I was recently called upon to serve a table of three post-middle age, and one elderly, gentlemen. It became quickly apparent that these four men were political civil servants and notably, not all of the same political persuasion. With interesting guests to hand, it is of prime importance that the wine flows in equal, if not greater, proportions to the conversation, cutting loose inhibitions and bolstering passions.
I’ve been working in London’s most premier, private and exclusive dining rooms building up my reputation as a Sommelier. Each position has lent itself to a range of experiences that have given me insight into more than just the tasting aspect of wine. To be in close proximity to diners that range in status from the low grade celebrity to the high flying city executive or powerful persona’s of political figures, it is easier than you may think to be overly attentive when diners share anecdotes or in some cases, confidences.

To kick-start the evening I suggested that the gentlemen indulge themselves in a light and fresh Manzanilla sherry. This is a nice tone setting drink for a feast as it fills the mouth with longing for flavour and is easily matched with the meatier dishes that appear on the menu at this time of year. Funnily enough, I had prescribed this same drink to myself earlier in the evening and could taste hints of roasted nuts, so it was no surprise when these guests strayed wantonly into a second glass!

To start the gentlemen, but one, ordered the smoked salmon ala beetroot salad, sour cream and chive dressing; the last choosing the quail eggs & hollandaise with grilled pancetta. Looking for some mirrored textures but contrasts in flavour I suggested the 1999 Chablis, Louis Michel. This was met with mixed eyes but when I tilted my head reflecting that it was their choice and only my suggestion they glanced at one another and granted me the affirmative.

On my return from tendering to other guests I noticed that this selection of wine seemed to go down so well that it actually sparked a conversation on the subject and seeing that my services were going to be hotly in demand, I decided to hover at hand, just in case!

The first man to speak worked for the current trophy holders of British politics. He mentioned somewhat proudly that the wine list at the recent Gleneagles summit in Scotland was big enough to make any grape aficionados mouth drawl with desire. Government hospitality had certainly pulled one out of the top draw on this occasion. This comment was met by a repost from the younger of the two older gentlemen who noted that back in the 80’s and 90’s, Buckingham Palace was more famous for the service of mediocre wine, than it was for the luscious environment in which they were consumed. However, he continued, in the new millennium, the bar has been raised and although it’s doubtful that good Vintage Petrus is available on tap, one could say, there is pleasure to be had.

There were nods of approval all round followed by the most senior gent saying, “ How tedious would all this pomp be without a little spice and flavour? It is well known that William Pitt and his fellow politicos were regularly inebriated before the house sat – and Champagne, Claret and Port were of the finest order.” He paused to a thoughtful mouthful of wine that he rested at the back of his mouth and with a purse of the lips and a relaxing of the neck; he swallowed before resuming his historical piece. “In the days of post-Second World War austerity, the extravagances of Churchill’s table were not commented upon – after all, it was of little import for such an eminent statesmen.” This provoked a murmur of approval all round and with it the last remnants of the bottle ebbed away.

The main course orders perfectly suited the time of year, so may it not be a surprise that four fillets of highland venison with plums, pear and sautéed cabbage were on their way to the table. As the gentlemen poured over our wine list I felt compelled to make a suggestion. Such big food requires big wine and a young Leoville Barton, 1990, with bright, ripe, lovely fruit on the nose and complex, classy tannins and balance. A grin entered the faces of the four as was to be expected, for good Bordeaux has all the allure to the Brit as an inheritance to a rake.

It was the youngest of the four gents who now spoke of the general quality of wine offered and readily consumed at 10 Downing Street. Either Blair enjoys great wine or his style guru has a say, but it is good to hear great vintages and top Chateaux being served. This notion was at first met with a gasp by his ex-Tory serving counterparts who interjected with, “So are you saying it is worth trying to get in to dinner?” A low chuckle ensued and the younger Labour servant concluded saying: “What is the point of being the boss if you cannot have some perks. I think the point is, there is so much great wine tucked away in the cellars of ‘Government Hospitality’, that they need to be drunk.”

“Blimey”, exclaimed the younger of the two right serving gents, “Under Major, I don’t recall a single wine of note. Modesty was a virtue and comment was easily avoided.” In turn his elder colleague noted that in “Prime Minister Thatcher’s house” the wine did not improve on Wilson and Callaghan who must have been reasonably well advised. Thatcher also, on occasion served British wine making it clear there were no bounds to here patriotism.

As the meal concluded with a cheeseboard and a large glass of 1970 Fonseca Port, I noticed that as the youngest of the four men paid the bill, a few jokes passed about an earlier reference to “government hospitality”. One more meal and four palate’s, bodies and minds satiated for another evening. Spying a lull in activity I headed for the kitchen to resample another glass of Manzanilla, or should I try the Fino?
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