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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 spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State