Châteauny Blair: Labour's staggering £1m wine bill

It's one of the Government's most closely guarded secrets. But we can reveal the contents of the fabled Whitehall cellar. By Marie Woolf and Raymond Whitaker

Today, however, The Independent on Sunday is in a position to lift a corner of this shroud of secrecy. Since Tony Blair took office in 1997, we can reveal, New Labour has spent almost £1m of taxpayers' money on replenishing the supplies cellared under Lancaster House.

At any time there are 37,000 to 39,000 bottles tucked away in the official wine stock, including 180 different clarets. But oenophiles eager to know more have been rebuffed: because its holdings are so extensive, the Government claims, that revealing exactly what it has, and how much, could disrupt the entire market for fine wines.

Yet along with the urge to remain discreet, the authorities cannot resist boasting about some of their coups, such as a 1961 Château Margaux acquired for £3 a bottle. Each is now worth £1,000 a time. How many bottles do they have? "It's not something we are prepared to discuss," said a spokesman.

Although the wine store is the responsibility of the Foreign Office, giving rise to all those jibes about diplomats spoiling their guests with the finest vintages as well as the Ferrero-Rocher chocolates, it is used for hospitality across government, which entertains some 30,000 guests at more than 300 events a year. Robert Alexander, the head of government hospitality, is advised by a committee of four Masters of Wine, who hold blind tastings. The aim is to select young, cheap wines, then store them until they are ready to drink (and worth considerably more). Their budget is about £3.50 a bottle; since the Government hospitality wine cellar laid down wine worth £95,264 this year, one might guess that Mr Alexander bought nearly 30,000 bottles. But that is another official secret.

"The champagne corks have certainly been popping in government departments since Labour came to power," sniffed Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP for Lewes, whose parliamentary question last week revealed official expenditure of £850,000 on wine since 1997, with the £1m mark likely to be reached by next year.That is only a fraction of the overall hospitality budget.

Looking at the information made available, the IoS wine critic, Richard Ehrlich, commented: "I can say one thing with certainty: some of their parties will be a lot more fun than others. This is a two-tier list, with some bottles of profound grandeur and others that are merely sound and pleasant. For a chance to drink those in the first category, I'd sell a kidney. But the Government will be saving them for high-level boozing and schmoozing. Much as I would love to give the Government a good kicking, though, I have to say they have spent their money well in this instance."

The Government's hospitality cellar supplies everything up to dinners at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence, where, another recent parliamentary question revealed, guests since May 2005 have included Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy and film director Anthony Minghella. They, along with senior foreign dignitaries who need impressing, would presumably be served the '61 Château Latour or similar. Slightly below this exalted level, the store is strong on English wines, which Ehrlich called "right and proper", adding that "all the producers are good ones": Denbies, Chapel Down, Camel Valley, Ridgeview, Three Choirs.

Ordinary taxpayers at some local government do, however, might find themselves drinking Domaine de Planterieu, a Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Ehrlich's verdict: "This utterly inoffensive white has graced many a metropolitan drinks party, including some of mine."

One Whitehall insider put it in context, saying: "It's the sort of wine we'd serve to journalists."

EXPERT'S VERDICT

CHATEAU LATOUR 1961

One of the greatest vintages of the last century, and Latour was especially successful that year. You'd pay around £1,500 a bottle for it.

CHATEAU MARGAUX 1961

Worth about a grand - less than the Latour, but since the Government paid only £3 a bottle, they're probably not complaining.

CHATEAU PÉTRUS

No vintage specified, not that it matters much: this wine is always hilariously expensive, around £500 to £2,500, depending on vintage.

DOMAINE DE PLANTERIEU

Perfectly sound if thoroughly unexciting vin de pays with 11 per cent alcohol, about £4 at your local Waitrose.

THREE CHOIRS

A good English producer, like the others on the list. But we don't know what they bought from each.

Richard Ehrlich

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