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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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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