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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The Vineyard at Stockcross – Wine hotel and cellar visit

Vineyard Scene set

Living just over a mile away I really have no excuse (except my bank balance) not to visit 5 star hotel The Vineyard more often.  As the name suggests it’s a wine inspired hotel with an extensive list of 3,000 wines available including 100 served by the glass.

Owned by panama-wearing Sir Peter Michael who made his fortune in the tech industry, the link to the USA is strong.  Frustrated that he couldn’t afford vineyard land in Burgundy he was inspired to buy in the US through the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting – a landmark playoff between the traditional wines of France and the relatively unknown wines of California.

With the judging panel being almost exclusively French the outcome seemed virtually assured but, as history tells us, the US wines won on the day much to the critic’s chagrin. Purchased in 1982 he now owns the eponymously named Peter Michael Winery in California and roughly 27% of The Vineyard’s wine list hails from the USA, naturally including many bottles from his own vineyards.

A recent significant birthday provided the catalyst I needed and I booked in to the hotel and on to their ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting menu, pairing up seven specially devised courses with both a French and American wine (more of that in a separate post).

Wine Tunnel

Upon arrival the exposure to wine begins almost immediately with the imposing and impressive tunnel that greets you as you enter reception.  Aiming to contain at least one bottle of everything on the menu (so that bottles can be quickly located when ordered by guests) the low lit and temperature controlled ‘floor to ceiling’ perspex walls house hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

What becomes noticeable when you enter the tunnel is that, whilst the central portion of the floor displays the rocky and stony vineyard soils transported from the Peter Michael Winery, the other half of the floor is transparent and looks down to a lower cellar containing bottles from around the rest of the world.

A welcoming glass of wine is provided when checking in (which is surely how every hotel should be!) and can be drunk whilst enjoying the huge ‘Judgement of Paris’ fresco that adorns one whole wall.

Wine Fresco.JPG

Commissioned by Sir Peter and titled ‘After the Upset’, the fateful day is immortalized in the artistic style of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’.  Although not present at the original tasting, Sir Peter cheekily sneaks in on the left-hand side to oversee proceedings.

To make the most of the experience I booked myself in for a chat and tour with sommelier Milena.  Hailing from France, and clearly relishing the wider UK availability of bottles from all over the world and the exposure that comes from working at such an esteemed establishment, she was happy to answer any number of questions that I had.  The inevitable question of her favourite bottle was immediately met with “Sassicaia 1990”.

Of the many tour highlights, the first was the visit to their ‘bottle graveyard’, a vast collection of all the wonderful empty vessels enjoyed by numerous diners over the years.  Many classic labels were present and it was awesome to drink in (pun intended) the wonderful memories and nights these bottles had produced.

Wine Graveyard

From these ‘front-of-house’ cellars we worked our way up to the third floor and, with ‘cellar’ being a complete contradiction in term, visited what would qualify as their wine ‘vault’.  Under lock and key the huge ‘floor to ceiling’ wine racks housed the deeper parts of their 30,000 bottle collection, including mostly duplicate bottles as well as those of different size formats.

Wine Vault

It was a real treat to get up close and personal with their older Champagnes, but no tour would have been complete without seeing the jewel of their collection; the most expensive bottle on their wine list.

It was definitely no surprise to find out that it was Pétrus, but this was a double magnum of the lauded 1982 vintage listed at £20,000, which Milena believed had been there since the hotel opened.

Wine Petrus

Alas I didn’t have a big enough wallet for the Pétrus but I did join in with a tasting of their monthly ‘Icon’ wine.  A good reason for the added extravagance would have been the old saying of ‘when-in-Rome…’, but we were firmly placed in Umbria for the Italian wine Patrizia Lamborghini Campoleone 1999 (£205 per bottle).

Comprised of a 50/50 mix of Merlot and Sangiovese from vines planted in the 1970’s, the very small yields of one kilo of grapes per vine are fermented in new French oak for 12 months followed by blending and another 6 months in the cellar.

Icon Wine Italy 1999

The outstanding wine, blending fig, chocolate, tobacco and truffle was the precursor to an equally outstanding dinner, which you can read about here.

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1937 Dom Pérignon; Rogue or Reserved?

I was reading the website of Champagne expert Richard Juhlin recently whilst researching my on-going series of articles about the history of Dom Pérignon. Richard claims to be probably the only palate in the world to have tried every vintage of Dom, including the rare ‘not-quite’ year of 1926. What struck me of interest was that he also claims to have tried the 1937 which, according to Moét, never existed. 1937 was regarded as a top notch year for Champagne and Moét produced a standard Vintage, so a Prestige Cuvée was certainly on the cards, but who is right – Richard or Moét?

Dom Pérignon was first introduced in late 1936 to help perk up a depressed Champagne market following the austerity that began with the 1929 Wall Street crash. It would also help to slake the thirst of a newly invigorated US market following the end of prohibition in 1933.

It’s a rarity to have a vintage declared for standard Moét, without a corresponding one for Dom Pérignon, and there has only been a handful of times in the last 100 years when this has happened. The instant success of the first release of Dom meant that by the time of the 1937 harvest, Moét would clearly have been thinking about how they would present this 5-star vintage to market. So, based on that, 1937 Dom sounds like it should exist.

Playing devil’s advocate for a second, it would probably have made better sense for Moét to ensure that all they produced went in to the tried-and-tested Vintage wine which would be a definite seller, rather than diverting any in to a fledgling Prestige Cuvée. Moét were the first company to launch at the Prestige level, and the good demand for the first vintage could well have been a one-off – an enthusiastic response to a novelty product. There was simply no precedent at that time for them to fully gauge the on-going market.

In reality, they were able to hedge their bets somewhat as all wines were going in to standard Moét bottles, rather than any being placed in the distinctive green bottles used for Dom. Champagne goes through its’ 2nd fermentation in its bottle, but for the vintage years declared before the concept of Dom had been fully developed (i.e. any pre-1936) the liquid was simply transferred from their standard bottles in to the Dom ones. Even though the 1937 vintage obviously comes after the conception in 1936, it is unlikely that they had ordered multiple thousand custom bottles based on the sales of just one release.

It’s also interesting to ponder the impacts of the impending war, the signs of which had been on the horizon since the mid-1930’s. With the length of time needed to age a Prestige Cuvee in the cellars (at least 7 years) it is unlikely that Moét would want to tie up stock for any length of time. My conclusion is that by the time war broke out there were no specific bottles of 1937 Dom in the Moét cellars, but there was Moét 1937 which, if it survived, had the potential to be transferred to Dom bottles when ready for release to the market.

Nipping forward to the end of the war when sales of Dom Pérignon recommenced, the next 3 vintages (1928, 1929 and 1934) were released, but the company then skip on to the 1943. If the 1937 was ever to have hit the market it would have been at some point in the early 1950’s when perfectly good records for the surrounding vintages exist in the Moét archives. This tells us that it’s unlikely that the lack of paperwork is down to them being destroyed in the hostilities.

For a moment, let’s assume that it did exist, and Moét did have the foresight to put it in the iconic green bottles.  In the age of the internet, it’s very telling by itself that there are no pictures to be found of either bottles or labels for a 1937 Dom. It is possible that virtually every single bottle was either drunk or destroyed during the war as, once in occupation, the Germans were demanding something like 400,000 bottles of Champagne a week! The French vignerons were increasingly cunning with the way that they protected the wines in their cellars (thanks to the lessons learnt in the First World War), but the 1937 was still young and not yet ready to drink at the outbreak of war. Vignerons would have been far more likely to have been protecting older and more mature vintages.

1937 All

What clues can we get from any surviving bottles of 1937 Champagne? In the picture above we can see various bottles that survived (l-r Moét, Mumm, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot), and experienced palate Michael Broadbent managed to get his hands on a few as he lists off tasting notes for several 1937’s in his thorough book ‘Vintage Wine’. With these varying survivors it seems extremely odd that no Dom Pérignon managed to.

1937 All v2

What’s interesting is that each of these labels have ‘Reserved for Allied Armies’ emblazoned across them. The Germans were really only interested in the mature vintages for themselves, and gave winemaker Otto Klaebisch the role (dubbed ‘Wine Fuhrer’) of ensuring that there was someone looking after both the quality and the quantity of what they looted. With the Germans not touching it, what seems more likely is that stocks of 1937, being allocated as they were to the Allies, were heavily depleted and there simply wasn’t enough to make both a vintage Moét and a Dom Pérignon.  Or, enough to make it worthwhile transferring what remained in to Dom Pérignon bottles.

To conclude, I think it’s unlikely that the 1937 Dom Pérignon ever existed and is therefore a rogue vintage, but am open to suggestion if others have any evidence to the contrary?

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