Paris has suddenly become much more interesting for those of us who love wine. It was always possible to find some of France's best bottles in this tantalising city, on the lists of some of France's best restaurants and usually heavily marked up. But since the opening of two new places in the last few months it has become much easier to buy retail a wide range of the best wines made outside France, and to drink serious wine by the glass.
Perhaps the most significant opening took place last September, on the Boulevard de la Madeleine just round the corner from the headquarters of Fauchon and Hediard, France's most famous gastronomic emporia. Lavinia is an airy, thoroughly modern three-storey trove of 6000 great wines and spirits from around the world. Its design is more reminiscent of an Armani store than the dusty old cavistes who have dominated France's wine retailing until now.
Lots of space and good graphics; expressly low, wine-friendly lighting; not a single bottle standing upright with its cork drying out; humidity at a constant 70 per cent; temperature in the basement fine wine cellar at a constant 14 degrees Centrigrade all bear witness to Lavinia's avowed policy of respect for the wine itself above all. No own-labels 'because we are here to sell not make wine', according to manager Yves Yannick Branchereau, the son of a well-known Loire vigneron whose career has included stints not just at Hediard but also at the DIY chain Castorama.
This is the third branch of Lavinia, which opened initially in 1999 in Madrid, then vinous terra incognita, and Barcelona two years later. The ambitious and ground-breaking enterprise is financed by Thierry Servant (of L'Oréal) and Pascal Chevrot, wine-loving Frenchmen living in Spain.
The novelty of this concept for Paris was clear as soon as I examined a typical morning's delivery from Les Vins du Monde in Nantes: seven pallets sitting on the pavement outside the store swathed in cellophane against rain and thievery containing the likes of Sassicaia from Tuscany, Mauro and L'Ermita in Spain (although the French branch buys most wines separately from its Spanish antecedents), Inniskillin Icewine from Ontario, Prager and Bründlmayer from Austria, Torbrek and Wynns Michael Shiraz 1994 from Australia and Qupé Syrah and Phelps' Vin du Mistral from California.
These are all exceptional wines, not the much more dubious non-French offerings to which French supermarkets dutifully allot shelf space nowadays. Lavinia, with 43 countries represented, claims to have the widest choice of international wines in France. These are deliberately showcased on the ground floor. To reach the sort of wines that make up the vast majority of what is actually sold here, the French stuff, Lavinia's customers have to descend to the basement where many of France's most sought-after names and vintages can be found. Unusually for France, this is all self-service - although a payroll of 40 (including five Spaniards, an Australian, a Japanese woman and a Chilean) suggests that cutting down staff costs was hardly the objective of the store design.
It was said, when Marks & Spencer had branches in Paris, that non-French wines were some of its fastest sellers because this was one of the very few places ex-pats and curious natives could find a change from the staple Parisian liquid diet of Saumur-Champigny and Sancerre. Yet even in this adventurous new shop, with more than 3500 members of its wine club already, the top sellers by far are champagne (upwards from the grower Jean-Noël Haton's NV [non vintage] at euro 17) and red bordeaux - especially older vintages. Italians, such as Marion's promising though hardly well-known Valpolicella Superiore 1999 at euro 31.42, are the most popular non-French wines by a stretch.
On the first floor are spirits (40 year old Laphroaig at euro 590 a bottle, for example), accoutrements such as glassware and books, and a casual restaurant where each day a foreign dish and suitable wine by the glass are offered, as well as the usual selection. On the day of my visit braised salt cod at euro 20 was offered with a glass of Quinta dos Roques Encruzado 2000, one of Portugal's finest whites, at euro 8.50.
This restaurant and wine bar is now in direct competition with the other prominent opening of last year, that of a light, modern bar at the back of Legrand Filles et Fils, Paris's most respected family caviste and epicerie fine founded in 1880. Enter from the main street and it is all (original) bare floorboards, top quality coffee beans and foie gras - as well as an incomparable selection of great French wines, plus a few others. Enter from the fashionable shopping arcade at the back and you are straight into L'Espace Dégustation, a welcoming enclave for wine enthusiasts with up to 20 wines by the glass (the recherché red Côtes du Rhône Ch de Fonsalette 1999 was on offer at euro 12.50 a glass on the day I visited, for example) with plates of top-quality charcuterie and cheeses. Any bottle from the wine shop may be drunk here on payment of corkage of euro 15 a bottle.
This is only just round the corner from Paris's original hangout for international wine lovers, Willi's Wine Bar, now complemented by the associated Juveniles nearby (particularly strong on sherry, the Rhône and Australia) and the more grown-up restaurant Macéo next door.
Of course Paris has always been full of little neighbourhood wine bars offering glasses of country wines shipped direct from the same old suppliers along with Poilâne bread and good cold cuts. Places such as Le Rubis and Au Sauvignon have played a part in Paris's unique appeal for decades. But they are as far removed from the modern world of wine as Charbonnier the Legionnaire's Litre and the local vieillards have largely been replaced by tourists in search of the quintessential Parisian experience.
One place that offers serious, and much heartier, competition to either Lavinia's rather antiseptically modern restaurant and Legrand's somewhat limited menu is Caves Pétrissans, a century-old wine merchant with a restaurant attached in the smart 17th arrondissement north of the Arc de Triomphe. It was first recommended to me by the editor of France's only wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France. Here we felt as though we had stumbled across a particularly bibulous lunch club. The bar was just as full of champagne-swilling regulars as the restaurant was of well-heeled diners enjoying the thoroughly traditional three-course menu at euro 31 (tête de veau, steak tartare and the like).
Caves Pétrissans offers a weekly changing selection of wines by the glass and bottle at special prices but diners can choose any bottle from the wine shop's impressive list for a corkage charge of euro 16. Even including this we were able to enjoy a Volnay premier cru 1999 from J M Boillot for euro 52, as well as the amused conversation of our neighbours, one of whom pressed a fine cigar from a box he had just bought on my husband. On our other side a couple of locals wondered idly where on earth we went, as visitors to Paris, without their own, clearly highly developed, café society to fall back on.
The answer, of course, is any of the above establishments although every one of them, alas, is closed on Sundays.
Lavinia, 3-5 bd de la Madeleine, 75001 Paris (tel 01 42 97 20 20)
Legrand Filles et Fils, 1 rue de la Banque, 75002 Paris (tel 01 42 60 07 12)
Willi's Wine Bar, 13 rue des Petits Champs, 75001 Paris (tel 01 42 61 05 09)
Juveniles, 47 rue de Richelieur 75001 Paris (tel 01 42 97 46 49 )
Macéo, 15 rue des Petits Champs, 75001 Paris (tel 01 42 97 53 85)
Caves Pétrissans, 30bis ave de Niel, 75017 Paris (tel 01 42 27 52 03)