Friday 11th January 2019 – lunch at Vintners’ Hall with the great and the good of the world of wine.

Having stayed over in town post opera, your man spent a leisurely morning in and around Covent Garden. Breakfast at Carluccio’s, Garrick Street W1. Good O.J., coffee, croissant. Slow service. Then took the tube to Mansion House, strolled down Garlick Hill, past the Wren Church of St. James Garlickhythe, built from 1676 to 1717 when its steeple was completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in a more ornate baroque style. Hawksmoor, having been trained by Wren, later worked with Sir John Vanbrugh on Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace and this steeple would not look out of place atop such a structure. Why “Garlickhythe”? This was near the quay where, from the middle-ages on, garlic (and wine) were landed by the Gascon merchants from south-western France (which, for some of the time had the same rulers as England).

From this historical reverie I was brought back suddenly to the twenty-first century by the need to cross the noisy and noxious thoroughfare that is Upper Thames Street, and was pleased to find sanctuary in the entrance vestibule of Vintners’ Hall where I was to attend a lunch as the guest of the “bearded Swan Warden” of the Vintners (see M.A.E. post 24/10/18) – though he tells me he is no longer Swan Warden but has been promoted to an even more august (but less splendidly named) position. The “swan” connection is because the Vintners’ Company is one of only three owners of swans on the Thames (along with H.M. the Queen and the Dyers’ Company) Each year the Vintners take part in the “Swan Upping” ceremony marking the swans owned by the Company. The Worshipful Company of Vintners, owners of Vintners’ Hall, is one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London. These were effectively guilds set up in the middle-ages to look after the members of the different trades (other examples include the Drapers, Haberdashers, Fishmongers, and Goldsmiths) and often also had legal rights and responsibilities relating to the carrying out of their trade in the City of London. The Vintners received their Royal Charter in 1364 and had a monopoly over wine imports from Gascony – essentially the Bordeaux region in present day wine terms. Up until 2006 liverymen of the company had the right to sell wine in certain areas, e.g. in the City of London and along the Great North Road, without a licence.

Vintners Hall dates from the late seventeenth century like St. James Garlickhythe, as both had to be rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666. Its architect was Captain John Caine. Some of the original exterior has been removed to make way for the widening, at various times, of Upper Thames Street, but much of the interior (albeit restored after wartime bomb damage) dates from the 1670s, including the wonderful 17 metre long Hall where we were to lunch, which has splendid panelling by John Symes.

The lunch itself was not under the auspices of the Vintners’ but was for a charity called the Benevolent (www.thebenevolent.org.uk) which supports members of the UK drinks industry facing serious medical or financial hardship. However the Vintners’ Company have been involved in the charity since its beginnings, hosting its first general meeting in 1886. Those local to Eastbourne may remember the Vintry Care Home in Farlaine Road which was run by the Benevolent until it was closed in 2013.

The lunch began with a delicious glass of Pol Roger Champagne (91 points - always a treat) served in first floor Drawing Room, which contains many interesting artefacts including a fine collection of enamel and porcelain wine labels. We then went down to the Hall for lunch. As you might expect in these surroundings the wines were of a very high quality. We began with chicken liver parfait. Its richness was perfectly complemented by a 2012 Meursault Jean-Philippe Fichet (91 points) – not a grower I know well, though I note I had sampled three of his 2017 wines with approval earlier in the week at the Berry Brothers’ tasting (see M.A.E. post 8/1/19). He gets a star and the accolade of “a very good address” in Clive Coates’ seminal The Wines of Burgundy. This was the perfect mature village wine and very Meursault. Still fresh, more than six years after the vintage, exhibiting lemon and a touch of oak. We followed this with perfectly cooked aged beef fillet – still pink in the centre. And claret of course – what else on the quay where those Gascon merchants landed their wines all those centuries ago? And a rather special claret: Chateau Pontet-Canet 2002 (93 points). Pontet-Canet, a neighbour of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, was only placed among the fifth growths when the wines of the Medoc were classified back in 1855, but has long had a strong following in Britain. However in the present century it has begun to transcend its relatively lowly status due to great efforts by owner Alfred Tesseron in both the vineyard and the cellar, receiving the maximum 100 points from American wine critic Robert Parker for its 2009 and 2010 vintages. 2002 was not on the level of those great years but nevertheless the chateau produced a fine wine, still quite dark in colour with spice and blackcurrants on the nose, and a satisfying balance between fruit and tannin on the palate.

With amaretto cheesecake, a little sweet for my taste, another Bordeaux wine: Chateau Doisy-Vedrines 2010, a Sauternes from a good year (90 points on this occasion). I’m not sure why (perhaps the pairing with the dessert) but the wine didn’t “sing” for me. It seemed a little one dimensional (i.e. lacking complexity). Perhaps it needed a little more ageing to show its class. We finished with coffee and delicious swan shaped chocolates, plus a lightly chilled ten year old tawny port, Quinta de la Rosa Tonel No. 12. (90 points) for the toasts, served in dinky little 50cl clear glass bottles. It was light (in a good way) perfumed and a touch nutty on the palate, the perfect way to round off an extremely enjoyable lunch.

Those attending were then invited by Chris Porter, CEO of the Benevolent to repair to a local hostelry, Messrs. Nicholson’s The Sugar Loaf in Cannon Street, for a pint of English beer, to refresh us after all those French (and one Portuguese) wines. My host and I duly sampled St.Austell Brewery’s excellent Tribute Ale (nicely hoppy)* before I headed off to Victoria and the Eastbourne train. A fine occasion in a good cause. Thanks to the B.S.W.

*Memo to self to try their wonderfully named Proper Job IPA when I see it.

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