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Drink the grapes of Greece for a taste of summer

The promise of heat.

Hush now, with your weather reports, your resolutions and exercise regimes. You may be in the chilly midst of an English winter; I am in denial. My head is in the cloudless skies of Santorini, a volcanic sliver in the Aegean where the houses are blinding blue and white, the few flowers a fierce pink and the soil an unforgiving pumice stone that ought to be as much use to a homeless vine as an unfurled umbrella during an eruption.

Vines have grown here for thousands of years – the island’s name apparently comes from Santa Irene, the church the ancient Italians could see when they sailed in to buy Vin Santo, the local sweet wine. The vines don’t exactly grow. To protect the grapes from the heat, the thick, woody trunks are coerced into curling in on themselves, round and round.

The result looks like a field of grounded birds’ nests. The grapes nestle in the centre like chicks, protected from the sun by stem and leaf, and from fungus by the hot winds that scour the island. It’s an unforgiving sort of place, Santorini. “Three trees, here, is a forest!” says Stefanos Georgas, winemaker for Estate Argyros. But the vines cling on, their roots sometimes six metres deep, their branches living to well over 100 years old. Perhaps they like the view: Santorini is startlingly beautiful, particularly at sunset over the caldera, the expanse of sea that flowed in during one of the biggest eruptions earth has seen, in the second millennium BC. It entombed the Minoan city of Akrotiri, turned a round island into a crescent and may, according to Plato, have sunk the legendary Atlantis.

The crescent faces west and any right-thinking tourist bids the day farewell looking out across lost domains towards the tip of the Greek mainland, with a tomato keftede in one hand and a glass of Assyrtiko in the other. The fritter is the colour of the western sky; the tomatoes are native to the island and so is the Assyrtiko.

Greece has a remarkable number of grapes nobody else has ever heard of: the Phoenicians brought them in from Mesopotamia, back when there were still Phoenicians and a Mesopotamia. All the whites seem to begin with A, but Assyrtiko is the one to try. It is austere yet pretty – rather like its homeland – mineral but citrusy, thirst-quenching yet moreish. In other words, it’s a mass of contradictions, appropriately enough for a beverage whose ingredients grow on parched pulverised rock in a climate and a location that could drive the geologically minded to drink.

It is lovely – with grilled fish, with those tomatoes in any incarnation, with nothing but the memory of sunshine. I think you can smell those warm, harsh, beneficial winds in the glass; they are a useful reminder that weather extremes can have their uses, although I must say I prefer their extremes to ours.

The final contradiction of this elixir is that the wines from these titchy vineyards, with their hand-picked grapes and minimal production, are available in two of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. M&S has Atlantis, a blend of 90 per cent Assyrtiko, 5 per cent Aidani and five per cent Athiri, from Estate Argyros. Haridimos Hatzidakis sells his organic entry-level Assyrtikos to Waitrose, despite having a winery that looks like a Portaloo and a tasting room that’s a cave beneath a foliageroofed shed. For a better range of Hatzidakis’s wines, the London wine shop Theatre of Wine is the place to go – unless you’ve the wherewithal for a flight to Greece.

The lost island of Atlantis may or may not lurk beneath the waters around that ravaged, ravishing crescent of rock. But it isn’t drowned land I’m after, anyway. It’s light and the promise of heat: the chance to sit on my unvolcanic island with a glassful of summer. It’s called the best of both worlds and it tastes delicious.


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 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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