In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Patrick Flannery and Nadine Gordimer, the books interview with Ben Okri, and David Rot

Leo Robson notes that "the South Africa of today is seductive territory for a novelist" and demands a great deal of sensitivity when dealing with the complexities post-apartheid life. In this week's New Statesman, Robson reviews two new novels which attempt to do just that: Absolution by Patrick Flannery and No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer. The former, he says, "builds up a glorious mosaic of forms, though some of the pieces are slightly chipped" as Flannery deals with a pervasive sense of nationwide guilt, whilst Gordimer's story of a couple trying to come to terms with life after aparteid struggle is rendered in "a bespoke style, at once rich and poor".

In the books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to Ben Okri about his new poetry collection, Wild. Okri speaks of his approach to writing as a dreamlike experience, and comments on the metaphysical elements to his work as "something that comes out of the African tradition".

Our critic at large this week is David Rothenberg; discussing the awe-inspiring elements of nature and its role in "aesthetic selection", he claims that the beauty of a peacock's wings is something which the study of genetics cannot necessarily explain: "Darwinians have tried to turn sexual selection into a subset of natural selection and they have done it by using a method based not on research but on faith". He writes that "any unified theory of evolution has to be able to appreciate beauty, without explaining it in such a way that its allure its lost".

Elsewhere In the Critics section: Richard Holloway on Roger Scruton's The Face of God, the Gifford Lectures; Amanda Craig on The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler; Ryan Gilbey on This Is Not a Film and Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life; and Rachel Cooke's take on Julian Fellowes's latest period drama, Titanic. Plus, Will Self's Real Meals.
 

Nadine Gordimer's new novel "No Time Like the Present" reviewed. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How wine crosses national boundaries

With a glass of wine, and a bit of imagination, wine can take us anywhere.

Wine offers many pleasures, one of which is effortless movement. You can visit places that make the wines you love, but you can also sip yourself to where these grapes once grew, or use a mind-expanding mouthful to conjure somewhere unrelated but more appropriate to your mood. Chablis, say, need not transport you to damp and landlocked Burgundy, even if the vines flourish there, not when those stony white wines suit sun, sea and shellfish so well.

Still, I’d never been to Istria – a triangle of land across the Adriatic from the upper calf of Italy’s boot – either in vino or in veritas, until I tried a selection of wines from Pacta Connect, a Brighton-based, wine-importing couple obsessed with Central and Eastern Europe. 

The tapas restaurant Poco on Broadway Market in east London has fiercely ecological credentials – it uses lots of locally sourced and sustainably grown food and the space is a former bike shop – but this fierceness doesn’t extend to entirely virtuous wine-buying, thank goodness. I’m all for saving the planet: waggle the eco-spear too hard, however, and I’ll be forced to drink nothing but English wine. Trying each other’s wines, like learning each other’s customs, is vital to understanding: there’s no point improving the atmosphere if we all just sit around inhaling our own CO2 at home.

The world is full of wine and it is our duty to drink variously in the name of peace and co-operation – which are not gifts that have frequently been bestowed on Istria. I have sought enlightenment from Anna, the Culinary Anthropologist. A cookery teacher and part-time Istrian, she has a house on the peninsula and a PhD in progress on its gastronomy. So now, I know that Istria is a peninsula, even if its borders are debated – a result of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy all wanting a piece of its fertile red soil and Mediterranean climate.

From ancient Romans to independence-seeking Croatians in the early 1990s, all sorts of people have churned up the vineyards, which hasn’t stopped the Istrians making wine; political troubles may even have added to the impetus. A strawberry-ish, slightly sparkling Slovenian rosé got on splendidly with plump Greek olives and English bean hummus, topped with pickled tarragon and thyme-like za’atar herbs from the Syrian-Lebanese mountains. A perfumed white called Sivi Pinot by the same winemaker, Miha Batič, from Slovenian Istria’s Vipava Valley, was excellent with kale in lemon juice: an unlikely meeting of the Adriatic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sivi Pinot is another name for Pinot Grigio, which seems fair enough: as long as we can raise our glasses and agree to differ, names should be no problem.

But sometimes we can’t. The other Slovenian winemaker on the menu, Uroš Klabjan, lives three kilometres from the Italian city of Trieste, where his Malvazija Istarska would be called Malvasia Istriana. Either way, it is fresh and slightly apricot-like, and goes dangerously well with nothing at all: I see why this is Istria’s most popular white grape. His Refošk, an intense red, is also good but there is a complicated argument over when Refošk should be called Teran. Like battles over parts of the Balkans, these wrangles seem incomprehensible to many of us, but it’s sobering to think that wine can reflect the less pleasant aspects of cross-cultural contact. Intolerance and jingoism don’t taste any better than they sound.

We finish with Gerzinić’s Yellow Muskat and rhubarb parfait: Croatian dessert wine from an ancient grape found around the world, with an English plant transformed by a French name. There’s nothing sweeter than international co-operation. Except, perhaps, armchair travel.

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 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain