A word of advice for any serious wine lover contemplating treating a not-so-wine-loving spouse to a meal at La Tour d’Argent in Paris: don’t. Not if you want to stay married. Sure, the views from the sixth-floor dining room over the Seine are among the city’s most romantic, and its historic pedigree and antique duck press are famed the world over (not to mention new chef Philippe Labbé’s valiant efforts in returning this slightly shabby institution to past gastronomic glories). No, this advice is based on La Tour d’Argent’s Le Grand Livre du Vin — a wine list of such dimensions it wouldn’t look out of place propping up a prehistoric stone circle — and the blazing domestic that neglecting your husband, wife, lover or mistress will incite while reading it.
For a Francophile, Le Grand Livre du Vin is the mother lode of vinous delights and, without doubt, the wine list I’d most like to take to the proverbial desert island. Even describing it as a “wine list” is an understatement of epic proportions — like calling the Mongol conquests “antisocial behaviour”. But while it offers more vintages of the world’s best wines in pristine condition than any other restaurant, many gems are a fraction of their market value. Having time to find them with an enthusiastic co-imbiber is one of life’s great pleasures, guaranteed to make you feel like children waiting to see what Santa will bring at Christmas (on my last visit, a mind-bending 1996 Coche-Dury Meursault Les Rougeots and a 1990 Chinon Clos de la Diotorie from retired Loire genius Charles Joguet).
Today, when anyone can instantly access a bottle’s average retail cost through websites such as Winesearcher.com, sharp pricing is what elevates a wine list from the serviceable to the get-your-drinking-boots-on fantastic. Apart from the very rich or generous-expenses endowed, why would anyone accept many restaurants’ unscrupulous profit margins of more than 75 per cent across all price points (typically, a bottle that costs the restaurant £50 ex VAT is sold for £240 inc VAT) even if it has got starched-white tablecloths and a nice selection of mature Barolo?
“The best lists not only have a comprehensive list of rare and collectable wines, but are loaded with value,” says renowned Californian winemaker and sommelier Raj Parr, a man with magnums of experience both building and demolishing restaurant cellars. “La Tour d’Argent is among the world’s best, but there are other restaurants that have all the collectable wines priced well and many other ‘under the radar’ bottles. My favourites include Rekondo in San Sebastián, which has to be the greatest Spanish selection in the world, Bern’s Steak House in Florida and Maison Troisgros in Roanne, where you can still drink Henri Jayer for a relatively good price.” However, says Parr, a wine list doesn’t need to be big to be great, citing New York’s Pasquale Jones as an example of a smaller list “loaded with value while being focused on the best producers”.
When we set about building our wine list at Noble Rot restaurant, there were several non-negotiable factors. Aside from benevolent margins on more prestigious fine wines, it’s just as important to offer a delicious selection from £20 to £30 for non-wine geeks, something that’s easier now than at any time in history given the upturn in quality everywhere. Diversity in style and ethos gives a list more character, while prejudices and generalisations about things like no sulphur additions or certified organics should be ignored for the merits of specific domaines. Other essentials include regular updates to ensure all bottles are available to buy (sadly, often not the case in many places across France); knowledgeable and helpful wine service (ditto); and ready-to-drink mature vintages — not just recent releases of Grand Vins that warrant decades of slumber to fulfil their potential. Obviously, this takes considerable resources on the part of the restaurateur — unless, like at La Tour d’Argent, he or she has been buying direct from domaine allocations for the past few centuries. Sourcing from a reputable merchant or auction house is another way to offer these wines; purchasing from private cellars — where you can see the conditions they have been stored in — is by far our preferred route.
So, what other restaurant lists around Europe would I recommend? In London, Andrew Edmunds, whose eponymous Lexington Street establishment has long been a Soho favourite, and Nigel Platts-Martin, who co-owns the estimable Chez Bruce, The Ledbury, La Trompette and The Glasshouse exemplify the time-honoured tradition of buying wines on release and cellaring until à point before adding kindly margins. For burgundy fans, Platts-Martin’s lists offer copious vintages of Domaine François Raveneau’s coveted Chablis (The Ledbury currently has 2007 Grand Cru “Valmur” at £275, more than £60 below the cheapest UK retail price), while Edmunds has unadvertised stocks of Coche-Dury Meursault sometimes available on polite request.
Further afield, in the ancient Sicilian town of Ragusa, the Michelin-starred Duomo is worth a special journey for the wine alone, featuring cult stars such as Emidio Pepe, Valentini and Houillon-Overnoy next to even harder-to-find rarities such as 100-year-old Marco De Bartoli Marsala. Northwards, high among the Dolomites, Hotel Ciasa Salares has both breathtaking views and verticals of some of Italy’s leading estates (including Quintarelli, Gaja, and pre-amphora Gravner) alongside an impressive selection of mature German and French classics. This is the place to get snowed in among the mountains.
Over in northern Spain, Elkano and Kaia-Kaipe, in the fishing port of Getaria, have a fabulous shared cellar of 40,000+ bottles while, apart from Rekondo’s magnificent stash of rioja, San Sebastián’s Ganbara is an outstanding pintxos bar for wine lovers. Reserve a table in the basement restaurant-cum-drinking den to feast on Basque delicacies such as percebes (goose barnacles) and angulas (baby eels) with a who’s who of cult artisanal wines.
Au Fil du Zinc in Chablis is another Noble Rot favourite although, like many places with extraordinary value wines, prices have risen as its popularity has grown. Indeed, it sometimes seems like there’s a parallel universe of obscure restaurants in rural France owned by geriatric couples whose cellars burst with iconic wines at historic prices, their locations kept as closely guarded secrets until hordes of thirsty tourists cotton on and plunder them.
When first visiting Au Fil du Zinc in 2016, we were fortunate to enjoy a sublime 2009 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne — as good as white burgundy gets — for €400 a bottle. When we returned a few months later, the price had risen to €1,200. You might think that’s preposterous — and you might be right — but considering the same bottle retails at London’s Hedonism for £4,260 it could also be described as a bargain (and, yes, it lived up to the hype).
In Lyon, La Cave des Voyageurs is an old-fashioned bar with a great selection of rhône and beaujolais, while Bordeaux’s L’Univerre — co-owned by restaurateur and wine merchant Fabrice Moisan — is a place to discover wines that you never imagined existed, let alone could hope to find again.
“Having mature vintages of great wine is very important,” says Moisan when asked what sets apart his favourite lists. “People may appreciate drinking young Armand Rousseau Chambertin for half the market price but it’s not really my wish. What I appreciate is finding something that you can’t find elsewhere, and not only prestigious wines.”
On our last visit to L’Univerre — a restaurant that doesn’t just focus on bordeaux — Noble Rot enjoyed a sainted selection including a 1970 Clos Joliette Jurançon Sec and 1990 Charles Joguet Chinon “Les Varennes du Grand Clos” Franc de Pied, a humble but impossibly rare Cabernet Franc from very old ungrafted vines close to the Clos de la Dioterie drunk at La Tour d’Argent. “La Tour d’Argent has great choice of mature wines at fair prices, that have been kept in perfect conditions,” agrees Moisan. “Everything’s there and, although the legendary bottles are still expensive, there are so many other great wines for very fair prices. I don’t go there to drink a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but for an old Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges, a Pousse d’Or Volnay, or a Chablis with 20 years’ age. And, of course, why not a mature Joguet?”
So many treasures but so little time; oh, for the delights of desert island wine.
Dan Keeling is co-founder and editor of Noble Rot magazine, restaurant and wine bar, and co-founder of Keeling Andrew & Co wine importers
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