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Know your Bastardo from your blistering barnacles

Wine is not simple; its pleasures are as various as some of its components’ names.

Last column, I wrote in defence of wine geekery; here, m’lud, is the argument for the prosecution. You may have heard of Zinfandel, the American grape; you may well distrust what you have heard, since blush – surely the most depressing development in the beverage field since someone worked out you didn’t need oranges to make orange juice – is made from something called white Zinfandel, which is red Zinfandel with the redness taken out and often with various grapes that are not Zinfandel (which isn’t American anyway) added in.

Confused yet? Good, because it’s confusion I want to talk about. You may manage to resist the lure of unpleasantly sweet, almost tasteless pink wines but if you are interested in America’s bolshy, red mouthbombs then you still need Zinfandel, because it’s the second most planted red variety in California. And if you love the hearty pasta and meat dishes of Puglia, in southern Italy, and the luscious but structured reds made from Primitivo that go so well with them, you might like to know that Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same thing.

This story of a long-ago parting, with cuttings taken to the US, their origins lost until the 1970s, is like a star-crossed romance, if rather an incestuous one. And it’s unusual: lots of older grapes have different names in different places – Carignan is Mazuelo in Spain, Grenache is Cannonau in Sardinia, Malbec is Cot in France (although my favourite name for this very black grape is Pied de Perdrix – partridge’s foot, presumably because earlyrising, earth-tending peasants are more likely to notice birds’ feet than night skies) – but mostly their connection was known, if not always clear.

None of this stuff is essential – it’s just useful, for those on a quest to experiment while still buying what they know they’ll enjoy, otherwise known as having your bottle and drinking it. The eminent wine writer Jancis Robinson, with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, has just brought out a 1,300-page book called Wine Grapes, a work of such scholarship it uses cutting-edge DNA analysis to teach me, for example, that Primitivo-Zinfandel is actually from Croatia, where it rejoices in the name Tribidrag. This is a very serious book indeed, yet appropriately – given that wine has been known to provide a bit of entertainment on occasion, some of it inadvertent – Wine Grapes made me laugh aloud. It’s not just some beautifully restrained commentary (“Many an American has argued that Zinfandel is indigenous, notwithstanding the fact that vitis vinifera is not a native species of the Americas”) or occasionally, the deliberate lack of same (“As Zinfandel it is also found in Israel, where American influence is strong”). No: ladies and gentlemen, I believe that I have proven, using the most meticulous DNA technology, that Wine Grapes is actually descended from Tintin.

Once you start to ponder the attempt to avoid confusion between Mazuelo and Carignan by calling the grape Samsó – a move that baffled everybody – or the fact that this grape is no relation to Bovale Sardo, despite sometimes being known as Bovale di Spagna, you may be reminded of the identical twins, Thomson and Thompson, in Tintin and their puzzlement at how anyone could ever mix them up. Many of the names here would have served Tintin’s author, Hergé, well too: the Bastardo grape, also known as Trousseau, or the name of the first person to record the existence of Primitivo: an 18thcentury Italian priest called Francesco Filippo Indellicati.

Wine is not simple; its pleasures are as various as some of its components’ names. Now and then, the intricacies make even a devoted oenophile throw up their hands like Captain Haddock and yell “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” – which could, come to think of it, work as an alternative name for vitis vinifera.

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 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times