Britain's government sells French wine to pay its drinks bill

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s government is selling vintage French wine at around 5,000 pounds a bottle in a bid to make its wine cellar self-funding as part of a national austerity drive and clamp-down on extravagant expenditure.

The government wine cellar, located in the basement of Lancaster House near Buckingham Palace, is used to provide wine for foreign VIP guests ranging from royalty to heads of state and prime ministers at 200 or more events a year.

The cellar contains 38,090 bottles of wine and spirits with an estimated market value of 2.95 million pounds, according to an annual report on the cellar released last month.

But figures show that a government review from 2010 recommending the cellar become self-funding rather than a drain on taxpayers had not worked out with sales of 44,000 pounds last year but purchases of about 49,000 pounds.

Auction house Christie’s said the government was selling six lots of wine, a total of 54 bottles, on March 21 with the sale expected to raise up to 65,000 pounds.

A spokeswoman said this was “the first time that wine from the Government Hospitality Cellar has gone to auction” with previous sales conducted privately.

“This is part of the process for making the cellar self-funding for the lifetime of the current parliament,” said a statement from Mark Simmonds, a junior minister in Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Austerity has been the watchword for finance minister George Osborne since his Conservative-led coalition came to power in 2010 but last week Britain suffered its first ever sovereign ratings downgrade when Moody’s cut its rating to Aa1 from Aaa, citing weak prospects for British economic growth.

Christie’s said six bottles of the highly sought after 1961 vintage of Chateau Latour were leading the auction, with each of these estimated to raise up to 5,000 pounds a bottle.

The sale also includes six bottles of 1978 Petrus and cases of 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and 1988 Lafite Rothschild.

“Many of the wines included in this sale have been served across the decades to kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers,” the Christie’s spokeswoman said.

The sale comes at a time when affluent drinkers in China and the United States are spending more on expensive wines with growing demand for better quality vintages, according to a study released at the Vinexpo wine trade show in January.

China has become the biggest importer of Bordeaux wines with consumption soaring by 110 percent in 2011.

The government wine cellar was set up in 1922 to provide hospitality for high-level overseas government guests.

Christie’s said the cellar was an “exemplar of professional cellar management”, with wines bought young and held in ideal conditions until fully mature and ready to drink.

The wines are bought on the recommendation of a committee that is made up of five people who select on blind tastings.

Details in the annual statement on the government wine cellar for 2011-12 showed that 4,651 bottles worth 55,679 pounds were drunk from the store between April 2011 and March 2012.

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, editing by Paul Casciato