This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
There's something about climbing into a taxi and asking the driver to take me to Buckingham Palace that still gives me an absurd amount of pleasure, even in this, my seventh year as a member of the Royal Household Wine Committee. I am not remotely blasé about the subsequent fight through the crowds of tourists to present my driving licence as photo ID, first to the policemen at the North Centre Gate (pictured), the one on the right of the Palace, and then, after a 50-metre crunch over the pink gravel, again to the liveried staff at the Privy Purse Door.
The Keeper of the Privy Purse, ex KPMG accountant Sir Alan Reid, is crucial to the activities of the RHWC. The purse strings have to be loosened sufficiently for us to select enough wine, about 5,000 bottles, for the Royal Household to offer its guests at more than 300 events held each year in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
Our budget is supplied by the Queen's Civil List funding, what we citizens pay her to carry out her duties as head of state, in exchange for the income from what she owns. Sir Alan, ever mindful of accusations of profligacy, is swift to point out that 'the Crown Estate surplus is now £210m and Civil List expenditure about £13.5m, so the country gets a bargain'.
Outsiders might assume that we spend our time picking out the plums from the world's vineyards for Her Majesty's cellar but the reality is very much more prosaic. By far the majority of the wines we buy are either non vintage champagne (supplied at an average price considerably lower than any supermarket special offer I have come across) or relatively modest wines for big receptions, the likes of inexpensive New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the most basic red bordeaux.
Last month, along with my fellow members of the RHWC, I spent a morning in the cellars under the Palace tasting blind 31 whites and 31 reds submitted as potential wines for this year's royal receptions at prices from £4.12 a bottle for a Rosso Piceno from Italy to £7.50 for Justerini & Brooks' favourite white Mâcon-Uchizy. Hardly extravagant. Since my fellow committee members are TV chef Michel Roux Jr of Michelin-starred Le Gavroche and the heads of super-smart wine merchants with royal warrants Berry Bros, Corney & Barrow and Justerini & Brooks, this particular tasting may well represent some sort of gustatory nadir for these chaps. (As someone who regularly attends supermarkets' wine tastings, I am more used to swimming in the shallows.) You can read my tasting notes taken at this tasting here.
We committee members meet a few times each year to taste, usually under Buckingham Palace though once, memorably, in the rather more cramped cellars of Windsor Castle. I have particularly fond memories of Windsor because it was there I was lucky enough to attend a state banquet in the newly restored Great Hall for President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni during their state visit. I was admittedly a rather a long way down the table from them, but near enough to feel part of a great occasion, to gawp at the yet-to-be-anointed and admirably relaxed Camerons and the outgoing Labour cabinet members, and able to take full advantage of the Krug and Château Margaux 1961 served in riposte to President Chirac's much-reported scorn for British gastronomy.
Wines for state occasions like this come not from the Royal Household but from the quite separate government cellars under Lancaster House, which have their own, separate wine committee. It is about the iniquity of this wine collection that Tom Watson MP regularly huffs and puffs, but we are also kept on a tight rein when choosing wines for the royal cellars.
We do get to taste some reasonably smart stuff for Her Majesty and her guests. We buy young red bordeaux when it's released and age it because – at least so far – that has saved money. We regularly check its progress too, which is fun, but the classed growths are often more modest than those in my own cellar. And there is always a cache of red and white burgundy, as well as some vintage champagne for really important guests. But whenever I publish tasting notes on the wines submitted to the RHWC on my website, some readers almost invariably come back expressing disappointment that the wines aren't grander. I realise on reflection, however, that the complainers are rarely British taxpayers. (The picture here, by the way, shows my first, brief encounter with Her Majesty, in May 2003, when she bestowed an official honour on me not long before I was invited to join the RWHC.)
While I always enjoy blind tasting (and it is most important that we taste blind because so many of the wines submitted come from companies run by members of the committee), the wines themselves are just a small part of what I enjoy about our 'work' on the RHWC.
I love being shown into the well-upholstered ante-room next to the Privy Purse Door to wait for my fellow tasters. The wait is always a pleasure for someone who works as independently as me, giving me a chance to prattle with the merchants about the iniquities of the latest in Bordeaux pricing or prospects for the forthcoming vintage in Burgundy. Once we have all assembled, and the rival fine-wine merchants have exchanged guarded gossip, we are led down to the cellars, along what feels like miles of corridor, and finally descend a floor to where the red carpet gives way to grey lino. The corridors down here are wide, arched and tiled, just like the Victorian hospitals built at more or less the same time.
