Margaret Kemp reports from the sale of the French president's wines in Paris last week, where classics of the cellar were sold off to make way for… Beaujolais nouveau, perhaps?
It was always unlikely that François Hollande, the French socialist president, would sell the vintage contents of the Élysée Palace's wine cellars for plonk prices. A two-day auction at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, through Paris auction house Kapandji Morhange, had estimates wine merchants and winemakers can only dream about, but fetched much punchier sums.
Take the 1990 Petrus, glory of the collection: reserve €2,200; actual price €5,800, going, going, gone to the cellars of La Pergola, Rome. Another Petrus on its way to China as you read this.
Monsieur Hollande plans to replace them with more modest wines from rising stars, offering guests of the President of the Republic an opportunity to enjoy the diversity of France's winegrowing regions (read: it is no longer PC to serve expensive wines, even at the Élysée. How depressing).
The president has taken the move to sell off some of his bibulous patrimony as a symbol that he too is undergoing austere times, just as France, with its high deficit and debt and double-dip recession and 23rd straight month of rising unemployment. It is not entirely clear whether even a full clear-out of the cellars will help reduce France's 4.8 per cent budget deficit or £1.5 trillion debt (90 per cent of 2012 GDP).
Under the hammer
Among prized Élysée bottles under the (metaphorical) hammer of glam auctioneer Ghislaine Kapandji were the above-mentioned Petrus vintages, as well as Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Loire, Côtes du Rhone, Alsace, Sud-Ouest, Champagnes and cognacs. I was tempted to bid for six bottles of ‘Clos de Tart’ L Latour Grand Cru 1982, but am pipped as they go for €1,600 in spite of their ‘slightly damaged label’. Reserve price? €600.
The Élysée Palace wine cellar is the holy of holies protected with bulletproof doors. Virginie Routis, the Élysée’s chef-sommelier since 2007, selected the bottles for auction. ‘These were wines no longer present in large enough numbers to serve at receptions and dinners,’ explained Ms Routis, who told Le Monde newspaper, ‘I choose the wines to match the menu, but also in terms of protocol.’ (Austerity perhaps tactfully – or blithely – went unmentioned.)
Kapandji Morange say that some auction proceeds will be invested in younger, more modest wines underlining the fact that, during his election campaign Monsieur Hollande dubbed himself ‘Monsieur Normal’ who despised the excesses of his predecessors.
All the presidents' wines
‘It's lamentable: 1,200 bottles have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, that's one tenth of the French presidential cellar – Petrus 1990, but also smaller labels,’ complains Véronique Andre, Figaro journalist and author. In her recent book Cuisine de L'Élysée, written with Bernard Vaussion, the Élyseé’s head chef, Mme André spent quality time in the closely guarded cellars.
‘Charles de Gaulle loved champagne, particularly Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle”, named in his honour,’ writes Mme Andre. ‘President Pompidou appreciated the grands crus such as Château Mouton Rothschild and certain Cahors wines. François Mitterand was keen on Burgundies, Chablis, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Château Haut-Marbuzet, Saint-Estèphe.
‘Jacques Chirac enjoyed the aromas of le Corton-Charlemagne, and also loved beer! Nicolas Sarkozy was not keen on wine, never refused an old eau-de-vie de Calvados and always charged a glass to his guests with a sip of champagne which he appeared to enjoy,’ adds Mme Andre. And President Hollande? ‘Any red, white or champagne,’ she sniffs.
‘All these wines at auction were served at the table of the Presidents of the Republic, some accompanied by great moments of history as chronicled in my book. The cellars were created in 1947, under the presidency of Vincent Auriol and refurbished in 1995 to improve the conservation of wines and have evolved over the decades, often with gifts from winemakers and champagne houses.’
What next for France?
So, concludes Mme Andre, ‘The Élysée auctions off their heritage: whatever next? Will Hollande be serving cheap wines to future guests? So much for France being the global food and wine reference. Escoffier, Carême, Fernand Point and co will be turning in their graves!’
Demand remains high for French wines, especially from the BRICs, with China the world's biggest importer of Bordeaux wines. ‘There is a South Sea Bubble. The new plutocrats of the East are spending Gadarene fortunes on Petrus,’ observes AA Gill. ‘French wine schools are filling up with Chinese.’
Incidentally, all bottles sold under the hammer bear a tasteful ‘Élysée Palace’ label, meaning ultimate prestige and perfect preservation conditions. ‘For many people, it is also the purchase of a souvenir, a symbol. ‘We had requests from all over the world, it has been amazing,’ grinned Ghislaine Kapandji.
So how much did it make? Over the two days, €718,800 – double the estimates. In all, they shifted 1,200 vintage bottles of wine, champagne, cognac. Santé!
Cuisine de L'Élysée – À la Table des Présidents by Véronique André and Bernard Vaussion, with photographs by Donald Van der Putten (Editions Hachette Cuisine)
For lunch post-Drouot, I'd recommend alagrangebatelier.com