At a restaurant, a major attraction for me is the wine list. I read it the way some people immerse themselves in Facebook, detective fiction or food blogs. And in France, where the word ‘food’ cannot be mentioned without ‘wine’, it is always of particular interest.
In France when it comes to wine, provenance is of vital importance. French wines dominate their wine lists in restaurants, and rightly so. Support your own, I say. (Ditto Italy, where Tuscan wines dominate most Tuscan restaurant wine lists, and so on.) It’s mostly in the more ‘starry’ restaurants that you usually get a mix of different wines from different countries, and that also makes for exciting reading and some phenomenal pairings with food.
Back to France.
On my last trip, I discovered a little jewel of a wine cellar-store. De Vinis Illustribus would probably be known only to the connoisseurs and treasure seekers of French wine: it is off the beaten track in the 5th arrondissement in an old, lovingly restored multi-levelled wine cellar. And its owner, Lionel Michelin (no relation to the stars) is a walking encyclopaedia on all wines French. (The name, which means “about famous wines” pretty well sums it all up.)
I was scheduled to attend an hour-long private tasting at his cellar one afternoon, but by the end of it, one hour stretched to almost three and we were firm friends. His wife, the very affable and hospitable Dominique, plied us with a deliciously nutty rare 2 year old artisanal Comté cheese which proved spot-on with the wines we tasted. Once Lionel figured out my interest in French wine regions, he opened up a few special bottles for me to taste. Among them, one was especially memorable not as a big name but an unusual one: a Domaine Isabel Ferrando Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvée Colombis 2011– a special pure Grenache cuvée which retails for €110 – if you can find a bottle. A very small batch (no more than 500 cases made per vintage) by a rarity in the Rhône – a female winemaker, once a banker, who stepped into winemaking on a whim and soon started beating the big names of the region at their game. Michelin, with his finger on the French wine pulse was quick to pick up a special allocation for his store which has since completely sold out. The wine we tasted was deep, dense, red berry-luscious and just growing up into a gorgeous stunner of a CDP. That made my day.
Michelin was full of delightful gems of wine wisdom, and a walking reference book for every French region, vintage and brand. On winemaking on special years: “Wine is all a question of taste,” he said, “Wine is made of grapes, and grapes are fruit. So why make a wine if the fruit isn’t good? Technology might improve bad vintages, but cannot make them. You still need good grapes, soil, a good vintner – it’s always about a combination of these elements.” Common sense, pithily put.
While I was there, a Brazilian wine collector came in to pick up some special vintages of Bordeaux – four bottles packed in a carrier more complicated than a jewellery box for the crown jewels – which he was flying back home with. I held back from asking about the vintages or prices. Later, as I stepped downstairs into his cellar, it was a feast for the eyes. Shelves and racks of vintage Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, cobwebbed and dusty, lay breathing quietly in dim lighting. In a corner, was another wine rack with amber-hued vintage Sauternes. Old ports, cognacs and Armagnac in their wooden boxes dotted the shelves.
Nibbling on the cheese (“milk products enhance the taste of tannins in wine.”) and sipping the wine at the tasting table, we chatted on until I almost missed my next appointment. Michelin not only sells vintage wines, but also a small but exclusive range of affordable sub €50 handpicked releases from different French regions, after carefully studying the vintages and speaking with the winemakers – that’s worth a trip back for. The Michelins also organize exclusive curated lunches and dinners at their cellar for a small number of clients by prior booking – birthdays and celebrations where vintages are matched opened to celebrate those big days. “We don’t open a bottle of wine at 4pm like they do in the New World,” he said, “In France, we drink wine when we eat, and every part of the meal is important to enhance the wine’s pleasure: salt, sugar, bitterness, acidity.”
De Vinis Illustribus, 48 Rue de la Montagne – Sainte Genevieve, 75005 Paris
Phone : +33(0) 1 43 36 12 12 (tastings by appointment only)
NB: Positive news of the wine kind in the papers today for a change – this year’s Prosecco harvest will be the biggest ever, they say, so good news for bubbly lovers. And the Elysée Palace has refused to compromise in hosting a non-wine dinner for a teetotalling country’s head of state who insisted on it. Let political chips fall where they may; it’s our culture and we will stick with it, they said.
I must applaud.