This article is also published by the Financial Times.
Isabelle Legeron, who writes about her favourite topic, natural wine, in this weekend's FT, 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, let alone in the French provinces, it is remarkably difficult to find non-French wine. French wine is of course awfully good, and it is not a terrible hardship to be condemned to drinking it to the exclusion of all else, but I for one am delighted to be able to drink more widely from my base in London (where Isabelle lives, too).
I spent an intensive weekend earlier this month researching Paris's most interesting wine shops, or cavistes, and I have to say that 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. 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 wandered further than the blessed hexagone.
On being made redundant, he spent two years raising the finance for and designing an extremely stylish over-lit space – all blonde wood and white tables – 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 best-seller, Miolo Brazilian sparkling wine made in the image of champagne and priced at €11. He was not slow to point out that, unusually, it was also available at Paris's two established 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 (particularly Spain and the southern hemisphere currently) since it opened in 1987, 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 in Burgundy, which is so fashionable and where the supply of wine is so finite that prices have been soaring.
Whereas Juveniles is primarily a wine bar and increasingly serious restaurant, Lavinia also serves food, like an increasing proportion of cavistes in the capital. Indeed the lines between on- and off-sales are continuing to blur, with many of the mushrooming natural wine bars hoping so sell wines by the bottle to take away too. The grandaddy 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.
So important is the business of serving food and wine, specifically burgundy, in the evening to L'Ambassade de Bourgogne, a smart newish wine shop near the Odéon, that they remain open (every day except Christmas Day) until midnight and, like Soif d'Ailleurs, are keen to encourage corporate events. According to owner Philippe Séré, 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 was convinced otherwise and now has a flourishing business with only half his customers French. HIs wife is Japanese and he is as likely to ship wine to Japan or Brazil as to an address in Paris.
Like everyone else, however, he has had to seek out newer, cheaper sources of burgundy to supplement the famous names. He is particularly 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 much 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 is being sold by sold by its old owner, the renowned Raphaël Gimenez, so things may change. But the current staff – who, like so many Paris cavistes, 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 fine local wine store. We visited on a Sunday morning and he was almost too busy to speak to us. Customers included a posse of Japanese central Parisian 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 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 de Taillevent, La Grande Épicerie 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 (photo above taken from their website). It has the cosy air of a particularly 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 WINE SHOPS
Cavistes are grouped numerically by arrondissement. Chains are Nicolas, NYSA and Repaire de Bacchus.
47 rue de Richelieu 75001; tel 1 42 97 46 49
3-5 Boulevard de la Madeleine 75001; tel 1 42 97 20 20
Legrand Filles et Fils
1 rue de la Banque 75002; tel 1 42 60 07 12
38 rue Pastourelle 75003; tel 1 40 29 10 82
Caprices de l’Instant
12 rue Jacques Cœur 75004; tel 1 40 27 89 00
Les Caves du Panthéon
174 rue Saint Jacques 75005; tel 1 46 33 90 35
Ambassade de Bourgogne
6 rue de l'Odéon 75006; tel 1 43 54 80 04
La Dernière Goutte
6 rue de Bourbon le Château 75006; tel 1 43 29 11 62
38 Rue de Sèvres 75007; tel 1 44 39 81 00
116 Boulevard Hausmann 75008; tel 1 45 22 16 97
Les Caves de Taillevent
228 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré 75008; tel 1 45 61 14 09
La Cave à Millésimes
180 rue Lecourbe 75015; tel 1 48 28 22 62
La Cave du Château
17 rue Raymond du Temple, 94300 Vincennes; tel 1 43 28 17 50