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Bold wines make great party guests

Rich food deserves exciting partners.

It’s a good party, even though some of the guests are friendlier than others and only one of them really speaks English. They come from different social strata and countries and they’re here to sing for their supper. Or rather, with their supper. They are wines: Christine Parkinson, buyer for the Hakkasan group, and a few of her sommeliers are holding their weekly tasting, the object of which is, she says, to find good wines that go terribly with great food.

This is more sensible than it sounds, which wouldn’t be hard. Hakkasan and Yauatcha serve fancy Chinese. The dishes are small but made to share. I may want to drink white, you red, while both of us tussle over the first bite from the mushroom clay pot and the last scrap of prawn cheung fun; in which case, what will we drink? A less courageous spirit would chuck us an obvious Riesling, a flavourless Pinot Grigio or an insipid Pinot Noir and tell us both to shut up and finish our dinner. But Parkinson has this crazy notion that consumers of expensive food should be able to drink something nice without their taste buds taking more of a battering than their wallets. (They are careful to keep wines affordable, she says, but in Fitzrovia and Mayfair, that’s a very different thing to cheap.) So an array of bottles are invited here to show what they can do and then the revelry begins in earnest: eight wines, all either new options or new vintages, and a menu carefully selected to go with as few of them as possible. Categories are mild, savoury, sweet and spicy and each wine gets marks out of five: two or less and the bottle gets bounced.

The wines range from Nyetimber 2008 to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, La Nerthe 2006. The former is sparkling English white that has a sociable knack of mixing well with more or less anything; the latter an imposing Frenchman that demands the dishes line up to bow and scrape in the manner of courtiers in the presence of their king. It’s a wonderful wine but gets dethroned by truffled duck: what’s needed here is the common touch.

The 2011 La Nerthe white, however, is the life and soul. It wows roasted cod in honey and champagne sauce; three-style mushroom swoons at its approach. Even the killer spicy dishes can’t phase it. Galic, head sommelier at Hakkasan Mayfair, already has a white CdeP by the glass but wants it (“different style and price point”, he says, smitten).

Party animals

Of the reds, a Languedoc blend does fine and a burgundy sails through, being another sort of aristocrat: the kind that transitions graciously to a constitutional monarchy without kicking up a fuss. A charming Sicilian also gets the chop. The two other Italians are from the same producer: Il Chiuso, the entry-level wine, does reasonably but not splendidly; the other is my favourite guest. Castello di Ama Chianti 2006 might not be the ideal match for scallop shumai; it wouldn’t choose black pepper ribeye in merlot sauce. But it manages, and elsewhere – with tofu clay pot, spicy morning glory stir-fry – it dances, even gracefully negotiating sweet and sour pork (“a graveyard dish for wine,” says Christine, gleefully).

This entertaining exercise makes a virtue of the unfeasible choice that a high-end London restaurant can offer diners. After all, if you like strong food flavours, why wouldn’t you prefer vital wines to accompany them? Any guest of honour can shine in a roomful of sycophants. But that’s a place of worship, not a restaurant – and certainly no kind of a party.

Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drink critic

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 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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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