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Just don’t call it champagne, sweetie

How to make your festivities effervesce slightly more cost-efficiently.

Before I launch into a hymn to sparkling wine, I’d better make something clear. I love champagne, with its rich and subtle flavours and richer, subtler history, not to mention the canniness of its makers who have somehow persuaded your average punter to spend five or six times their normal outlay because the wine in question contains carbon dioxide – free, last time I checked, in every location in which Homo sapiens can inhale.

We Brits are among the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of champagne and long may that continue. Yet there are an awful lot of sparkling wines out there, some much better than others, and our passion for champagne at one end of the market (and contempt for atrocious cava at the other) ignores too many. Our newly minted sparkling wine industry can’t help, since these wines still tend to be about the same price as a non-vintage champagne. I could talk to you about Australian sparkling wine or prosecco or even the better cavas but space is short and the sun is headed for the yardarm, so I will tell you about crémant instead.

Champagne is only the bestknown sparkling wine region in France. Limoux in Languedoc- Roussillon has been making its blanquettes and crémants since the 16th century; the Loire has six kinds of fizz, grouped under the name fines bulles but each with an array of rules even finer than those bulles, or bubbles. In 1900, Julien Dopff came home to Alsace from a champagne-making demonstration at Paris’s Exposition Universelle full of plans for Champagne Dopff; his descendants and their neighbours are still making their fizz, using the champagne (traditional) method and their own grapes, including Pinot Blanc and Riesling, although now they have to call it Crémant d’Alsace.

Even before you look across the Alps to the miasma of fizzing prosecco or franciacorta droplets above northern Italy, the choice is phenomenal. The wines vary in quality but then so do those of their more famous countrymen – and it’s a lot easier to practise trial and error at £14 a bottle than at £30-plus.

Why is most sparkling wine so much less expensive than champagne, even when made using the same méthode traditionnelle of a second fermentation in the bottle? Sometimes, it’s because the grapes are machine-harvested – in Australia, a Melbourne sommelier tells me, a lot of women (“Oops, that’s sexist – I mean people”) want to drink bubbles all through lunch without going bankrupt: “There’s no way that would be possible if the producers stuck to champagne’s rules.”

Or sometimes, fizz is where producers put the grapes that don’t make it into the still wine.

Wrong Burgundy

If you are a Burgundian lucky enough to have premier cru or grand cru land, your only permitted varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two of the three traditional champagne varieties.

You may choose to make Crémant de Bourgogne from whatever doesn’t go into your unbelievably good still wines because these grapes are only below par in the sense that Jenson Button is a substandard driver because he’s not Ayrton Senna.

It is party season now but, given that many of us have less to celebrate and fewer pennies to spend on the celebrations, this may be a good year to look at ways to make your festivities effervesce slightly more cost-efficiently – or you may simply consider the booziest part of the year an opportunemoment for a little vinous experimentation. That’s my méthode traditionnelle: less killing two birds with one stone than getting one bird stoned with a fine array of glasses.

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 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis