Looking for a nice bottle of wine for Christmas? For as little as €30, or as much as €3,000 (£2,760), you can do something that defeated the Nazis, and take home a few bottles from the best restaurant wine-cellar in Paris, and probably the world.
The 427-year-old Tour d'Argent – whose guests have included Cardinal Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, the Queen and Woody Allen, although never at the same table – is selling off a fraction of a legendary wine collection which dates back to the 18th century. At an auction in Paris on 7 and 8 December, you can bid for a bottle of 1870 Château Gruaud-Larose claret for about €1,000 (compared to €10,000 in the restaurant). Or you might be able to claim six bottles of Jurançon, from the French Pyrenean foothills, for as little as €5 each.
The Tour d'Argent, celebrated for its longevity, its recipe for "bloody duck" and a breathtaking, sixth-floor view over the river Seine and Notre Dame cathedral, has decided to make some space in its stupendous wine cellar. About 18,000 bottles, worth an estimated €1m, have been selected from a stock of 450,000 bottles and will be offered for sale. Many of the bottles are relatively recent; some date from the 19th century; a couple of bottles of champagne and cognac date from just before the French Revolution in 1789.
The man who had the job of choosing which bottles to sell ("Painful, yes, in a way, but in other ways, a great pleasure") is an Englishman. For 28 years, David Ridgway has been the chef sommelier at the Tour d'Argent and therefore custodian of what is almost certainly the largest, and finest, restaurant wine-cellar in the world.
"This is not a fire-sale," he told The Independent. "Nor is it a sale of bottles which may be in danger of going past their best. We are selling some examples of our oldest and most special wines but we are also selling much more recent, less well-known wines. In all cases, they will bear the Tour d'Argent stamp. They will have been sold to the restaurant when young and will always have been stored in our cellars. They will have been chosen, by their year and their producer, as the best examples of their type. There will be very expensive bottles but there could also be bargains. I am thinking of putting in a few bids myself."
The Tour d'Argent is selling the wine to make space for new arrivals (especially the 2009 Bordeaux, which is predicted to be outstanding). The money raised will partly be used to buy new wines but also to fund modernisation and development projects at the restaurant, which opened on its present site on the left quay of the Seine in 1582.
Mr Ridgway took The Independent on a guided tour of his 900sq-metres of cellars, spread over two subterranean floors. On its 400-page wine list, the Tour d'Argent has 15,000 references to different labels and vintages, all of them French, except for several dozen types of port. After the first couple of rooms, Mr Ridgway paused at a narrow door marked with an enigmatic sign reading, "This entrance was bricked up in 1940". The restaurant's then owner, Claude Terrail – father of the present owner, André Terrail – hid most of his cave from the Nazi occupiers of Paris. Only the second-rate bottles were left in the outer part of the cellars to slake the thirst of German officers.
Mr Ridgway, 53, came to the Tour d'Argent at 25, after working for the Roux brothers in London. "For many years, the restaurant didn't boast about its chief wine-waiter being English," he said. "In fact it, preferred to keep it quiet. But now no one cares much about that kind of thing."
If the Tour d'Argent had a celebrity visitors' book going back for all of its four centuries, it would be longer than its wine-list. King Henry IV of France; Cardinal Richelieu; Winston Churchill; the Queen; JFK; Richard Nixon; Marilyn Monroe; Bill Clinton. It is even claimed that the fork was "invented" at the Tour d'Argent in the early 17th century.
Which modern celebrities has Mr Ridgway served? "You name them, they have been here," he said. "That's part of the excitement of working in this place. Woody Allen, for instance, often comes here. He is a strange man, Woody. It is sometimes difficult to get a word out of him. He might sit there all evening with a group of friends and not say a word to them. Paul McCartney is very different. We always have fun when he comes. We generally get him to play the bongos." One of the most expensive wines on the Tour d'Argent list is the 1870 Chateau Gruaud-Larose, which sells in the restaurant at €10,000. "We only have about 15 bottles left," Mr Ridgway said sadly. "I would rather not sell them. That's why the price has been placed so high. All the same, we seem to lose about three each year, so they won't last very long." By "lose", he means "sell". A single bottle of the precious few is to be "lost" to the auction.
What kind of customer would buy a €10,000 bottle of wine? "You would be surprised," he said. "There may be a recession but that doesn't mean that all the money has deserted the planet. Some people seem to have less money but some have much more. There are people to whom €10,000 may represent only a few seconds work. And I'm not talking about Bill Gates."
So what does Bill Gates drink at the Tour d'Argent? "Oh, I think he usually goes for a nice Chambertin Trapet 1993." This is one of the finest of red burgundies, which would sell in the restaurant at about €200. You can buy a dozen bottles in the December auction for an estimated price of €600 or €50 a bottle.
On the other hand, you might go for four bottles of Romanée Saint Vivant 1898 burgundy for a total of about €2,800, or a single bottle of 1788 Clos du Griffier cognac at an estimated €3,000. For a special bottle of champagne for Christmas, how about an estimated €1,400 for a Grande Fine "Réserve" Renault from 1810. The cheapest lot will be six bottles of 1997 Jurançon Bousquet for €30 to €40. Mr Ridgway says the economic crisis has nothing to do with the Tour d'Argent's decision to sell off 18,000 bottles. "We are now selling less wine than we used to each year because of the 35-hour week in France." To give staff the legally required number of holiays, the restaurant decided to open only five days a week and close down for six weeks of the year. "That means the wine is not shifting as it did and we need to make some space."
It is Mr Ridgway's job to buy wine for the Tour d'Argent as well as sell it. Most Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, he visits vineyards somehere in France to buy new stocks. In a normal year, he might spend €300,000 on wine. In the next couple of years, he expects, with the proceeds of the auction, to increase his budget to €500,000. The rest of the money will go to other improvements to the restaurant.
Is it not rather nationalistic of the Tour d'Argent to sell only French wines, especially since it has an English wine-waiter? "Not at all," said Mr Ridgway. "People come to Paris to drink French wines, not American or Australian wines. We have 15,000 references as it is. I would have to double that to include a good selection of wines from around the world."
Three bottles of MONTRACHET Comtes Lafon 1988 (label in tatters) Estimate €2,700 to €3,000
Montrachet is the classic Chardonnay and considered by many people to be the greatest white wine in the world. It has some of the flintiness of Chablis, with the depth and richness of a Meursault (which is just down the road). The vineyard, just south of Beaune, covers only 20 acres but is divided between 26 different producers. One of the most prized is the Domaine des Comtes Lafon. Although 1988 was an excellent year, these bottles probably need, and deserve, to be drunk quite soon.
Six bottles of CHÂTEAU COS-D'ESTOURNEL, 2° cru Saint-Estèphe 1985. Estimate €550 to €500
A good year and one of the most prized of the Médoc châteaux. The 1985 Cos-d'Estournel has a rating of 95 out of 100 in the Robert Parker guide. You might expect to pay €150 or more for a similar bottle from a wine dealer. This lot could, therefore, be one of the bargains of the Tour d'Argent sale. It is described as intense, virile, elegant wine, with both great strength and grace. The right years, kept in the right way, can mature for a century but the 1985 should be close to its best.
Six bottles of JURANCON Bousquet 1997. Estimate €30 to €40
A sweet white wine from the Pyrenean foothills. The wine is produced from a blend of local grape varieties, including petit manseng, gros mansent and courbu blanc. An appellation since 1936 (and therefore one of the first in France), Jurançon used to be a favourite in northern Europe but was virtually wiped out by the phylloxera plague in the 19th century. For much of the early 20th century, it was used almost exclusively in the Catholic mass but has started to recover its reputation as a dessert wine.