The Royal family are not great wine lapperoos, but they certainly do their fair share of entertaining spread over their four main residences, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Sandringham. All wines served for lunch or dinner are carefully selected by the Royal Household Wine Committee, of which I was part for nigh on 20 years.
In turn, all the wines proposed must come from one of the half-dozen wine merchants entrusted with a Royal Warrant. The most traditional of these being Berry Brothers and Corney & Barrow; the most recent being Lea & Sandeman. The main wine stocks are held in Buckingham Palace’s generous underground cellars, where the regular wine tastings, always blind, take place.
Tradition runs deep. When I was elected in 1986, there were absolutely no French, apart from a handful of Alsace and dry white wines (such as white burgundy) in stock, but there were over 40 hocks and Moselles listed. The long arm of Prince Albert prevailed. It took many years for Her Majesty to be persuaded that France did produce some quite decent white wines.
There was, and is, still the running debate as to whether Her Majesty should serve first growth clarets to her first-class guests. On the one hand, she should serve the best to the best; on the other, should she do so, the nice broadcast media would have a field day about ‘our money’.
Nevertheless, diplomacy is never far away from decisions taken during heads of state visits. President Xi, during his 2015 visit, made it clear that he would like ‘a better wine’ than his predecessor was served. He was duly upgraded from deuxième cru classé (second growth) to premier (a first growth!) Bordeaux.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the wine committee would be requested to enter BP by the back entrance in Buckingham Gate. We were tradesman after all, even though a few of us held high rank as chairmen of Royal Warrant-holding companies. By the turn of the century, we were welcomed at the Privy Purse entrance and Christian names flowed as freely as did the wines at our annual lunches following our AGM. These splendidly convivial lunches were usually held in the Billiard Room or Chinese Room on the first floor.
The committee is presided over by the Keeper of the Privy Purse. The Master, or Deputy Master, of the Royal Household is usually in attendance. The Clerk, always from one of the Royal Warrant holders, is in charge of the budget and organizes the wine tastings. The Yeoman does all the work.
A typical day’s wine tasting might include five wines for receptions, 10 Loire wines from Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre and 12 red burgundies.
Each of the six members of the committee will evaluate the wines blind and in silence. Each individual will then present, in hushed tones so that the others cannot hear and be influenced, his or her first selections to the clerk who will then tot up the scores. The winning wines will then be bought for the Royal cellar. Simple really, but it helps if your score kind of matches the others and is not way out of kilter.
I could go into all the rather bizarre vinous presents that are given, the discussions on possible non-renewals of Royal Warrants of Appointment, or my proposal to sell own-label wines in the Buckingham Palace shop, but I will desist.
Instead, please join me in raising a glass or three to Her Majesty during her richly deserved Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
Vintners’ Scholar Ben Howkins has been involved with wine all his life. A former member of the Royal Household Wine Committee and a WSET trustee, he has a deep knowledge of port and sherry built up over many years, and writes about his favourite wines with a lively enthusiasm tinged with humour.