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The value of spending more time in the buff

Don't be afraid of the wine experts.

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to coax drinkers out from under the sofa, whence they have retreated in fear at the endless complications of wine. The vintage! The provenance! The magic involved in turning grape juice into giggle juice!

The wine bore bludgeons his unwilling audience into dull-eyed acquiescence with a rock-pile of words; I’m much more efficient. I just yell “malolactic fermentation!” and they all jostle for space beneath the furniture.

When I’m feeling more sociable, I point out that wine is only as complicated as anyone wants to make it. There’s red and white, sweet and dry.

A little further up the scale, you can pick a country, or a style and before you know it, you’re fretting over the taste of different varieties or pondering soil type or trying to remember whether Cabernet Sauvignon predominates on the right or left bank of Bordeaux’s Garonne river. (It’s the left. The right is mostly Merlot.)

I love wine not despite its endless complications but because of them: there are stories hiding under every vineyard pebble. But I try to share them judiciously. Wine merchants, sommeliers and to a certain extent, wine writers, should be able to find you a wine you want to drink without telling you more about it than you want to know. That is what they are there for.

I stress this basic point because I don’t think most people realise that wine people don’t know everything – and they like it that way. They’re comfortable with wine as a lifelong process of learning. I went to a lunch given by the Wine Society last week where a hefty man got up and talked about his Domaine de Simonet Bourboulenc, then his slenderer chum from down the road at Château Ollieux Romanis spoke about his white Corbières.

I learned that the Bourboulenc grape flourishes in the Languedoc; that it needs light but not necessarily heat; and that this expression of it has a touch of citrus, a background toffeeish richness and goes very well with truffle risotto.

Then I found out that the Corbières was so intensely aromatic that its perfume reached me about a minute before the rim of the glass did, that it is 50 per cent Marsanne, 50 per cent Roussanne and 5 per cent Grenache Blanc – and that Carcassonne winemakers can’t do maths. It also goes extremely well with truffle risotto.

How much of this do you need to know? It depends if you’re looking for a match for your dinner, a better understanding of how wine works, or an endless conversation about how best to grow Bourboulenc.

Wine geeks are those who want all three, who see wine as a glorious sea of unknowns in which they can splash around and then strike out with their best breaststroke for the horizon, confident they’ll never reach it.

I once saw two experts – one a winemaker, the other a Master of Wine – blind taste a wine, trying to guess what it was. They pondered its colour, debated its flavours, murmured about its length (how long those flavours stay in the mouth) – they could have been there all day; but another geek came over, stuck his nose in the glass, said “it’s Burgundy, isn’t it?” and walked off.

He was right but he didn’t embarrass them so much as spoil their fun. There are a very few proper faux pas in wine – don’t say you like Chablis but you hate Chardonnay, because Chablis is made of Chardonnay – but then there are in other, less fearsome fields, too; the biggest faux pas in wine, to my mind, is to assume the buff is sneering at you when they’re probably trying to use their hardwon knowledge to choose something that you’ll enjoy drinking.

If you’re not a geek, you can always ask one for help; and if you’re neither a learner nor an asker, then there is my sofa: run and hide.

Next issue: John Burnside on nature

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 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

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