Careless whisper

Wine - Roger Scruton hears the murmur of Italy's glorious past

Almost everybody who travelled to Italy in the Sixties can recall the surprising taste of the local wine. Chianti, Frascati, Friuli, Veneto - even the bland, thin wines of Orvieto - tasted quite different in Italy from the stuff that was then being marketed under those names in Britain. Bought locally - preferably from the old marble-lined shops marked "Vini ed olii" where you took your own carafe - the wines of Tuscany, the Campagna and the Veneto had a freshness and fullness of flavour that bore no relation to the sour and dusty exports.

All that has changed and, while one should avoid most Italian wine available in this country, this is merely because one should avoid most wine. The real product is now getting through to us. Enthusiastic growers and proud importers have between them launched a wine risorgimento, bringing together the many regions of Italy in a collective assault on the world's jaded taste buds.

The most interesting of the importers is Enotria Wine- cellars, founded in 1972 by Remo Nardone, and now purchasing from 65 of Italy's top producers. The Italians have instituted a snob-free form of quality control - the Gambero Rosso - which each year singles out the wines of distinction and grades them as meriting one glass, two glasses or three (a ludicrous way of scoring, given that a wine is worth five glasses or nothing). Only a few obtain the coveted Tre Bicchieri award: inevitably, the Piedmont, with its northerly climate and French-influenced viticulture, scores well, and Enotria has a collection of Barberas, Barbarescos and Barolos whose taste (and price) will persuade even those habituated to cheap Valpolicella that elements of Roman civilisation survive outside the Sorbonne.

But Piedmont is just one among many wine-producing regions. Moreover, it has been responsible for some of the most loathsome of the Marxist dragons against which I snicker-snacked when young. Hence I prefer, in my imaginary travels, to go further south.

And here's what I found, with Enotria as my guide. Taking a detour through the Veneto, I encountered the most lively, refreshing and seductive Italian white that I have ever tasted: the Capitel Croce 1999, produced from the San Vincenzo grape by Roberto Anselmi in Monteforte. This has no DOC etiquette (or any other appellation) and is proof, like almost everything in Italy, that bureaucratic controls are always counter-productive. Many Italian producers have gone in for industrial Chardonnay - one, the Planeta family in Sicily, has just won a Tre Bicchieri award with its highly creditable version, available also from Enotria. But real Italian whites - especially those that escape the bureaucratic net - avoid the all-over-you style of transplanted Chardonnay, and have something of the priest-nurtured, shame-engendered eroticism of a shy contadina.

I stopped over in Tuscany, at the Castello di Brolio, which has just won the prestigious prize of Cantina dell'Anno for 2002. Its 1997 Chianti Classico has also been awarded three glasses: I settled for the usual five, and was still panting for more. A smooth, rich wine like old mahogany, with that depth of flavour and openness to ideas (they felt like ideas, at least) that is characteristic of the best Chianti.

But my destination was Calabria, where the Librandi family has established a cantina that produces the local Ciro - a red wine that has all the sweet music of a cicada-filled evening, and which, the Librandis modestly claim, contains a "whisper of the glorious past". Librandi's traditionalism does not forbid experiments: two dark wines - Magno Megonio, made from Magliocco grapes, and Gravello, which mingles the local Gaglioppo grape with Cabernet Sauvignon - deserve the highest praise. Indeed, Gravello has just won a Tre Bicchieri award. These licorice-flavoured, volcanic concoctions flowed peacefully through your wine steward's inner regions, and as he lay in bed thereafter, his entire body whispered of Calabria's glorious past - so Sophie reported.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.