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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.