Gender comes in fluid form

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

I have lost faith in British boyhood. In mixed schools, young males have failed to seize an opportunity that previous generations would have killed for. Imagine the scene, and to add piquancy, let us locate it in a headmistress’s study. Some hulking youth, a pillar of the rugger scrum, who already needs to shave almost every day, sidles in looking embarrassed. If the headmistress had any gumption — a big ‘if’ these days — she would already be on the alert. But these days that might avail her naught. The lad would have the spirit of the age on his side.

‘Please miss: I don’t know how to put this, but I have been so anxious. I’ve decided that I’m really a girl. Obviously, I can’t go on using the boys’ dressing rooms and showers, but I’m sure it’ll be OK if I change with the girls.’

How is she meant to reply? The pickle would be even worse if she were in a Church of England school, where common sense has been virtually criminalised. So why are the boys waiting?

That said, transgender is not always nonsense. In Bordeaux, it has been practised most successfully in a great Pauillac vineyard, where cross-dressing and sexual ambivalence add to the allure. The Pichon-Longueville estate was divided in 1850. The proprietors’ sons inherited one portion, which became Pichon Baron. The daughters had their share: Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. In the 1855 classification both won second-growth status and they have since been locked in sexual rivalry: a French version of Beatrice and Benedick.

The Baron is four-square Pauillac, drawing its strength from Cabernet Sauvignon, most masculine of grapes. At Comtesse, which borders on Saint-Julien, they have always used more Merlot than is customary in Pauillac.

Which is better? Until a few years ago, that would have been the one that I had drunk more recently. But then Baron was bought by Axa, the insurance giant. There seems no reason why an insurance company should not run a vineyard, especially in France. It must be a great convenience for the directors to escape Paris and re-connect with real life in Bordeaux. The château is a magnificent building, so there should not be any sacrifice of creature comfort. Yet somehow, there has been a loss: the wine has become too four-square, too international.

After decades under the control of a splendid old girl, May Éliane de Lencquesaing, Comtesse was also sold, to Louis Roederer, the champagne house. That pairing works; there has been no loss of direction and, with a rustle of silk, Comtesse has pulled ahead. Gentle and subtle, it also has length and power. One is tempted to borrow that old fraud Mitterrand’s campaign slogan from 1981: la force tranquille. Comtesse benefits from an outstanding general manager, Nicolas Glumineau, who comes from La Vendée, the most heroic region of France, which stood firmly for monarchy: where the Oriflamme and the fleur-de-lys are still part of the terroir. But Nicolas is an innovator. The clay soil of the right bank suits Merlot well. On the Pauillac gravel there is a risk that those grapes will overheat, leading to excessively alcoholic, unbalanced wines. So Nicolas proposes to increase the Cab Sauv percentage and believes that he can do this without sacrificing the charms of the boudoir.

The other night, I tasted his 2011 (deliciously feminine) and 2016 (seriously promising). We then moved on to maturity: the 1995 and 1996. In the latter year, the Cab Sauv quota had been increased with no loss of Comtesse’s unique style. After a vigorous discussion, we awarded the palm to the ’96. Then again, it was the greater year.

Comtesse also produces a second wine, Reserve de la Comtesse. The 2010 displayed many of the qualities of its elder sister. M. Glumineau and his wines are worth watching. Long may the ladies flourish.

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