Oenophile Jojo Madrid dines out in Paris and finds the wines wanting. Here's an honest assessment.
Paris is not a wine destination, a friend once said. This remark will surely spark debate among wine and food enthusiasts. Paris, after all, probably boasts more Michelin-starred and Wine Spectator Grand Award restaurants than any other city in the world. Restaurants from Taillevent to L'Amis Louis pride themselves for their wine lists. Customers who pay €250 and above for a meal demand it.
But why is it that more foodies point to other food capitals, such as San Francisco, as better wine destinations? A recent trip to Paris appears to confirm my friend's observation. My wife and I spent eight days there, our fourth food and wine pilgrimage to this gastronomic capital.
On this excursion, my role was clear from the start: Go through the wine lists, select the wines to pair with the dishes, and challenge the world's top sommeliers should their assistance be required. My friends believe that my memory for wine prices is encyclopedic and trust my ability to match wine and food.
Our first stop was Le Meurice, a three-star establishment headed by Yannick Alleno. Friends have raved over the restaurant's Philippe Starck-designed salon, inspired by the Salon de Pais of the Versailles. But its wine list didn't do justice to the splendid and very tasteful interiors. Never mind that Le Meurice's cellars excluded wines from the New World and even a major region such as Italy (who’d pair haute French cuisine with a Barolo?), but the prices were ghastly.
I was looking for a reasonably priced Burgundy to pair with my delicately flavored poached lamb. I was hoping to find a suitable premier cru, which in the hierarchy of Burgundy, is one rung below grand cru (most expensive, smallest production) but one notch above village. I ended up choosing a Meo Camuzet Vosne Romanee 2001, a village, as all premier crus were priced above €220. The Meo had a faint nose of raspberry and cherry but simply lacked charm. I decided to check the Bordeaux section to see what my other options would've been. The selection was adequate as one may expect but prices ridiculous. One need not look any further after spotting a Les Forts de Latour 1998 for €350 or a Pape Clement 1999 for €250. These two wines can be had for under US$90 in the United States and I certainly wasn't going to pay five to six times that even if Carla Bruni were at my side.
Eight years ago, I ordered a Montrose 1990 in Taillevent for about $200, a Robert Parker 100-pointer. In Le Meurice, this wine goes for a cool €600. Haut Brion 1990 (96pts) is listed for a whopping €2,250. Compare that to the legendary Haut Brion 1989 (100pts) for $400 in L'Esplanade or the La Mission Haut Brion 1982 (100pts) at L'Arpege for $300 back then. Because of the burgeoning demand for fine wine from wealthy Americans and Asians, the days of finding top chateaus from the greatest vintages at reasonable prices are history.
I don't get sticker shock at three-star restaurants because I know what to expect. But I did in L'Ambroisie, where we dined with another couple. Located in Marais, this Bernard Pacaud establishment is touted by critics as one of the top three restaurants in France. Pacaud’s repertoire is anchored on the best and freshest ingredients available daily. The place looked and felt no different than it did years back when my wife and I first visited it. The restaurant itself, divided into three small salons, is housed in a 17th-century townhouse that was once a jewelry shop. The feel is that of an Italian palazzo with its stucco walls draped with giant tapestries. The impeccably attired staff is just as snooty. Reservations are virtually impossible to make. It has no website and it does not entertain reservations via e-mail, only by phone.
Before taking a stab at the wine list, I gestured to my wife sitting across the table to skip the appetizers. Because the ladies’ menu did not indicate prices, she was unaware that her choice went for €120. Already I knew I wasn’t going to find any bargains in the wine menu if the appetizers were going for that much.
I decided on a Bordeaux as I felt it would marry well with my rack of lamb, my wife’s roast pigeon, and our friends’ sweet bread and foie gras. L’Ambroisie’s wine list was quite limited. Majority of the Bordeaux were from relatively young vintages and virtually all, except for a handful of cru bourgeois, were north of €250. I shifted to the section on Rhône, a lesser-known wine-producing region in France. Rhône produces the best Syrahs in the world and because they are less popular, they provide more bang for buck. I chose the Delas Marquise de la Tourette 2003 from Rhône’s Hermitage, which is a region known to be the benchmark for Australia’s greatest Shiraz. For €150, I felt it was a relatively good deal. The deep purple/inky hue and its nose of intense licorice were all indications of how rich and concentrated the wine was. Flavors were still primary and therefore would require several years to hit its apogee. On hindsight, this wine should have been decanted. Before the Delas, I asked the sommelier to recommend a bottle of white. I sometimes do this just to engage the sommelier. He recommended an Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2004. Excellent vintage for white burgundy. The wine was pleasant and refreshing. The Leflaive went superbly well with the amuse bouche.
We had heard much about L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon from friends, so we were looking forward to dining there. Diners are seated along two rectangular bars overlooking an open kitchen. What's with the concept? Like in a sushi bar, diners can follow the service and the sequence of dishes as they are prepared and served. Food is served tapas-style so customers can sample as many as they'd like. It was here that we tasted a superb foie gras and the most succulent poulet de Bresse. Unfortunately, the wine paired with them upon the recommendation of the staff tasted insipid—a Cotes de Castillon, a satellite appellation adjacent to the more famous Saint Emilion region. That, to me, was enough to bring down the entire dining experience. And how could a house wine, Seleccion de Joël Robuchon, taste so bad? I did not detect any defects on the wine so I did not return the bottle. For only €70, perhaps I got what I paid for. On hindsight, I should have just gone with a blanc. I have a higher tolerance for mediocre whites than I do reds.
Then, there was La Tour d'Argent. During this trip, we dined here twice. To visit Paris and not eat here is inconceivable to me. In fact, our travel plans to Paris were dependent on getting a reservation to this venerable establishment. La Tour d'Argent—famous for its Canarde a la Presse, or pressed duck—is a wine mecca. Their four-inch-thick wine list, simply referred to as the bible, contains the most extensive fine wine selection in the world. You may not find an Opus One or a Penfolds Grange among the half a million bottles cellared beneath the Seine, but you will certainly find the best offerings of old Burgundies. Never mind that the restaurant had been stripped of one or even two Michelin stars because it is here that you will find impeccably stored Burgundies on the verge of extinction.
Navigating through the wine list is a daunting task. Because I bided my time, the sommelier placed a table by my side to prop up the wine list, which must have weighed seven pounds. Most Michelin restaurants, such as Le Cinq in the Four Seasons, may boast five vintages of Lafite going as far back as 1982. At La Tour, you’ll find as many as 40 vintages dating back to the early 1900s. Even more impressive is its selection of aged whites from Burgundy and Loire. I discovered Coche Durys from the 1980s, such as a fairly priced Meursault 1986, and even Cotats (Sancere) from the 1950s. Its offerings of Chave Hermitage and Chateau Rayas, both highly revered estates from Rhône, extend as far back as the 1970s, though prices were starting to get prohibitive.
For a white, I chose a Domaine Leflavie Clavoillons 1992, a decadently rich blanc that tasted like liquid white chocolate. The 1992 Leflaive is extremely tough to find because it is the best vintage of the 1990s. Our final selection of reds during our two visits was mind-boggling: Domain Ponsot Clos de la Roche 1993, Roumier Bonnes Mares 1991, Rousseau Clos de Beze 1991, Rousseau Le Chambertin 1991, and finally, the Holy Grail, the Rousseau Le Chambertin 1989. All of these wines were perfect. The Rousseaus are from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin, among the most fabled patch of vineyards in the world. These wines have great structure and have earthy aromas of black fruit. I read somewhere that Napoleon was so enamored with wines from Chambertin that his death was hastened by being forced to drink Bordeaux during his exile in St Helena. Price? Definitely north of €250 for each bottle—but that's nothing compared to the four to five times one would pay in the open market and without the guarantee of the wine's provenance. While I've had my fair share of disappointments this trip, our experiences at La Tour more than made up for all of it.
WHERE TO WINE & DINE
9 Place des Vosges
Tel (33)(1) 4278-5145
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
5 Rue Montalembert
Tel (33)(1) 4222-5656
La Tour d’Argent
15-17 Quai de la Tournelle
Tel (33)(1) 4354-2331
228 rue de Rivoli
Tel (33)(1) 4458-1010
This appeared in a previous issue of Travelife Magazine.
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