Sangiovese grapes, the variety used to make the Brunello di Montalcino wine. Photo: Getty Images
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The grape that brought power to the people

In wine, the tendrils of power spread like well-nourished vines, wrapping around some surprising edifices.

Perhaps absolute power would corrupt absolutely – except that, fortunately, there is no such thing as absolute power. Even God would have a hard time claiming omnipotence in the face of a creation so wilful that we still can’t keep away from the forbidden fruit, much less follow a set of commandments that could, in my opinion, do with a spot of updating. After all, if covetousness is a sin, there probably isn’t a wine lover virtuous enough to cast the first cork and most of Bordeaux should surely be consigned to the flames.

In wine, the tendrils of power spread like well-nourished vines, wrapping around some surprising edifices. There are the powers of great terroir – wonderful soils – and skilful winemaking, to say nothing of the power of the soil owner who pays the winemaker’s salary. There is the power of exceptional wine to colour and perfume a moment, giving depth and finesse to your memory of it. The rich minerality of an Hatzidakis Assyrtiko takes me straight to the Greek island of Santorini and the pink-washed sea at sunset; the Fraser Gallop Cabernet Sauvignon delivers me instantly to a bar called Wino’s in the town of Margaret River in Australia, which had a wine list as good as its name was terrible. Some wines don’t travel but many, especially those drunk under intensely pleasurable conditions, do and that is a power with which no jet engine can compete.

But there are other facets to wine’s power, as I realised in Montalcino, the pretty Tuscan hillside town from which radiate the vineyards where the Sangiovese grape that becomes Brunello di Montalcino is grown. The wine comes only from this small patch of Tuscany, contains nothing but Sangiovese (once known here as Brunello) and cannot be released until five years after harvest. The current vintage is therefore 2010 and its quality, much hyped by the wine press, has piqued the curiosity of people who had never heard of Montalcino. Those readers’ palates will thank them even if their wallets do not, for Brunello 2010 – intensely perfumed, full of black fruit, violets and silky tannins – has a power all its own. Actually, it has more than one, because even before 2010, this was a region extraordinarily altered, in just a few decades, by a grape.

“Fifteen years ago, there was nothing for my generation here,” Alessandro, my 40-year-old driver, says. When the system of sharecropping (a form of indentured labour) ended in Tuscany in the 1960s, some of those freed peasants bought vines: the land was cheap. Bigger players, such as the Mariani family of Castello Banfi, did, too. Recently, the growing excitement around Brunello di Montalcino has brought about a curious levelling, in which the descendants of peasants, at vineyards such as Caprili, have at least as much prestige, if fewer vines, as wealthy, international types. Even those who don’t own precious parcels of land have a better life. Alessandro is still here, conducting wine tours and working in his family’s enoteca, and his home town now has little unemployment.

To have one grape in this tiny region is certainly keeping it simple – but the soils are various on this ocean floor, millions of years old (Banfi found a whale fossil in its vineyard in 2007), and the 250-odd wineries all have different ideas on how best to express their plot’s particular poetry. There is the light and charming Tenuta San Giorgio, the elegant Altesino and the delicious Brunello of Camigliano, reminiscent of a tarmac road where someone has run over a job lot of blackberries on a very hot day. Some are better than others but that’s individual expression for you – purest Montalcino, spoken in many different tongues, each liberated and enriched by a ruby wine of uncommon power.

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 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Donmar Warehouse
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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