The Claret Club

POSTED ON 02/06/2008

After me now:

Cabernet Sauvignon et Merlot,
Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux.
Expriment la saveur des grands châteaux,
Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux.

Imagine a Eurovision song contest, Bordeaux-style, and this might give you some of the flavour of the competition declared by the Grand Conseil de Bordeaux in 1966 to find an anthem in praise of Bordeaux wine. Members of claret clubs, or Commanderies, from around the world were encouraged to participate and Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux, was declared the winner at a colloque of the Grand Conseil de Bordeaux at Château de Roquetaillade on 25 June 1998 by the Grand Maître Jacques Hébrard. The composer Eric E. Vogt, Maître of Boston, was awarded his weight in Bordeaux wine and, generously, weighed in after dinner. Whether his prize was Mouton Rothschild or Mouton Cadet is not recorded.

Witnessing an assemblage of the male of the species prancing about in its red-robed, medallion-dangling pomp may not incline the uninitiated to get up in ceremonial garb to sing drinking songs and conduct arcane ceremonies. Indeed, not all Bordelais are amused. According to Le Pin’s Fiona Morrison MW: ‘The vast Commanderies publish self serving guides every year of portly, self important men with tastevins around their necks drinking copious quantities of Bordeaux in all four corners of the globe’. And yet like any club that brings together like-minded people from different walks of life, its many members have a shared passion in common, the club acting as a vehicle for sharing memorable bottles at tastings and dinners, while for the Bordelais, as Lynch-Bages’ Jean-Michel Cazes puts it, it’s about ‘standing up for and furthering the whole region’.

All Commanderies are claret clubs, but not all claret clubs are Commanderies. In the 19th century, Trinity Claret Club in Oxford ‘fined members for “talking bawd”, swearing, not passing the wine, leaving the table. 234 Penalties were exacted for breaches of decorum’. Today, there are many claret clubs dotted about the UK. Some are wine societies like the Chester Claret Club which meets monthly to taste, discuss and above all enjoy wine. Others are commercial operations like Avery’s Claret Club or the Claret Club at The Feathers at Woodstock whose wines are supplied by Bibendum.

The latest addition to the Claret Club ranks is a fine wining and dining club launched in London by a former engineer Denis Houles as a forum for high profile business people to dine with top château owners with wines sourced direct from the châteaux. Events this year will feature, among others, Pontet Canet, Angélus, Pichon Lalande, Margaux, Léoville Barton and Cos d’Estournel. Dinners typically focus on five or six wines from one property and menus are carefully rehearsed with top chefs. Claret Club membership costs £1,100 plus £1,800 for six dinner seats or £3,500 for 12 seats. Houles says that his aim is to have 25 percent women, ‘otherwise it ends up as an old boys’ network’. Latterly the Claret Club has launched in Geneva thanks to its ‘concentration of wealth, interest in fine wine and not much yet to serve this latent demand’.

The origins of the worldwide claret clubs known as Commanderies lay in the need to re-build a wine economy brought to its knees after the war. A Bordelais Magnificent Seven of Henri Martin, then President of the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux), Edouard Marjary, Jean Bouteiller, Roger Dourthe, Bertrand Clauzel, Jean Theil and Raymond Brard, decided that presenting a new image of Bordeaux to the outside world should be a top priority. The dynamic M. Martin pulled together 16 independently-minded associations of wine growers and traders into a single entity called the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB). In 1975, it became a non-profit organization under French law with the authority to represent all the appellations of the various Bordeaux wine-producing regions both in France and abroad.

The GCVB quickly grasped the value of the formation of Bordeaux clubs worldwide. It extended charters to Commanderies around the world with admission by nomination, and then vote of the chapter, followed by a formal induction ceremony. Under the overall patronage of the GCVB, today there’s a worldwide network of 68 Commanderies in 19 countries. Apart from Europe itself, there are outposts in America, Canada, Russia, Latvia, China, Malaysia and Japan. Members, or commandeurs, of the various chapters get together periodically for dinners called parlements and other events with the specific aim of enjoying, discussing and learning more about the wines of the various Bordeaux regions in their different vintages. In effect, the Commandeurs are local ambassadors for Bordeaux and its winemakers.

Medallion man, Bordeaux style, derives from the regalia of regional brotherhoods. A suitable medallion was created in the shape of a shield representing a very full glass of red Bordeaux. The fleur de lys in the top segment symbolises the bouquet of the wine, while the association’s letters are bordered by a crescent moon to remind members that the port of Bordeaux was once known as the Harbour of the Moon. The golden leopard, the emblem of the historic province of Aquitaine, derives from the marriage of the Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenet, who became King Henry II of England in 1154, kick-starting an 850-year on-and-off love affair between the English and claret. In fact Henri was abstemious, but his chaplain, Walter Mapes, nicknamed ‘the jovial archdeacon’, may well have composed the first Bordeaux drinking song:

Well, let me jovial in a tavern lie,
And bring to my expiring lips the bowl,
That choirs of angels, when they come, may cry,
God be propitious to the wine drinker’s soul.

In addition to medallion and robe-wearing, the Grand Master of each Bordeaux chapter wields a ceremonial scepter rather like the ornate mace once famously seized and waved dangerously around the House of commons by Michael Heseltine. Angus Smith, Grand Maître of the American Commanderie, recalls how he was once turned back by ‘the fearless airport security forces because my ceremonial sceptre was considered a potential offensive weapon’. As a result of modern security precautions, the ceremonial sceptre now has to be checked in it’s a specially made case. On one occasion, when it didn’t make it through airport security in time for the club’s dinner, Mr.Smith spontaneously grabbed a French hunting horn from its hook on the wall of the hotel. ‘It seemed to do the trick’, he recalls.

