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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue