Do it for the vine. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Nip across the border to sample the ancient vines

Spain and Portugal may have settled their differences, but when it comes to grapes, it's not so simple.

The vines that produce the kind of grapes you crush for wine can live a long time: I’ve seen gnarled plants on the island of Santorini that are over 150 years old and still producing fruit, although not very much of it. Most, however, get yanked out and replaced long before they’re eligible for a royal telegram; there is a delicate balance between the prestige of old vines and a field full of superannuated stalks with barely a grape between them.

I brought a bottle of old-vine Vinho Verde, a 2012 Soalheiro Primeiras Vinhas, back from northern Portugal a couple of weeks ago, snuggled inside several jumpers in the hold and prayed over by its owner a few feet above although, contrary to the region’s name – Vinho Verde means “green wine” – the contents are a delicate yellow that would have inflicted only temporary damage on my wardrobe. And the Wine Society sells it for £20 a bottle. But this was given to me, and I can be as territorial as any conquering hero, when it comes to wine.

Its grape, Alvarinho, is now Vinho Verde’s trendiest, largely because of its success across the Spanish border in Galicia, where it is called Albariño. The vines are over 40 years old. I tasted this lovely wine in a beautiful glass-walled room on the estate in Melgaço, gazing through those huge windows at Spain. It feels peculiar to sit in one country looking at the other while tasting the wine that has largely replaced land as the root of their rivalry. It is a curiosity that most people view Vinho Verde as a style and not a region (it is both), and its grapes remain shrouded in mystery – even those, like Alvarinho and Loureiro, that are pretty well known in their Spanish incarnation.

Wine notwithstanding, relations between the two Iberian nations are mainly cordial these days. Luiz Cerdeira, Soalheiro’s owner, pointed out the benefits of nipping north for the midday meal: not only do the Spanish start later and lunch longer, but the time difference allows you to recuperate an hour when you return. This almost makes having an enormous, powerful neighbour worthwhile. Greedy Portuguese buying lunch is an improvement on acquisitive Castilians attempting to add Portugal to their roster of conquered states; I believe they call this progress.

With a short exception, the two have been separate since 1129, when Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself king. Afonso was an exceptional piece of work, rebelling against his mother at the age of 11 (in the 12th-century sense of taking up arms against her, not refusing to eat his bacalhau) and fighting all-comers until well into his seventies. He was a member of the House of Burgundy: truly an old vine from exceptional stock.

There are red, rosé and sparkling Vinho Verdes but it is the whites for which the region is famed, and if it is still trying to shake off a certain 1970s taint, quality is climbing, so it should succeed. After all, hardly anyone dislikes Vinho Verde; it is so gentle, so softly approachable, it would be like disliking daisies. Wines made from Loureiro usually have a stronger personality than the Alvarinhos: Quinta de Curvos makes a lovely one that nicely matched a rather delicious crab Marie Rose (maybe the 1970s were a better decade gastronomically than we’re led to believe). But it’s all relative.

Strength and power also reside next door, however, and in this case the border is not political but geological. The Marão Mountains shield Portugal’s Douro from coastal rain and winds, entirely changing the landscape and its output: just miles from a land feted for its light whites, you get port. Truly, contiguity is complicated, especially when it is of long standing. The miracle is less that Portugal has remained separate from Spain than that the two countries now manage to be friends – despite their similarities.

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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.