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27 November 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

What to drink to mourn Leonard Cohen and the unravelling of civilisation?

It’s odd how, often, wine consumed at key moments is unintentionally appropriate.

By Nina Caplan

The wine was a 2010 Taurasi and was amazing, which was fortunate, because everything else was extremely worrying. It was 8 November, and we were eating pizza and fretting about the future of civilisation. To lubricate our woes, I had chosen a wine by Luigi Tecce called Poliphemo, after the homicidal Sicilian Cyclops outwitted by Odysseus. The hero accomplished this act of heroism by the time-honoured method of getting the old sod drunk.

It’s odd how, often, wine consumed at crucial moments is unintentionally appropriate. The first drink my partner and I ever shared, at the Wine Pantry, a minuscule English wine shop/bar in Borough Market, south London, was Ridgeview Cavendish: Sussex bubbles from transplanted grapes fêted a meeting between a Brighton wine writer and a Canadian emigrant.

The night of the Brexit vote, I was drinking a 1996 Château de Beaucastel from Châteaneuf-du-Pape, which translates as “the pope’s new palace”: an edifice needed when seven successive 14th-century Holy Fathers decamped from Rome to Avignon (chosen, some say, because they loved the local wine). That bottle, too, was inadvertently timely: named for a terrible schism in Europe, and the victim of a destructive nostalgia – mine, in this case. It had been my father’s and I had kept it too long; its glory had faded to shrivelled berries, cracked leaves and a regretful scent of pine. No amount of swirling, decanting, wishing or voting was going to give that greatness back to us.

My Poliphemo was “a wine as fragrant as ambrosia and nectar”, which is how Polyphemus describes the Greek wine that Odysseus feeds him, comparing it favourably to the native Sicilian plonk: “Surely the earth, giver of grain, provides/the Cyclops with fine wine, and rain from Zeus/does swell our clustered vines. But this is better . . .” Even a sozzled Cyclops, about to be blinded when our hero spears his solitary eye, can judge a wine’s worth. How distressing to discover, later that night, that America could not judge a man’s.

The grape in Taurasi is Aglianico, which may have been named for the ancient Greeks (“ellenico” is Italian for Hellenic). It grows in Irpinia, inland from Naples: Taurasi, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is an official designation of quality. The soil here is volcanic, the tectonic plates beneath unstable: eruptions and earthquakes have shattered Irpinia’s peace, and the vineyard from which this wine comes, in tiny amounts, has seen commotion of other kinds, too. It was planted in the 1930s, just after a serious earthquake, and during Mussolini’s 21-year stint as prime minister.

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Grapes from the cradle of civilisation, planted under fascism, nurtured in soil that remembers being molten, destructive rock: if that is not appropriate drinking for the 2016 American election, I don’t know what is.

Then I heard that the great Canadian singer-poet Leonard Cohen had died the day before the election. When I heard, I was not drinking Château Latour 1982, the Bordeaux Premier Grand Cru Classé that the young Cohen downed to drown his stage fright. This was partly because it was morning, and partly because the wine that Cohen got through at a rate of three bottles a night, because it “went so well with the music”, can’t be had for much under £400 a bottle.

I don’t begrudge him a single sip. Cohen brought forth ambrosia and nectar; he sang our sorrows so beautifully, and now his death is one of them. What to drink to mourn his passing, or to soothe the pain of civilisation’s unravelling? I’m not yet sure, but I do know the word with which I will raise my glass – l’chaim, the Hebrew toast that means: “To life!”

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile

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