Wines bottled by the Belgian wine merchant Vandermeulen have achieved cult status among international collectors. They are a superb representation of the golden age of Belgian merchant bottlings, thanks to the status, quality and, importantly, their longevity. The continuity of the labels through the decades ensures that the merchant’s identity is immediately recognised. All the labels have the same design: the trademark coat of arms in the centre and a sparse but finely printed description, the elegance compromised by the curiously amateurish stamped vintages. This merchant is usually referred to as simply Vandermeulen rather than the more correct Vandermeulen-Decannière as mentioned on the labels.
Records show that the founder of the company, Jules Vandermeulen was born in 1865 and married Irma de Cannière (born 1869) in 1892. His initial and the two family names are around the seal on the bottle labels: “J. VANDERMEULEN – DECANNIERE”. The wine business began and remained in the seaside town of Ostend in West Belgium. One of the first mentions of the business is a bill dated the 2nd August 1907 from the merchant then named d’Haeyre-Vandermeulen selling fine groceries and wine, retail and wholesale from premises at 18 Marché aux Herbes, Ostend. The earliest Vandermeulen bottling that I have come across is a Château d’Yquem 1904, proof that the business was already bottling wine, from Bordeaux at least, at this time. A son, Georges Van der Meulen, was born in 1901.
By the Second World War, the business had moved to 19 Sint Jorisstraat, Ostend. The occupying German army plundered some their stock, which had been hidden behind a newly constructed wall. After the war, the business moved to much larger premises to accommodate the increasing number of barrels being purchased and a larger bottling line. This was in the outskirts of Ostend on the Thoroutsche Steenweg. Bottling continued until the late 1950s.
The principal reason the firm of Vandermeulen-de Cannière enjoys such renown today is due to the iconic wines and vintages that they bottled and sold: notable examples being a trio of fabulous Château Pétrus vintages, 1947, 1950 and 1952, the two greatest vintages of Château Cheval Blanc, 1921 and 1947 and Château Lafleur from 1947 and 1952.
While at Sotheby’s, I inspected and catalogued for auction many collections in West Flanders, Belgium, that had a high proportion of Vandermeulen bottled wines. Apart from Ostend and its environs, there were many cellars in Gent, Bruges, Kortrijk and Roeselare that contained a substantial range of Vandermeulen bottlings. It was not unusual for me to discover bins of Vandermeulen Pétrus, Lafleur and Cheval Blanc in 120 bottle quantities from each vintage, perfectly laid on wooden slats in their bin and undisturbed since delivery. Even though the initial price had nothing to do with today’s stratospheric prices, they were still expensive enough to buy and probably the reason why there remained so many of these great wines unconsumed in their owners’ cellars by the time my colleagues and I came by in the 1980s onwards. The fact that so many Vandermeulen bottled wines were being sold at Sotheby’s in London, direct from these Belgian cellars in the 1980s and 1990s meant that a new, international market was discovering and appreciating them. Also, the price difference between a Vandermeulen bottled and a château bottled Claret was, and still is, roughly half so it was logical that the cheaper Vandermeulen version was more often drunk and discussed. In 1992, for example, the auction hammer price in London for a bottle of Vandermeulen Pétrus 1947 would be selling for £400 as opposed to £1,200 for the château bottled version: a big saving.
How were the wines looked after by Vandermeulen and how were they bottled? The story is that Jules Vandermeulen and later his son, Georges Van der Meulen would personally select the individual barrels soon after the vintage in Bordeaux and Burgundy. These selected barrels would then be dispatched to Ostend for further maturing. This would have been a regular process followed by all the major Belgian merchants. It is hard to appreciate nowadays the amount of time and concentration required to taste and evaluate the same wine from a succession of individual barrels.
Others who purchased top châteaux in barrel were Maison M G Lafite in Brussels, Jacques Feys in Bruges (still in existence and now known as Jacques Feys-Michel Van Acker), Grafé Lecocq in Namur (still in existence), Van den Eynde Lamot in Antwerp and Pol Mairesse in Antwerp. I have seen their bottlings of Cheval Blanc and Pétrus from the 1947 vintage in various Belgian cellars but not in the same quantities as Vandermeulen examples. Unfortunately it is not presently known how many barrels were actually sold to Vandermeulen. More research is needed to discover any records of the transactions between this merchant and the wine producers.
The difference that I have noted when tasting Vandermeulen bottlings against château bottlings is that the Vandermeulen examples are usually more unctuous, have a deeper colour and are more tannic. I have been told by my friend, Bernard Vandendriessche, who is a wine merchant in Ostend and located many cellars for Sotheby’s, that the wine remained in barrel for longer, perhaps 36 months in total, and was fined with male ox blood. Also that an amount of port was introduced into the barrels before bottling commenced as a type of “liquer d’expédition”. This would explain the greater sweetness, and the perception of higher alcohol and deeper colour. The corks used by Vandermeulen were of top quality. The very good ullages in the bottles that I inspected and catalogued are proof of their corks’ integrity. The bottles containing red wines were mainly brown in colour, particularly for the post-Second World War vintages and typical of those manufactured in Belgium.
The clients of Vandermeulen were the professional classes, factory owners and the clergy. The reason there were so many cellars of fine wine in Belgium is that a “seed” collection of wine, including fine wine for ageing, formed part of the dowry when couples got married. The predominantly Catholic clergy also had excellent cellars of fine wine. These were passed down, in West Flanders at least, to surviving nephews or nieces. An invoice from Vandermeulen dated the 18th September 1952 to a certain Mr Dewaele in Klemskerke is for 10 bottles of Château La Conseillante 1947 totalling 700 Belgian Francs (approximately £4.90) and 10 bottles of Château Margaux 1947 totalling 800 Belgian Francs (approximately £5.60). A bottle of Château d’Yquem 1918 was thrown in for free! Remaining in context, three bottles of Vandermeulen Château La Conseillante 1947 have just been sold at auction for 950 euros at Sylvie’s in Belgium in January 2016. The same auctioneer estimates a bottle of Vandermeulen Château Margaux 1947 between 320 and 500 euros. The proportional value has remained virtually the same.
My sightings of Vandermeulen bottled wines are as follows:
Château Ausone 1952
Château Cheval Blanc 1921, 1947, 1949
Château La Conseillante 1947
Château La Mission Haut Brion 1928, 1955
Château Lafleur 1947, 1952
Château Margaux 1929, 1947
Château Pétrus 1947, 1949 (half bottle), 1950, 1952
Clos du Commandeur 1952
Château d’Yquem 1904, 1918, 1921
Château Climens 1918
Haut Barsac 1947
Haut Sauternes 1947
Chambertin 1926, 1947, 1955
Clos de Tart 1928, 1955
Clos Vougeot 1947
Gevrey Chambertin 1928, 1947, 1955
Hospices de Beaune, Cuvée Guigone de Salins 1947
Latricières Chambertin 1955
Meursault Charmes (Blanc) 1947
Nuits Saint Georges 1926
Pommard Clos du Verger 1952
Romanée Conti 1923, 1929
Vosne Romanée 1921, 1947, 1955
Muscat de Samos non-vintage. Interestingly, this has a very flamboyant label, departing from the simplicity of all the other Vandermeulen labels.
From this list, it is easy to see that the vintages that the company selected were all very successful, which explains why Vandermeulen bottlings are so popular. All the Burgundies, with the exception of the Clos de Tart monopoly, are generic so the Burgundy producers remain unknown. The labels give the name of the wine, the mentions “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” and “(CÔTE D’OR)”. The Bordeaux labels have about the same amount of information. For example, the Château La Mission Haut Brion reads “Gd Crû classé Médoc” The Château Margaux 1947 reads “1er Grand Cru Classé” The Château Pétrus is described as “Premier Grand Crû Pomerol” while the Château La Fleur (sic) is also “1er Grand Cru Pomerol”. I do not recall ever seeing any magnum or larger format bottles.
The Burgundy range is fairly comprehensive, more so than the Bordeaux where, apart from the Clos du Commandeur and the Haut Barsac and Haut Sauternes, there are no “village” wines. There are no apparent bottlings of anything in the 1930s until the 1947 vintage. The wines from the 1947 vintage onwards were bottled at the more grandiose premises at Thoroutsche Steenweg. The last bottlings took place in 1957.
With the exception of some of the oldest vintages, which have wax capsules, the capsules are metal and generic, some with grape motif, some without. The corks are dense and of good quality but unbranded. The coat of arms on the Vandermeulen labels represents the walled city of Ostend with the three keys to the three entrances. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ostend was fortified and was besieged by the Spanish from 1601 to 1603. The vintages are not printed but stamped on the label in blue ink. They are usually found on one of the bottom corners on the Bordeaux labels and are in various positions on the Burgundy labels. They risk being illegible as they can fade or even get obliterated on damp soiled labels, even if the print is still legible.
Regarding fake bottles, I have seen fake Vandermeulen Château d’Yquem, where a Vandermeulen label has been transposed onto a lesser Belgian bottled white Bordeaux. There is also controversy about the Romanée Conti 1923 and 1929 vintages, allegedly bottled by Vandermeulen. The credence of these bottlings is compromised because the Domaine has stated that they have no records of any wine in barrel being sold to Vandermeulen or any one else for these two vintages. Moreover, the oral tradition at the Domaine is that no sale of Romanée Conti in barrel was effected after 1911 at the latest. However, I recall seeing the 1923 and the 1929 in Belgian collections and which had been purchased directly from Vandermeulen. A bottle of each of these vintages from a Belgian cellar was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1999, with the caveat that the wine was only believed to be Romanée Conti. The authenticity of these bottles remains a mystery but it would appear that they were actually bottled and sold by Vandermeulen.
Vandermeulen-de Cannière is an important reference in the fine wine world. The original clients of this company cellared their wines in ideal conditions of natural low temperature for decades, which has been an invaluable contribution to the longevity and condition of these wines. Every fine wine enthusiast should taste at least one example of these bottlings in their lifetime.