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 marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle