Uncorked! Britain's hidden wine cellars
After the revelation that the Government keeps a secret reserve of 40,000 bottles, Terry Kirby goes in search of the other private collections that would make oenophiles' mouths water - if they were allowed anywhere near them
Published: 18 April 2006
The glow of the chandeliers reflects off the gleaming cutlery laid out along the dining table. The waiters hover, with silver servers of roasted meats and vegetables. But the food is not the centrepiece of this meal.
At each place setting, a crystal goblet is being topped up with a rare 1985 Margaux, a claret of distinction, to be carefully savoured. Before sitting down, the diners have enjoyed a glass or three of vintage champagne, while the aged port, perhaps more than 30 years old, will come at the end of the meal, with the big cigars.
Unfortunately, this is not the kind of place where one can ring up and book a table to enjoy such pleasures of the vine. These are the fruits of Britain's private cellars, containing wines, ports and champagnes that rival, and often surpass, the best that hotels and restaurants can offer.
To enjoy these exclusive treasures you really have to be a member, or a guest, of one of the select groups that form part of what was once known as the British establishment.
The monarchy and the Government, it is well known, have extensive private wine cellars, drawn on for state banquets and other forms of hospitality. Recently, it was revealed that the Government spent about £100,000 a year on wine, maintaining a cellar of almost 40,000 bottles of fine wines. London's traditional clubs, such as the Garrick and the Carlton, are also known as homes of fine wines.
What is less well known is that a few remaining banks and city houses, the Oxbridge colleges, the more traditional Army regiments, some professional institutions, and the city livery companies, also maintain wine cellars that are often extensive and always high quality, for their own enjoyment, and that of their favoured guests.
And, as might be expected among the bastions of old money, the emphasis is on traditional, serious clarets, burgundies, and ports, bought at cost price from fine wine dealers for "laying down" and consumption perhaps 10 or 15 years in the future.
Wine merchants say the advent of the "lunch is for wimps" culture, and the increasing influence of the American trading houses, has seen the decline of traditional, alcohol-soaked long lunches in the boardrooms of City institutions, and the maintaining ofprivate cellars, which were once the norm, has declined too. But buying wine remains popular among individuals, such as those in receipt of the recent glut of City bonuses.
While blue-blooded stockbrokers Cazenove's were reluctant to discuss even the question of whether they maintained a cellar or not, both the Bank of England and Coutts, the establishment's private bankers, were happy to disclose to The Independent some details of the cellars they draw upon when entertaining clients.
"It's part of the armoury that is required in this business," said Coutts spokesman Nick Gill. "We try to find interesting, less well-known wines from all parts of the world, not just from Bordeaux and Burgundy, so that clients can say 'what's this?'"
The bank's private dining rooms at their London headquarters serve about 7,500 covers a year - equivalent to a small restaurant, while their cellar consists of "several thousand bottles," he said.
The Bank of England's cellar contains about 2,800 bottles, mostly clarets and burgundies, as well as some champagne and port, chosen by an in-house wine committee. "We serve it at business dinners - not lunches - charitable events and functions," said a spokesman. Like other similar bodies, these special wines are reserved for smaller occasions. The Bank said it was justified in spending money to buy wine as it was a cost-effective investment.
Edward Cottrell, general manager of Justerini and Brooks, Mayfair-based wine dealers which supplies many private cellars, said: "Although we do sell some what we call 'drinking Claret' for serving now, most of those who buy for such places are not buying wines they will drink themselves, but for future generations. And they will be drinking wine bought perhaps 10 or even 20 years ago."
A typical wine for laying down would be from this year's reportedly excellent Bordeaux vintage - a Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, a Cru Classic from Pauillac, while is likely to be sold at about £250 a case, less duty and VAT. It is unlikely to be drinkable for at least five years.
The really big cellars belong to the 12 original livery companies of the City of London, and to the Oxbridge colleges. Among the livery companies, the best cellars are maintained by, predictably, the Vintners, which represents the wine trade anyway, the Goldsmiths, and the Fishmongers. The cellars are needed for regular entertaining. Each of the livery companies host monthly dinners for the masters and clerks of the other companies, as well as numerous other ceremonial occasions.
Warren Benbow, assistant clerk at the Goldsmiths, which keeps around 800 cases, said the grander the occasion, the better the wine served. "We have 18 bottles of Madeira dating from 1835, when our hall was built, which is not something we open very often. But some of our older members still ask when they will get the chance to taste it."
The Goldsmiths have a fine collection of ports, some of which date back to 1948 but have recently sold some off at auction because drinking port is no longer as popular as it once was.
Selling wine is a practice followed by many of the private cellars. Most of the Oxbridge colleges sell surplus wine to raise funds. "They have very well-developed cellars and wine is an asset that they buy and sell, so they operate as broking machines in their own right. Most of their cellars become self-funding," said Mr Cottrell, whose company holds an annual tasting for the universities.
Almost all the colleges have wine committees, while one or two fellows are elected as "wine stewards", charged with maintaining the cellars. However, we found them reluctant to discuss their finest clarets and ports. Professor Simon Madrell, wine steward of Gonville and Caius, said he would "rather not" discuss the matter since the college was really about teaching and research, adding: "We would likely get to appear as a lot of self indulgent wine-bibbers."
Impeccable taste: inside some special collections
* COUTTS & CO
The private bank, based in the Strand, dates back to 1692 and is one of the rare private cellars not to rely exclusively on traditional clarets and burgundies, priding itself on its selection of New World wines.
Special wine: Henri Giraud Champagne, founded before Coutts in 1620, the oldest champagne house still in private ownership. Expect to pay at least £120 a bottle for vintage, £20 for non-vintage.
* THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS
Established in 1518, the college represents the cream of the medical profession and promotes excellence in medical practice. Its excellent collection of 2,500 bottles of claret is bought on the advice of a master of wine, kept for an average of 15 to 20 years and usually only served at fellowship dinners and other formal occasions held at its headquarters in Regents Park.
Special wine: Château Labégorce Zédé 1985 is a relatively rare claret from Margaux. It is as refined as the great clarets should be. Costs about £440 a case on the open market.
* THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF GOLDSMITHS
One of the 12 great livery companies of the City of London, which arose from the trades of the capital in medieval times. The cellar holds more than 800 cases of clarets, red and white burgundies, champagnes, sauternes and ports, some dating as far back as 1948.
Special wine: A large quantity of Madeira, the dessert wine from the Atlantic island of the same name, was laid down in 1835 to mark the building of Goldsmiths' Hall. Only 18 bottles remain and it is impossible to price.