How The Other Half Live: The UK Government Wine Cellar

Gov Fund SignPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

A well-appointed off licence is a godsend to most of us and there’s no reason to assume that the Government feel any differently.

Just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, across Hyde Park, is Lancaster House; the home of the British Government’s wine store.  Established in 1908 with the express intent of enabling our ministers to lubricate their diplomatic machinations, over the years this 60 square foot private cellar evolved in to a store of very fine wine.  Naturally people began to wonder what indulgent vintages the elite were getting to imbibe, fully cementing a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.

A 2010 edict by the Secretary of State demanded that a full overhaul of the process be taken ensuring that these tax-payer funded purchases became fully self-funded.  In these times of austerity where “we’re all in it together” it was a welcome move.

The current Government now offers complete transparency as to how their wine cellar runs (Google ‘government hospitality’ to see the full report) and each year they produce a document giving a full run down of the operation.  Firmly ousting the notion of a fine wine gravy-train for the elected, it makes an interesting read.

Well and truly clearing their closet out, a mass sell-off of ‘significant’ bottles was held in 2012 raising the £44k that nearly fully covered the £49k cost of the stocks required for the following year.  These annual sales continue, the most recent of which ensured that officials would no longer be tucking in to such gems as Mouton Rothschild or Margaux 1990.

Gov UK CellarPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

The cellar and ongoing purchases are now guided by a team of Masters of Wine (MWs) to ensure that quality is maintained whilst adhering to the funds available.  The average purchase price of a bottle last year was £14.

Consumption year on year is down which also helps to stretch the budget.  In the fiscal year 2015/16 some 3,730 bottles were drunk vs. just 3,261 last year.  When you weigh up that these bottles will grace the table of more than 200 diplomatic events each year, this divvies up at around 16 bottles per engagement.  Some of us may have got through as many in the recent Bank Holiday weekend.

Bottles are graded either A, B or C dependent on what their intended use will be.  The top category, those listed as A1, are fit only for banquets attended by Kings and Queens.  The majority will be drinking grade C wines: Chilean Merlots and house clarets from merchant Berry Bros & Rudd for the reds and the Bacchus grape from English producer Chapel Down for the white.  Patriotically English wine now accounts for 49% of new wine purchases.

There’s still a handful of exciting bottles tucked away for special occasions and the total stock is estimated to be worth something like £804k, comprising some 33k bottles.  Whilst we can applaud the everyday activity we can only dream about the extremes.  How about the 1970 Petrus Bordeaux (£2k a bottle), 1962 Chateau Margaux (£450) or their last magnum of the 1964 Krug Champagne (£1,900) for lunch?

That’s still quite some collection.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.
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