As an example of a European group, the Swiss chapter, or to give it its due, the Commanderie de la Suisse Alémanique, de la Principauté de Liechtenstein et du Tessin, under Grand Maître Christian Schmid, consists of about 100 members of which nine out of 10 are men. Charging CHF 500 (£245) to become a member and CHF 350 (£172) per year, the Commanderie holds regular dinners, charging CHF 150 (£74) and CHF 130 (£64) for women ‘because our women drink less’. Recent tastings include a Léoville Barton vertical, the 1989 vintage in the Médoc, the new classification in St. Emilion, a comparative tasting of Pavie-Macquin, Troplong Mondot and Canon la Gaffelière and a tasting of the merlots of Tessin and Pomerol.

It may come as a surprise to learn that one of the more professional and knowledgeable groups of Bordeaux imbibers resides in Puerto Rico. The club here is small in number with just 20 members, but it boasts more wine cases laying down in the cellar per member, 10 cases per head at the last count, than most other claret clubs. The Puerto Ricans are ultra-hospitable and consequently a favourite location for meetings of the Board of Governors of the American Commanderie de Bordeaux. Their most recent event culminated in a pig roast in the mountains, followed by dancing, with large amounts of serious Bordeaux consumed. Apparently, club members stay in training by meeting every Saturday morning at a private club, where, it is rumoured, they drink wines other than Bordeaux.

Further afield, in Asia, the Hong Kong Commanderie (which includes the China, Singapore and Jakarta chapters) under Grand Maître Vincent Cheung, has 120 members and organizes about 10 Bordeaux dinners a year, many attended either by a château owner, winemaker or one of their representatives. Every two years, they arrange a Cru Bourgeois Fair with 60-odd châteaux participating. Last year, they initiated a Saint Emilion Fair with 15 châteaux owners involved and this year sees, among other events, a Château Margaux tasting and dinner with Paul Pontallier and a Les 5 dinner with the respective owners of Smith Haut Lafitte, Pontet Canet, Gazin, Branaire Ducru and Canon La Gaffelière.

Despite Fiona Morrison’s opinion that Bordeaux clubs tend to be male-orientated affairs, Angus Smith says that his wife usually now joins him on his induction duties. It was not always thus. Early in his position as Grand Maître, he recalls being surprised when he and his wife were both invited to a stoutly male only chapter ‘which shall be nameless’, to learn that the invitation to his wife was a mistake and to be informed that she should avail herself of room service while he bonded with the alpha males and their clarets. ‘Needless to say that did not sit well and we broke the male only barrier that night’, says Mr.Smith. ‘Happily the chapter has a new Maître and is now co-ed’.

With tongue half in cheek perhaps, Canadian wine writer and sommelier Natalie McLean, notes that her Bordeaux group in Ottawa ‘has become so thoroughly modern that they include women’. She joined in 1999, and, perhaps to her disappointment, there were no secret handshakes or passwords, although she claims that she did ‘relish wearing a purple velvet cape that made her look like a cross between Marie Antoinette and Batwoman’. She recalls, as she raised her glass, that she felt like declaring something medieval, such as ‘I must get to the bell-tower before the eleventh hour’. Despite such concessions to modernity as the inclusion of women, the Ottawa chapter meeting ‘has a The Name of the Rose feel’, says Natalie, but she can handle it. Since the vast number of clarets in its cellar have doubled or tripled in price, the tastings are a bargain.

Presiding over 29 chapters and some 1100 members located in different cities around the U.S, the American section’s Grand Maître, Angus Smith, is justifiably proud of the fact that he is one of only three Grand Maîtres in the organization’s 51-year history. ‘It must be the excellence of the Bordeaux that we get to drink’. The size of the associations varies considerably across the country, from 20 in Providence, Rhode Island, to 165 in New York City. Most chapters now admit women and admission is on the basis of an interest in Bordeaux wine. Parlements are either black tie affairs starting with the loyal toasts to the Presidents of the US and France, to Thomas Jefferson (‘the first American connoisseur and our Grand Patron’) or more informal events in restaurants, bistros and private homes.

‘I have had some interesting experiences inducting new Commandeurs in exciting locations’, says Mr.Smith, ‘the floor of a night club in Las Vegas, what seemed to be a bar in a Southern city with some distracting young professional ladies in attendance, the very upbeat location of the staircase of the French Residency in Washington with the French Ambassador and a Supreme Court Justice present, and the Frick Museum, which we occupied for our 50th Anniversary celebrations last June’. At one event at which the guest of honour was May Eliane de Lencquesaing, when several vintages of her Pichon Lalande were being served, he was horrified to see someone producing a Pichon Baron in error. Though inwardly seething no doubt at this diplomatic faux-pas, ‘May was very gracious, and let me off the hook lightly’, he recalls.

Beyond Bordeaux, a host of networks, clubs, groups, societies and associations exists for the tasting and enjoyment of fine wines. The Confrérie du Sabre d’Or celebrates champagne, the Costa Blanca Wine Society Spanish wine, Sapros is a club for devotees of botrytis wines while Cellar Rats are lovers of Napa valley wines and Mates of Milawa willing participants in the joys of Australian wine. There’s a Kosher Wine Society, a Finger Lakes Wine Society, a Surabaya wine society, a Delhi Wine Club and an El Dorado Home Winemakers group which gathers to discuss the joys of home winemaking in El Dorado County, California. There’s only one Bordeaux club though: the unparalleled network that unites Bordeaux lovers worldwide in celebration of the world’s biggest fine wine region.

All together now:

Cabernet Sauvignon et Franc,
Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux.
Spare us from ever having to drink plonk,
Bordeaux, Toujours, Bordeaux.

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