioritising the land on which it was grown a “downgrade”.
The oddest thing about this system is that it concentrates on grapes yet there is nothing in the rules about listing grapes on the label. You must offer would-be buyers a name of some kind. You are also obliged to give the bottle volume, even though that is standardised at a multiple of ten between 740ml and 760ml. But for all the poor thirsty blighters can tell, you’ve squeezed tomatoes to make their beverage. So the best course is to be neighbourly – something that grew up with what you’re eating.
In Sardinia, I was given dinner by the children of Alberto Loi, who now run the winery of that name. They fed me an eel the size of a boa constrictor, pinioned on a skewer the length of my torso. This was daunting: what to drink with it? The fratelli Loi’s answer was Sa Mola, made of Cannonau, Sardinia’s most celebrated grape, known elsewhere as Grenache. This quaffable, raspberryish wine was a fine match for the meaty fish – and prepared my stomach for the sausage extravaganza to come, which was in turn excellent company for the thyme waft and blackberry tang of Loi Corona 2009, a more imposing wine, still mostly Cannonau but with a little Carignano and Cabernet Sauvignon to add weight. Even though, by this point, I was doing that without help.
These wines have little in common with the vibrant and sophisticated reds of Piedmont, a thousand kilometres north, but how to negotiate the madcap variety of the many regions in between?
My recommendation is don’t. This is a country that can find more than 650 ways to turn flour and eggs into pasta; do you really want to mess with them? If you aren’t choosing wine to go with food and so can’t follow the suggestion above (though you’re now sorted, should anyone ever present you with grilled and skewered eel), visit a wine merchant with a strong Italian list, such as Berry Bros & Rudd or Lea & Sandeman, and ask for advice. Better yet, turn up with a map. If fellow customers look at you oddly, let them. You are saluting the far-famed regional pride of the Italians; the least those Italians can do is give you a nice drink in return. 
Next week: John Burnside on nature 
The perfect match: if in doubt, be neighbourly, writes Nina Caplan.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
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The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage