The Conservative MP and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill enjoys a robust indulgence in wine. Guy Woodward recounts a bruising encounter.
Talking to Nicholas Soames is a bruising experience. The Tory grandee doesn’t so much talk at you as through you, barely pausing for respite. ‘Come through – right, how long have we got? Yes, not long, I’m afraid, today’s a real bugger – put your stuff there. The Iran [hostages] statement, then I’ve got a lunch, then I’m doing a presentation in the City. I should be in the Commons now actually. OK, what do you want to know?’
We make our way through his antechamber with photographer in tow. Above us, on a small TV screen in his cluttered office, Tony Blair and David Cameron do battle at the dispatch box. Biographies of Alexander the Great sit on the shelves, cases of Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Font de Michelle and JP Moueix’s Canon Fronsac property Canon-de-Brem on the floor.
Getting certain interviewees to open up can be difficult, particularly politicians suspicious of the media, who don’t like to let their guard down. Soames is guarded on many issues, but wine is not one of them. Actually getting a question in proves the most testing challenge, as the former armed forces minister and member for Mid Sussex of 24-years’ standing thunders on like a Sherman tank.
‘My father introduced me to wine at a young age – just little snifters. I was very fortunate – my mother and father met at a dinner in honour of my grandfather [Sir Winston Churchill] in Paris when he was being honoured by De Gaulle.’ ‘Did your grandfa-?’ ‘He was a big Champagne fan – he thought Mrs Pol Roger (Odette) was the epitome of French femininity. He loved brandy, and drank whisky, but I’m not sure he was a great claret lover. Most of the stories about his consumption are just myths though. He didn’t drink that much. I used to go in and see him in the mornings, and the whisky and water by his bed was practically transluscent.’
This slightly defensive line is an example of Soames’ discretion. He is cautious almost to the extent of paranoia not to be drawn on any remotely compromising political tittle-tattle, or – heaven forbid – marrying of his political post with indulgence in his vinous pursuits, and any such line of questioning is straight-batted or ignored. It is the only time during our strict 45-minute timeslot when the MP is silent.
Soames’ father was military attaché to Paris after the war, and ‘ran a very good table’. On suggesting that entertaining might have been a perk, however, I am met with a barrage of ‘Oh no’s’ and ‘No, no’. So which MPs like wine? ‘I wouldn’t know – wine doesn’t come up.’ ‘Don’t you talk about hobbies?’ ‘Wine’s not a hobby, it’s part of my life.’ He refuses to be drawn on the wine list at any diplomatic dinners he may have attended, and is even guarded on his time in the royal household – he was the former equerry of Price Charles, who remains a close friend: ‘As a young man, I did see the cellars once, and they were very well stocked, as you’d expect given the hospitality of the Queen.’
Occasionally he slips up – he confesses he ‘enjoyed’ his time at the Department of Agriculture in the early 1990s – ‘it was the start of London’s transformation into the restaurant capital of the world. I met some fantastic people, chefs – I’ve got tremendous respect for Ramsay and the like,’ says the man once famously described by the late Labour firebrand Tony Banks MP as a ‘one-man food mountain’.
But Soames is quick to correct himself – ‘I don’t drink at lunchtime any more – I have to work in the afternoon.’ So what does he drink when he can indulge at weekends? ‘I’m a bit of a traditionalist, I’m afraid,’ he says, reeling off a list of Bordeaux classics in his cellar at home, and stored with Octavian: Gruaud-Larose, Montrose, Haut-Brion, Léoville-Poyferré, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Ormes de Pez, Certan-Giraud, Léoville-Barton…
‘I’m cultivating a growing love of the Rhône – Vieux Télégraphe, Vieux Donjon – it’s a tougher wine, but it goes beautifully with game. But then so does Burgundy, so does claret actually…’ He buys from the Wine Society (‘I love their mailings’), Bibendum, Corney & Barrow (‘I love their standard 10-year-old tawny), and is on first-name terms with the sales directors of all of them. ‘They talk to me in the same way as someone who’s spending £10,000,’ he marvels, before admitting that his wife has an issue with all the wine he brings home. ‘I buy to lay down, but always to drink – not as an investment, though I do end up selling some every year – I buy too much. The key is to find five good shippers then you can be sure the wine will be good and you’ll get good value.’
Soames had been on the committee of the Parliamentary Cellar, but got voted off by ‘a female Labour MP who thought my tastes were too expensive’. The female reference is an interesting aside from an MP who once criticised his own party for being ‘too bothered about having gays and women in the party’. He was also – briefly – the wine columnist for The Spectator, under Boris Johnson’s editorship. ‘It was a preposterous idea,’ he admits. ‘I don’t know nearly enough about wine, but it was great fun. It opened me up to many New World wines. Terrific stuff – don’t ask me the names, but Chile, Argentina, Australia (they’re all a bit samey, but good), US, New Zealand – what is it, Cloudy Bay, is it called, is that one of theirs? I’d never tried South African wine, but they’re doing some very good stuff.’
Nowadays, he sees himself as ‘a very minor step-up’ from ‘people [who] like wine very much, know what they like, and enjoy it, without knowing anything about it’. He hates wine bores, he says. On that front, he has little to worry about. Nicholas Soames MP is far from boring.
What did you drink at the weekend? Krug non-vintage and Léoville-Barton 1994. Supposedly not a great vintage, but it was delicious.
What’s your dream wine?
Château Lafite 1945
Where would you drink it and with who? At home with family
What’s the most you’ve ever spend on a bottle? Much too much. I honestly can’t remember, but I do recall spending much more than I should have done on several occasions