Wine in Parliament

Wine, parliament People & Places Articles
  • Friday 21 August 2009

British politicians are all too happy to tell wine lovers that we’re drinking too much. So are they all abstemious? Far from it, says Simon Hoggart

Find out about MPs and wine, said the editor. Which wines do they like? Where do they buy them? Do they speak better after a few glasses, or vote more judiciously?

I tried, but with the expenses scandal swirling round the House of Commons, and every MP dreading a call from The Daily Telegraph about their rent or floating duck-house, nobody was going to admit being a drinker at all, still less to a love of fine wine. They could see their opponents’ leaflets at the coming election: ‘The credit crunch hasn’t bothered Roger Pargiter. While you struggle to meet the mortgage and pay the family food bill, he is enjoying a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc kindly donated by you, the taxpayer…’

One Labour MP who I know loves good wine assured me he drank nothing but beer. After all, ‘likes a glass of ale’ does much less harm than ‘has a case of Cos 1964 in his cellar.’ But MPs do like their wine, and it often shows. The most famous event involving MPs and wine is recorded in Alan Clark’s Diaries. Clark loved his wine, especially Bordeaux; he once said that entertaining properly became impossible when the price of good claret rose above £100 a bottle. At home in Saltwood, the castle where the knights who murdered Thomas à Becket lodged before going to Canterbury, he had what would have been a most impressive cellar. But he kept his wine, still in cases, in the undercroft, a sort of ancient shed. The security system consisted of a crumbling, padlocked wooden door, which would not have kept out a larcenous six-year-old, even in Becket’s time.

The wine was kept under tarpaulins, gardening equipment and broken toys. Move the junk back and there were first and second growths, the finest Burgundies and a few cases of generic bottles for everyday drinking. Jane Clark, his widow, is a teetotaller, and sold it all a few years ago for £53,000, the price undoubtedly higher because of the provenance.

In July 1983, Clark was a minister, and had to speak about regulations on equal pay for women. (He actually wanted lower pay for men whom he thought were lazier.) The speech wasn’t due till 10.15pm, which left him time for a wine-tasting dinner with his nephew Christopher Clark and another guest. ‘We “tasted” first a bottle of ’61 Palmer, then “for comparison” a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville… by 9.40pm I was feeling muzzy.’ The speech was a disaster. It was poorly written by civil servants; full of nonsense. Inhibitions cast aside, Clark raced along, ‘sneering at the more cumbrous and unintelligible passages… I gabbled. Sometimes I turned over two pages at once, sometimes three. What did it matter?’

Soon the whole House realised that he was in poor shape. Some MPs were laughing, some embarrassed, others pretended to be outraged. Labour MPs such as Clare Short worked their way round Commons rules that ban one member from describing another as drunk. There was nearly a political crisis, with Labour hoping to use technicalities to stop the government’s business in its tracks. But, as always, Clark got away with it and continued drinking good wine until the day he died.

Of course, in history, drinking a bottle, even two, before making a speech was the rule rather than the exception. Pitt the Younger rarely rose without at least one bottle of Port swilling inside him. The late Roy Jenkins was famous for loving claret, though he always insisted his tastes were more diverse; certainly the word ‘claret’ was used by the media as handy shorthand for ‘high-living person out of touch with ordinary folk’. I was once lunching in a Berkshire pub garden on a blisteringly hot day. A group of middle-aged people at a nearby table had bought several bottles of Berry Bros’ Good Jane Ordinary Claret. Roy Jenkins arrived and joined them, wearing a tweed jacket and tie. He looked about to melt. I suspected his friends did not know his tastes as well as they might have thought.

David Mitchell, Tory MP for Basingstoke, was also joint chairman of El Vino’s, the Fleet Street pub used by lawyers and journalists. In From House To House, his book about politics and wine, he tells a nice story about Baron Philippe de Rothschild strolling through the Mouton vineyard with his maître de chai. It had been a hot, dry summer, but light rain was helping improve quality and quantity. ‘The baron remarked that it was raining money. “Not so,” said his cellarmaster, “if it were, your umbrella would be the other way up”.’

The greatest sacrilege was committed by Robert Maxwell, briefly Labour MP for Buckingham and who in the early 1960s ran the Commons catering committee, which then managed all the bars, cafés and restaurants. Because Commons hours are so unpredictable – things were worse then – it was impossible to plan ahead, and often scores of staff had to be paid to go home. Maxwell promised to return the department to profit, which he did by the outrageous (and ultimately pointless) means of selling off the entire, magnificent cellar. But Maxwell was never afraid of destruction, whether of a superb cellar or his employees’ pensions. Now here’s the bit that will make you envious: before he sold off the wine, MPs, staff and journalists could buy a glass of Latour for six shillings, the equivalent of 30p. Even though in those days you could get a pint of beer for less than two bob, this was sensational value, coming well before the rocketing prices of fine Bordeaux in the early ’70s.

Latour is no longer available. Nor is Margaux or Haut-Brion or DRC. The list in Commons restaurants (Members’ dining room, the Strangers’ dining room for MPs to take guests; and the Churchill Room, a more upmarket restaurant where guests can also be entertained) offers only about 60 wines, but all are carefully chosen from a small group of suppliers. Roughly one-third of the wines are from France, but there is an impressive selection from elsewhere, including some excellent choices from Australia, Italy, Spain and Chile. There are only two English wines: Denbies Flint Valley white and Camel Valley Brut.

If your local MP ever does take you to the Commons for a meal you are likely to be impressed, not least by the prices. Parliament pays no rent or property taxes, nor do diners contribute to the lifestyle of a famous chef. The result is that wine prices for the regular in-house eateries (‘banqueting’ prices are much higher) are perhaps half what you might expect to pay in a London restaurant.

So Domaine Barret Crozes Hermitage 2006 costs £16, a Vicchiomaggio Chianti Classico Riserva ’04 is £22.50, and Mulderbosch Faithful Hound ’04 from Stellenbosch is only £17.50. In whites you’ll get Domaine de Genilotte Chablis 2006 for £17.50, Kollmutz Federspiel Grüner Veltliner ’07 for £14.50 and a Terredavino Gavi di Gavi ’07 for £17.

It’s hard to find anything in a London wine bar for less than £13, and it’s not likely to be good. But MPs can enjoy a Fairvalley Pinotage for £11, a Duc du Chapelle Sauvignon Blanc for £10.50, and Bodegas Lurton Pinot Gris for £11.50. The house wines include two Vin de Pays d’Ocs: a fine Chardonnay for Woodward£10.50, and a lovely light Pinot Noir – as good as many generic Burgundies - for £10. With six wines in half bottles (some MPs do dine alone) and 10 wines by the glass, legislators are not spoiled for choice. Even though, I suspect, Alan Clark would have looked down his nose at many of the bottles and may have insisted on BYO – a Latour ’61 plus corkage, perhaps.

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