This is the domain of Robert Large, Yeoman of the Royal Cellars, in charge of several vaults full of wine. By the time we arrive, the Clerk of the Royal Cellars, Simon Berry, head of Berry Bros, has been there for almost an hour, overseeing the setting up of the blind tasting whereby three or four glasses of wine are poured next to each masked, numbered bottle along benches at waist height overlooked by silver funnels, champagne stoppers, and silver decanter labels marked Port and Claret, labelled keys on hooks by the dozen, and well-thumbed copies of both the Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer pocket guides to food and wine matching.
The Buckingham Palace food served with the wines we choose is really very good. I know this because once a year, after the AGM, we lunch there. Once we have discussed such matters as increasing the range of whiskies at Balmoral and which vintages of red bordeaux to invest in for the future, and had Simon Berry's proposed budget agreed by the decidedly Scottish Sir Alan, we are invited along the corridor to the Chinese Luncheon Room, where we sample remnants from the cellar. These may on occasion include a patriotically English sparkling wine, but by tradition the elegant printed menus are always in French, resulting in such delights as Selle d'Agneau de Windsor à l'Arlésienne and Chou de Printemps au Beurre.
The current Clerk of the Royal Cellars, Simon Berry, is exceptionally hospitable and his 17th-century premises in St James's Street are just a five-minute walk away through Green Park, so we tend to have a particularly good lunch at Berrys after all the tastings that are not followed by the AGM. Berry was appointed when his opposite number across the street at Justerinis, another royal warrant holder, retired and, provided he does not blot the royal copybook, he has the job for the duration of his professional life. But the appointment is to the monarch herself, not to the office. Prince Charles has his own wine advisor, Adam Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow, who is also a member of the RHWC.
At our tastings, conducted in complete silence until we each submit our list of favourites, Simon's chief role is to co-ordinate the scores and make concrete buying decisions based on them, within the constraints of, for example, having a good representation of what are known at the Palace as Commonwealth wines. At our recent tasting of reception wines, for example, he acknowledged the Royal Household staff's love of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by deciding to buy 40 cases of Villa Maria's from Waitrose, 30 cases of Justerinis' Pencarrow Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from Martinborough and 30 cases of an organic South African Chenin/Sauvignon blend from Tanners whose label turned out to be Running Duck. This was thought potentially too frivolous for Palace service until someone remembered that bottles were never seen at receptions, just glasses.
Our red-wine tasting was less successful because too many of the wines submitted, Michel and I agreed, were more suitable for drinking with than without food. All that Simon Berry felt able to order was 20 cases apiece of Berry Bros' rather rich Good Ordinary Claret, an old favourite that garnered more votes than most this time around too, and a Basio Tempranillo 2008 Rueda from north west Spain via Walker Wodehouse Wines, the successor to Bristol wine merchant John Harvey & Sons. The call is now going out for more submissions of soft, fruity, preferably Commonwealth reds gentle enough to sip at a stand-up reception while hoping for royal eye contact.
During my time, considerable savings have been made by serving only wine at receptions rather than offering spirits. Another innovation has been to add a handful of well-respected independent wine merchants to the royal warrant holders as potential suppliers. Thanks to its nearby Halkin Street store, supermarket Waitrose qualifies as a warrant holder and its wines do relatively well in these blind tastings. It may surprise many of those thrilled by a royal invitation that they may well be served a wine remarkably similar to the one they themselves slip into their supermarket trolleys.
Within budgetary constraints we are given a relatively free hand in our choices The finer wines tend to come from pretty classic regions, with their provenance mirroring popular taste. A few years ago the Palace, for example, found itself with an excess of unfashionable German wine which I, a lifelong Riesling fan, volunteered to take off her Majesty's hands. Needless to say, canny Sir Alan had the stocks valued by Christie's before drawing up my invoice, so my J J Prüms were not quite as much of a bargain as I was expecting. But, because of their provenance, they go down awfully well with visitors from abroad. And they did provide me once with an excuse to actually drive in, past the policemen, through the blessed North Centre Gate.