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The Claret Club

They wear colourful costumes, sing silly drinking songs and perform arcane ceremonies, but from Pauillac to Puerto Rico, commanderies are united in their love of Bordeaux. ANTHONY ROSE joins the club

They wear colourful costumes, sing silly drinking songs and perform arcane ceremonies, but from Pauillac to Puerto Rico, commanderies are united in their love of Bordeaux. Anthony Rose joins the club.

  • For wine club listings on decanter.com, see our wine clubs page.

    Imagine a Eurovision song contest, Bordeaux-style, and the above verse may give you the flavour of the competition, declared by the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux, to find an anthem in praise of Bordeaux wine. Members of claret clubs – commanderies – from around the world were encouraged to participate and Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux was declared the winner at a symposium of the Conseil at Château de Roquetaillade on 25 June 1998 by Grand Maître Jacques Hébrard. The composer, Eric Vogt, Maître of Boston, was awarded (generously, after dinner) his weight in claret. Whether his prize was Mouton Cadet or Mouton Rothschild is not recorded.

    Witnessing an assemblage of the male of the species prancing about in coloured robes and medallion-dangling pomp may not incline the uninitiated to get up in ceremonial garb to sing drinking songs and conduct arcane ceremonies. Indeed, not all Bordelais are amused. According to Fiona Morrison MW of Le Pin: ‘The vast commanderies publish self-serving guides every year of portly, self-important men with tastevins around their necks drinking copious quantities of Bordeaux in all four corners of the globe.’

    And yet, like any club which brings together likeminded people from different walks of life, its members have a common passion, the club acting as a vehicle for sharing memorable bottles at tastings and dinners. For the Bordelais,as Lynch-Bages’ Jean- Michel Cazes said, it’s about ‘standing up for and furthering the whole region’.

    Colourful history

    The origins of the commanderies worldwide lay in the need to rebuild a wine economy brought to its knees after the war. A Bordelais Magnificent Seven of Henri Martin, then president of theCIVB (Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux), Edouard Marjary, Jean Bouteiller, Roger Dourthe, Bertrand Clauzel, Jean Theil and Raymond Brard decided that presenting a new image of Bordeaux to the outside world should be a priority. Martin pulled together 16 independent associations of wine growers and traders and called them the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB).

    In 1975, it became a non-profit organisation under French law with the authority to represent (in France and abroad) all Bordeaux’s wine-producing appellations. The GCVB quickly grasped the value of Bordeaux clubs worldwide. It extended charters to commanderies around the world with admission by nomination, and then vote of the chapter, followed by a formal induction ceremony. Under the overall patronage of the GCVB, today there’s a network of 68 commanderies in 19 countries. Apart from Europe, there are outposts in America, Canada, Russia, Latvia, China, Malaysia and Japan.

    Members, or commandeurs, of the chapters get together for dinners called parlements and other events with the specific aim of enjoying, discussing and learning more about the wines of Bordeaux. In effect, the commandeurs are local ambassadors for Bordeaux and its winemakers. The commandeur medallion derives

    from the regalia of regional brotherhoods. It was created in the shape of a shield

    representing a full glass of red Bordeaux. The fleur de lys symbolises the bouquet of the wine, while the association’s letters are bordered by a crescent moon to remind members that Bordeaux Port was once known as the Harbour of the Moon. The golden leopard, the emblem of the historic province of Aquitaine, derives from the marriage of the Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenet, who became King Henry II of England in 1154, kick-starting an 850-year love affair between the English and claret. In addition to medallion and robewearing, the Grand Maître of each Bordeaux chapter wields a ceremonial sceptre rather like the ornate mace once famously seized and waved dangerously around the House of Commons by Michael Heseltine.

    Angus Smith, Grand Maître of the American Commanderie, recalls how he was once turned back by ‘fearless airport security forces because my sceptre was considered a potential offensive weapon’. As a result of modern security precautions, the sceptre now has to be checked in in a specially made case. On one occasion, when it didn’t make it through airport security in time for the club’s dinner, Smith grabbed a French hunting horn from the wall of his hotel. ‘It seemed to do the trick’, he recalls.

    Global reach

    As an example of a European group, the Swiss chapter, or the Commanderie de la Suisse Alémanique, de la Principauté de Liechtenstein et du Tessin, under Grand Maître Christian Schmid, consists of 100 members of whom 90 are men. Charging Chf500 (£245) to become a member and Chf350 (£172) per year, the

    commanderie holds regular dinners, costing Chf150 (£74) – or Chf130 (£64) for

    women (‘because our women drink less’). Recent tastings include a Léoville-Barton vertical, the 1989 Médoc vintage, the new St-Emilion classification and a

    comparative tasting of Pavie-Macquin, Troplong-Mondot and Canon la Gaffelière.

    It may come as a surprise, but one of the more professional and knowledgeable commanderies is in Puerto Rico. It has just 20 members but consequently boasts 10 cases of cellared Bordeaux per head. The Puerto Ricans are ultra-hospitable and the club a favourite location for meetings of the Board of Governors of

    the American Commanderie. Their most recent event culminated in a pig roast in the mountains, followed by dancing, and drinking large amounts of serious claret.

