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Why you should choose your glass as carefully as the wine that goes in it

A white wine glass from Habitat reduced the bubbles almost to nothing; the ordinary flute did no harm but little good.

Wine, like love, is a many-splendoured thing. Both require a vessel to contain them although, in drinking wine, very few people confuse the receptacle with its contents. Quite the opposite: they pour a liquid that was made with passion and sold at a premium into any old beaker, veiling its beauty in the boozing equivalent of a burqa.

I have eaten at an achingly hip restaurant, where the cocktails were inventive, the food was spectacular and the mixologist’s hair was as artfully distressed as the walls, and have been served excellent white wine warmed to the temperature of tea, its bouquet dissipated and its glow muted by a pedestrian, stemless glass better reserved for Coca-Cola.

“The cocktails each have a dedicated vessel, but why no stemware?” I whimpered to my waiter. He shook his bearded chin. “Pretentious,” he pronounced.

Even the French, who are supposed to know about these things, will upend bottles of wine of any colour or quality into ballons – the cheap, ball-shaped glasses most suited to bringing out the aroma of mediocrity. Yet wines, like people, vary in their requirements, an idea taken to its capitalist conclusion by Riedel, which has different glasses for Chardonnay and Riesling, for Old and New World Pinot Noir, as well as special versions for sommeliers, and even alternative tasting goblets, depending on whether the Bordeaux you are drinking is grand cru or “mature” – particularly odd, as a Bordeaux meriting that level of finickiness is likely to be both.

Those of us with limited cupboard space can follow a few basic precepts. Red wine repays a larger surface area – the tannins soften as they meet oxygen – while white prefers a narrower home, to concentrate delicate fragrances. Both should taper at least a little at the top, pursing their lip the better to exhale sweet scents and flavours.

Most people believe that champagne should be drunk in a flute, and in this they are mistaken. Richard Geoffroy, the head winemaker at Dom Pérignon, uses a wider-bowled glass intended for Chianti Classico; Eric Rodez, an eighth-generation maker of superb champagnes, also prefers a receptacle that he describes as “voluminous”. A tasting of an excellent sparkling English wine, Davenport Limney Estate 2010, in four different glasses left no doubt that the variation was great enough to justify careful thought.

A white wine glass from Habitat reduced the bubbles almost to nothing; the ordinary flute did no harm but little good. An elegant, thin-stemmed glass by Zalto, a proponent of straight-sided glassware (because, according to the firm’s general manager, Christoph Hinterleitner, this allows the aromas to travel from drink to drinker most directly), wasn’t nearly as generous with those aromas as Riedel’s champagne glass, which was as voluminous as Rodez could have wished.

Those straight-sided glasses do, however, work wonders with more aromatic options. I rashly poured an Amarone, the powerful red of the Veneto region, into the large, flat-bottomed vessel destined by Zalto for Burgundy and inhaled. It was as if the wine had punched me.

How many wine glasses does a woman need? You might as well ask how many loves she should experience in a lifetime. In both, I have known what I wanted when I found it. When one romance faded, as even great vintages will, I took my sorrow shopping. I bought a beautiful, shyly sinuous glass for whites, so delicate that I fear to breathe on it, and a voluptuous balloon for my beloved Armagnac. And then I went back to the shop and bought each of them a companion, because hope is the most persistent aroma of all.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder