American wine wins Commons vote

CALLAGHAN and Wilson were unable to order a glass. Even Margaret Thatcher, the architect of our "special relationship" with America, was banned from drinking it inside the House of Commons.

Now, breaking centuries of tradition - and risking a row with the great French chateaux - the House of Commons has lifted its ban on serving American and, controversially, Chilean wine.

MPs who returned from their summer holidays last week found Californian chardonnays and Chilean merlots added to dining room menus, alongside classic clarets and burgundy.

The rule stating that, for historical reasons, MPs could only drink western European and Commonwealth wines while dining in Parliament has been relaxed, after lobbying from frustrated Commons caterers, who wanted to serve US wines with their new "international" menus. Recently, parliamentary chefs have added nouvelle cuisine to stodgy British dishes.

Not since the late Robert Maxwell sold off the contents of the House of Commons cellar at knock-down prices, while he was the MP in charge of catering, has the wine list caused such a stir at the Palace of Westminster. The arrest of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, last week and the protests from his country have added a political dimension to the seemingly superficial move.

"It depends what they taste like, of course, and I'm not convinced by Chilean wine," said one Tory MP. "But I don't see why we have to make these changes just to seem trendy."

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat youth spokesman, said: "The days of scrumpy and meat and two veg went ages ago. It's about time the wine list caught up with the fairly cosmopolitan menu we see now."

The new list includes vintages for all pockets. The wines range from a relatively modest pounds 7.20 to more than pounds 15. MPs can drink a Californian Wente Estate Chardonnay (pounds 9.35) described as "an elegant and stylish Chardonnay with a sweet buttery flavour, ripe refreshing acidity and a light toasty finish reflecting its origins in the Monterey and Livermore Valleys"; a Canepa Sauvignon Blanc 1997 from Chile (pounds 7.20); and a Fetzer Barrel Selected Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 from California priced at pounds 15.10.

The wines have been supplied by local shops, which are also bidding to restock the Commons cellar. It is the first time in 10 years the European list has been revamped.

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