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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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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