Henry Jeffreys

In vino veritas

We don’t know how their wine tasted, or even which grapes they planted. But Nina Caplan still muses on what their influence might have been

Taste has a well-noted ability to evoke memory, so it is curious how infrequently most wine writers mine their pasts for inspiration. You wouldn’t think that some had ever fallen in love, read a novel or even got drunk. Instead they obsess over scores, sulphur and diurnal temperature variation. Thank heavens for Nina Caplan, who brings a bit of hinterland to this often dry subject in her weekly New Statesman column.

Characteristically, The Wandering Vine, her first book, is about much more than wine. It’s a heady blend of travel, literature, memoir, history and what I can only describe as psychogeography, though don’t let that put you off. The publishers have given the book a whimsical cover, which is misleading, because this is not a lightweight read. Caplan has set herself a daunting task, to examine identity, belonging, the legacy of the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from Europe and her own family through the prism of wine.

She is a member of those two great wandering tribes, the Jews and the Australians, and she uses the vine, carried around the world by the Romans, as a metaphor for immigration and rootedness. Wine is central to her life, something she inherited from her late father.

In the course of her travels, Caplan opens various bottles of wine her father left her, some wonderful, some not so, but all of them enable her, despite being an atheist, to commune with him. These intensely personal moments are by far the strongest parts of the book.

Her wanderings begin in England and take her to France, Spain and Italy; she meets winemakers and looks for evidence of the Roman occupation and a lost Jewish Europe before the expulsions in the middle ages.

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