    Further afield, the Hong Kong Commanderie (which includes the China, Singapore and Jakarta chapters), under Grand Maître Vincent Cheung, has 120 members and organises about 10 Bordeaux dinners a year, many attended either by a château owner, winemaker or one of their representatives. Every two years, the commanderie arranges a Cru Bourgeois Fair with 60 châteaux participating. Last year, it initiated a St-Emilion Fair with 15 châteaux owners involved and this year sees, among other events, a Margaux tasting and dinner with Château Margaux’s Paul Pontallier and a Les Cinq dinner with the respective owners of Châteaux Smith Haut Lafitte, Pontet-Canet, Gazin, Branaire-Ducru and Canon-La Gaffelière.

    Despite Fiona Morrison’s opinion that Bordeaux clubs tend to be male dominated, Angus Smith says that his wife usually now joins him on his induction duties. It was not always thus. Early in his position as American Grand Maître, Smith was surprised when he and his wife were invited to a male-only chapter ‘which shall be nameless’, only to learn that the invitation to his wife was a mistake and to be told that she should avail herself of room service while he bonded with the alpha males and their clarets.

    ‘Needless to say that did not sit well and we broke the male-only barrier that night’, said Smith. ‘Happily, the chapter has a new Maître and is now co-ed’. With tongue half in cheek, Canadian wine writer Natalie McLean, notes that her commanderie in Ottawa ‘has become so modern it includes women’. She joined in 1999 and, perhaps to her disappointment, there were no secret handshakes or passwords, although she claims she did ‘relish wearing a purple velvet cape that made her look like a cross between Marie Antoinette and Batwoman’. But she can handle it: the vast number of clarets in its cellar have doubled or tripled in price since she joined and the tastings are a bargain.

    Presiding over 29 chapters and some 1,100 members located in different cities around the US, Smith is justifiably proud that he is one of only three Grand Maîtres in the organisation’s 51-year history.

    ‘It must be the excellence of the Bordeaux we drink,’ he said. The size of the associations varies considerably across the country, from 20 in Providence, Rhode Island, to 165 in New York City. Most chapters now admit women and admission is based on an interest in Bordeaux wine. Parlements are either black-tie affairs starting with toasts to the Presidents of the US and France, to Thomas Jefferson (‘the first American connoisseur and our Grand Patron’) or more informal events in restaurants, bistros and private homes.

    ‘I’ve had some interesting experiences inducting new commandeurs in exciting locations’, said Smith: ‘A nightclub in Las Vegas; a bar in a Southern city with some distracting professional ladies in attendance; the staircase of the French Residency in Washington with the French Ambassador and a Supreme Court Justice present; and the Frick Museum, which we occupied for our 50th Anniversary celebrations last June.’ At one event, at which the guest of honour was May-Eliane de Lencquesaing and several vintages of her Pichon-Lalande were being served, he was horrified to see someone producing a Pichon-Baron. No doubt inwardly seething at this faux-pas, ‘May-Eliane was very gracious, and let me off the hook lightly’, he said.

    Join the club

    All commanderies are claret clubs, but not all claret clubs are commanderies. In the 19th century, Trinity Claret Club in Oxford ‘fined members for “talking bawd”, swearing, not passing the wine, and leaving the table; 234 Penalties were exacted for breaches of decorum’. Today, there are many UK claret clubs. Some are wine societies like the Chester Claret Club which meets monthly to taste, discuss and enjoy wine. Others are commercial operations like Avery’s Claret Club or the Claret Club at The Feathers at Woodstock.

    The latest addition is the London Claret Club, launched by former engineer Denis Houles as a forum for high-profile business people to dine with top château owners with wines sourced direct from the châteaux. Events this year will feature, among others, Pontet-Canet, Angélus, Pichon-Lalande, Cos, Léoville-Barton and Margaux. Dinners focus on five or six wines from one property and menus are carefully rehearsed with top chefs. Membership costs £1,100 plus £1,800 for six dinner seats or £3,500 for 12 seats. Houles’ aim is to have 25% women, ‘or it ends up as an old boys’ network’. The club has also recently launched in Geneva.

    Beyond Bordeaux, a host of networks, clubs, groups, societies and associations exists for the enjoyment of fine wines. The Confrérie du Sabre d’Or celebrates Champagne, the Costa Blanca Wine Society champions Spanish wine, Sapros

    is a club for devotees of botrytis, Cellar Rats love Napa Valley wines and Mates of Milawa extol Australian wines. There’s a Kosher Wine Society, a Surabaya Wine Society in Indonesia, a Delhi Wine Club in India and an El Dorado Home Winemakers group which (as you may guess) gathers to discuss the joys of home winemaking, in California’s El Dorado County. There’s only really one Bordeaux club though: the unparalleled network that unites Bordeaux lovers worldwide in celebration of the world’s biggest fine wine region.

    If you would like to join a wine club, see our wine clubs page on decanter.com

    Written by Anthony Rose

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