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Leave your lazy white prejudice behind


There aren’t many places where whites are exposed to more prejudice than any other colour, but wine is one. Red grapes are rarely the victim of sweeping stereotyping – yes, everyone who has seen the film Sideways knows that Pinot Noir is a sensitive little critter, but most amateurs haven’t extrapolated a whole character profile from that. In any case, Paul Giamatti was singing a paean to the stuff, so any received ideas are likely to be positive. If not, never mind: anything that helps hoi polloi lay off red burgundy is fine by me. Supply is limited and I have only so many drinking hours in the day.

For some reason, white grapes get a descriptor slapped on them and that’s that. It’s ironic really, because the most frequently planted international white varieties are often planted precisely because of their adaptability. Also, if you think about it, the idea that two Chardonnays from different hemispheres are similar makes a nonsense of terroir – the notion that a wine tastes of where it comes from. But people don’t think about it – and who can blame them? If they wanted a discussion of soil types, they’d pick up a geology journal, not a bottle.

So, Sauvignon Blanc gets tagged the “gooseberry” grape; Chardonnay is herded into the “rich, vanilla” ghetto – and Riesling is only allowed to be sweet. Life is easier and poorer, as it generally is when simplified. There is, of course, a waft of truth here – but what about the mineral Chardonnays of Chablis, or the aromatic Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignons? And, while I love sweet Rieslings and also those with just the lick of sugar that so wonderfully sets off the quantities of crushed chilli I like to deploy at every possible opportunity, the dry ones are my favourites.

I like to claim I don’t have a sweet tooth, although what I mean – as I discovered when I gave up drinking for a month once (and never again) – is that I love sugar but prefer it fermented. Dry Riesling, citrus but never screechingly acidic, perfumed without being cloying, flavourful yet low in alcohol, is a people-pleaser that is never bland: it’s like the anti-pinot grigio. I tend to drink the driest ones as aperitifs – Petaluma and Grosset from Clare Valley, South Australia are favourites – and the slightly sweeter kind with Asian food.

Oyster catcher

Recently, I ate at Anna Hansen’s superb restaurant, the Modern Pantry in London; she’s a Canadian-born Kiwi who cooks Pacific Rim fusion, so Riesling, adaptable as any immigrant, is perfect for her. It enhances such easy wine matches as a seared king oyster mushroom, yuzu, kimchee and manouri dumpling, although I preferred an off-dry Bernkasteler Badstube 2010 (from Mosel in Germany, one of the world’s best Riesling regions) to their suggestion, Albert Mann 2009, a dry Alsatian Riesling: garlic loves a little sweetness. 

I played swapsies throughout dinner, and had a great time working out whether guinea fowl with smoked anchovy dressing better suited a 2010 Riesling from Eden Valley, Australia or a 2008 from Marlborough, New Zealand (I say the former.) 

There is a complicated classification system but just remember that trocken means dry (but halbtrocken is off-dry) and that some of the sweets, particularly anything labelled beerenauslese or eiswein, are very sweet. Then I recommend finding a good BYO Asian restaurant, taking some of the lighter styles down and arguing your heads off over which goes with what. The best time you can have with your clothes on. And you won’t even feel bad in the morning, which isn’t always the case with fun, clothed or otherwise.

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 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide