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

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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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