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If any grape can conquer mortality, it is surely Cabernet Sauvignon

Sun-loving, late-ripening, high in tannin and acidity, it makes wines that can take decades to soften.

In the picture I’m very young: plump cheeks, terrible hairstyle, unsullied smile. My father’s hair is barely grey and he, too, looks young to me, although he’s about the age I am now. I don’t remember who snapped the photo, nor what it felt like to be 13. Only the image, and an emotional residue both sweet and bitter – how happy we look! How long ago it was! – remain.

At lunch, I am served a Chilean wine that was 26 when that photo was taken: Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1959. We compare two other wines that are also all, or mostly, Cabernet: Reserva de la Familia 2007, brash and excessive, and a much more restrained wine from 2012 called Luis Pereira. The latter probably costs £100 a bottle. The 1959, like so much whose time has past, is impossible to price.

If any grape can conquer mortality, it is surely Cabernet Sauvignon. Sun-loving, late-ripening, high in tannin and acidity, it makes wines that can take decades to soften, much less open. It is the principal grape of the Médoc, where Bordeaux’s most famous vines live: on the boats bringing precious “claret” to the thirsty English, the wines were buffered by their hardy composition like kings lounging on barge cushions, and when they reached land they matured in cool cellars while the owners drank their ancestors.

“A Pauillac before 10 years is too early,” says Nicolas Glumineau, general manager of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which is a second-growth Bordeaux with a history nearly as long as its name. He opens the 2009, and while the wine is magnificent it proves his point.  In the late 1980s, a disgruntled former winemaker stole all the Château’s archives. Very annoying, and surely futile: a wine’s true archives are in the bottle.

Drink the 1996 Reserve de la Comtesse now, Glumineau tells me, as if I had that option. I do have a couple of bottles of good Bordeaux, inherited from my father, and occasionally I eye them nervously, weighing the value of their presence against the possibility of their obsolescence. I know that when they go, my father will feel even more lost to me than he does already – but that if I leave them too long, his disappointed ghost will haunt me.

The Comtesse de Lalande revived her inheritance in the 19th century; she had the advantage of Bordeaux’s centuries of experience, and few New World wines stand comparison with those named for her. But, while Chilean wines have tended to seem terribly adolescent – all bounce, muscle and uncontrolled force – the country’s young winemakers are eager to learn.

In 2010, a terrible earthquake disrupted the vineyards and uncovered in Santa Carolina’s cellars a forgotten stash of very old wines, including the 1959 Cabernet Sauvignon we have just tried. The company’s winemaker, Andrés Caballero, treated this rediscovered cache as an instruction manual: “We changed the entire range!” he says, cheerfully, and his so-called lesser Cabernets – Reserva de la Familia, Dolmen – are now terrific. Caballero has learnt from his elders, pulling back from all that fat fruit and alcohol, searching for a bygone elegance.

We each take what we can from the past, whether a tradition, a lesson or the richness of fruit preserved, miraculously, if not indefinitely. Or simply, a recollection of happiness.

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 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist