Have a pop at champagne’s poor Spanish relation

Search out good cava.

“Take what you want,” says the Arab proverb, “and pay for it.” This seems obvious to the point of cliché, except for the hallowed tradition of trying to ignore the payment bit. Tax cheats want smooth roads and rubbish collection organised by celestial beings who scorn remuneration; not a few women hunt for ways to pack half a century of experience inside the springy epidermis of a 25-year-old.

There is something wrong with our ability to calculate cause and consequence, although there is, to be fair, also a profound flaw in a universe where it’s easier to fiddle your taxes than keep your youthful complexion. Still, the most important outcome of this defect in our species, if you don’t count war, is crap, cheap wine.

There is a lesson here, if we could but see it. If you buy something at half price, or you buy one and get one free, and the one in question is horrible, you have not got a bargain. You are not taking what you want – but you are paying for what you get. This is a terrible deal. So why do we persist?

Partly, through ignorance. It is one of my biggest gripes with this country (and, trust me, I have plenty) that we don’t know how to drink. It is perfectly acceptable among most twentysomething Brits to down six pints of rotgut in the pub with no dinner but if I had a pound for every time someone interpreted my interest in wine as snobbery or alcoholism or both, I’d be able to buy up all those substandard pubs and close them down. Well, I’m sorry but I win this one. The only kind of bargain I like is something that’s worth paying for – which is not at all to say I want to spend a fortune on my evening beverage.

Which brings me to cava. No – put down that £6 supermarket bottle and listen. Cava has sold itself as cheap bubbles for the celebrating classes with great success: nearly 36 million bottles arrived on our doorstep last year and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has never heard of the stuff. I’ve also met very few people who think it tastes nice but that’s because they’re drinking the wrong cava.

Most cava comes from Penedès, near the little town Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, just outside Barcelona, and contains some combination of Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeu grapes, although Chardonnay and PinotNoir, two of the varieties allowed in champagne, also show up, and there is Monastrell and Trepat in the rosés. But definitions are loose, production standards low and the priority seems to be keeping it cheap rather than making it good. Several of the best producers are so irritated by this image problem that they’ve stopped labelling their wines as cava at all. Pepe Raventós, who makes the superb Raventós i Blanc fizz, has come up with an alternative name and a strict set of rules for his little patch. He wants the designation Conca del Riu Anoia; I wish him luck getting the English to ask for that.

The man more likely to get this country clamouring for cava is Richard Bigg, owner of London’s four Camino restaurants and Pepito, a sherry utopia whose only flaw is its extreme titchiness. He has now opened Copa de Cava, a bar dedicated to Spanish fizz, beneath Camino San Pablo, near St Paul’s. In a vaulted cellar, delightfully decorated with pig haunches, sit cavas ranging from £4.75 a glass to £95 a bottle.

Here, you can try the toasty complexity of Gramona’s superb 2007 brut; a 100 per cent Pinot Noir by Juvé y Camps that pings sour cherries at you; or a delicately drinkable Raventós i Blanc rosat, made from the three traditional cava grapes, plus Monastrell. House fizz is Vilarnau brut, a decent, lemony starter cava. These producers vinify carefully, age judiciously and sell at a price that can keep them in jamón. The results are splendid and, like champagne (which is made using the same process), include differing styles as well as prices. If you want to stick to your tongue-scorcher, fine: you’re paying for it, after all. But drinking bad booze is too high a price for me.

Bubbling under: forget the supermarkets and search out good suppliers of cava. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Donmar Warehouse
Show Hide image

Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution