Isabelle Legeron, who writes about her favourite topic, natural wine elsewhere in this issue (“Pure pleasure: the natural wine bar scene”), is a rarity: a French Master of Wine. It is not surprising there are so few of them because to pass the notoriously stiff exams, you have to have an intimate acquaintance with the wines of the world. And even in a city as cosmopolitan as Paris, it is difficult to find non-French wine. French wine is, of course, awfully good and it is not a hardship to be condemned to drink it to the exclusion of all else. But I for one am delighted to be able to sample more widely from my base in London (where Legeron lives too).
I spent an intensive weekend earlier this month researching Paris’s most interesting wine shops, or cavistes, and by far the busiest of them was a new one on the edge of the Marais that sells not a bottle of French wine. Instead, Soif d’Ailleurs (French for wanderlust) offers wines from Syria, Croatia, Washington state, New Zealand, even England. Owner Mathieu Wehrung used to work for Europcar and enjoyed a wide range of wines on his extensive travels but felt frustrated on returning to France at how difficult it was to find a caviste who ventured further than the blessed hexagone.
On being made redundant, he spent two years raising the finance for and designing a stylish space that doubles as a corporate event space with a wine bent. While I visited, a couple who lived nearby were sent, delighted, on their way with a bottle of his bestseller, the Miolo Brazilian sparkling wine made in the image of champagne and priced at €11. Wehrung was not slow to point out that, unusually, it was also available at Paris’s two established wine retail chains, Nicolas and Repaire de Bacchus, but at €13.90 and €14.90 respectively. (A new chain, NYSA, looks modern and may have keener prices.) I hope he prospers, although he is already on his second sommelier in charge of wine selection. The new one has worked in the UK and Australia.
Tim Johnston’s Juveniles wine bar has been offering hand-picked bottles from outside France since it opened in 1987 – particularly from Spain and, currently, the southern hemisphere. But the other Parisian wine retailer that most obviously takes imported wine seriously is Lavinia, a French-owned, lavishly decorated three-floor department store that had branches in Barcelona and Madrid before opening near the Madeleine. The owners acquired the venerable Caves Augé to solidify their allocation status with the most sought-after producers in France, particularly fashionable burgundy, whose supply is so finite that prices have been soaring.
Whereas Juveniles is primarily a wine bar and an increasingly serious restaurant, Lavinia also serves food, like an increasing proportion of cavistes in the capital. Indeed the lines between on and off sales continue to blur, with many of the mushrooming natural wine bars hoping to sell wines by the bottle to take away too. The granddaddy of all Parisian wine retailers, Legrand Filles et Fils, near the Banque de France, opened a chic wine bar back in 2002 and this is still a great place to drink fine wine from all over the world by the glass with the cheese and charcuterie that have become de rigueur.
At L’Ambassade de Bourgogne, a smart wine shop near the Odéon, so important is the business of serving food and wine, specifically burgundy, in the evening that they remain open (every day except Christmas Day) until midnight and, like Soif d’Ailleurs, encourage corporate events. Owner Philippe Séré says that when he opened as a burgundy specialist three years ago he was assured by other cavistes that this was commercial suicide, and that the Burgundians were obnoxious. Having spent a lot of time in Beaune, he thought otherwise and now has a flourishing business. Only half his customers are French. His wife is Japanese and he is as likely to ship wine to Japan or Brazil as to an address in Paris.
But like everyone else, he has had to seek out newer, cheaper sources of burgundy to supplement the famous names. He is especially keen on the Hautes Côtes in general and Julien Cruchandeau of Chaux and the older vintages available from Château de Villars Fontaine in particular.
Another burgundy specialist is the altogether more traditional Caprices de l’Instant by the Bastille, which may be the retailer with the world’s best stocks of mature top-quality burgundy. This slightly dusty shop has just been sold by its old owner, the renowned Raphaël Gimenez, so things may change. But the current staff – who, like so many Paris cavistes, are open on Sundays but not Mondays, when all the trade tastings take place – swear there will be no website. (They are concerned that their precious old vintages will be flipped.)
This antipathy to online retailing is shared by Francis Bessettes, whose Cave du Château in the eastern suburb of Vincennes is the epitome of a local fine-wine store. We visited on a Sunday morning and he was almost too busy to speak. Customers included a posse of central Parisian Japanese restaurateurs hoovering up some Roulot white burgundy.
I wondered whether his business was affected by the Foires aux Vins held and widely publicised every September, during which wine is offered at heavily discounted prices in French supermarkets. He assured me somewhat dismissively that this is a phenomenon that affects bordeaux much more than any other wine – and few of the cavistes I visited seemed to take bordeaux particularly seriously.
Les Caves Taillevent, La Grande Epicerie and La Cave à Millésimes are all rather smart places with a decent selection (very decent in the case of the wine shop run by the restaurant Taillevent). But if I lived alone in Paris I would probably head for Juan Sanchez’s La Dernière Goutte on the Left Bank. It has the cosy air of a friendly club built around wine, open seven days a week with free tastings on Friday and Saturday, conducted in English as well as French. It was, incidentally, the only wine shop I visited where I was offered a taste.
Some superior cavistes
Listed by ascending arrondissement
47 rue de Richelieu, 1st arrondissement; +33 1 42 97 46 49
3-5 boulevard de la Madeleine, 1st; lavinia.fr
Legrand Filles et Fils
1 rue de la Banque, 2nd; caves-legrand.com
38 rue Pastourelle, 3rd; soifdailleurs.com
Les Caprices de l’Instant
12 rue Jacques Cœur, 4th; +33 1 42 72 96 18
Les Caves du Panthéon
174 rue Saint Jacques, 5th; +33 1 46 33 90 35
Ambassade de Bourgogne
6 rue de l’Odéon, 6th; ambassadedebourgogne.com
La Dernière Goutte
6 rue de Bourbon le Château, 6th; ladernieregoutte.net
La Grande Epicerie
38 rue de Sèvres, 7th; lagrandeepicerie.com
116 boulevard Haussmann, 8th; cavesauge.com
228 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 8th; taillevent.com/les-caves-de-taillevent-boutique
La Cave à Millésimes
180 rue Lecourbe, 15th; cave-millesimes.fr
More details at JancisRobinson.com
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