Thu, May 08, 2003 - Page 7 News List

French give Blair bottles of Bordeaux for birthday

MENDING FENCES The British prime minster received the vintage wine from President Jacques Chirac but some people are questioning the gift's value


French President Jacques Chirac seized the opportunity provided yesterday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's 50th birthday to try to make peace with the prime minister after their diplomatic quarrel over the war in Iraq.

But Chirac's choice of birthday present, six bottles of Chateau Mouton Rothschild '89 (plus a crystal decanter), sparked a fresh Anglo-French disagreement over its quality.

Harsh words such as "wine snobbery" and "impressionable palates" were being muttered.

Chirac, who received a Churchill fountain pen from Blair on his 70th birthday last year, sent a diplomatic note, albeit one with what may have been an oblique reference to his weakness for continental holiday freebies.

"Knowing how much you like spending time in France, I have the pleasure of offering you a present that illustrates the quality of regional products in our nation, which you know so well," he said.

"I add the expression of personal esteem and my loyal friendship. Looking forward to seeing you in Evian" -- the French town where the G8 summit will be held next month -- he said.

Under British government rules that limits free ministerial gifts to ?140, six bottles of vintage wallop retailing at ?195 each also saddled Blair with a ?1,000 bill if he wants to drink the stuff, now or in 20 years when it peaks.

Whether Blair still expects to be prime minister in 2023 was one of many birthday details Downing Street officials were not keen to discuss during what they ensured was a hectic working day for their boss -- in London, Dublin and back again in time for a private family dinner.

But claret has been France's most enduring cross-Channel export since Bordeaux destroyed the English wine industry (temporarily as it turns out) in the Middle Ages -- long before champagne was even invented. The experts all have views.

Bettane and Desseauve, one of France's most trusted wine guides, gives two stars out of a possible three for Mouton Rothschild.

But what do they know? Michael Broadbent, doyen of all British wine tasters, insists that the 1989 Bordeaux vintage was "unquestionably a great vintage and one which brought the decade to a resounding close".

Tuesday night No 10 said the wine had not yet arrived -- like the French vote on the second UN resolution.

Blair struck a resolutely diffident pose, telling a media lunch that his face had been used to advertise Sanatogen vitamins -- but that at least it was not Viagra.

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