Paris Tour d'Argent auctions wine, cognac from famed cellar

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Paris' most famous restaurant, the Tour d'Argent, on Monday auctioned off thousands of bottles of the finest wine in order to make space for new bottles in its vast four-century-old cellar.

The high point in the auction was the sale of three bottles of cognac dating from 1788 - a year before the start of the French revolution.

They sold for 25,000, 17,000 and 15,000 euros respectively, far above the 2,500 euro starting price. The most expensive of the three went to Raphael Zier, a 38-year-old London-based entrepreneur.

He said he would slowly enjoy the bottle "with friends."

Six bottles of 1998 Chateau Haut-Brion white Bordeaux went for 1,400 euros (2,100 dollars), also far more than the 480 euros auctioneers Piasa had expected at the two-day sale of around 18,000 bottles.

Three bottles of 1971 Chateau Rieussec, a sweet white Bordeaux, fetched 650 euros, six times the price Piasa had been hoping for. Most bottles went slightly above the expected price, said an AFP correspondent at the sale.

The Tour d'Argent, by the Seine overlooking Notre Dame cathedral, boasts one of the largest private cellars in the world and is certainly home to one of the great historical collections of wine.

The restaurant, popular with celebs like Woody Allen and Paul Coelho, hopes to bring in a million euros to buy new wines to store in cellars now crammed with 430,000 bottles of wines and spirits up to 200 years old.

"I bought two lots of Sauternes, one of them from 1997, the year my daughter was born," said one bidder who gave his name as Bruno and said he was a banker.

Most of the buyers at the chic Salons Hoche sales room were middle-aged, besuited men. Many were consulting wine guide books or the Internet via their mobile phones before placing their bid.

A dozen staff manned phones to handle calls from telephone bidders hoping to snap up one of the bottles whose guide prices range from 10 to 5,000 euros.

Bought directly from vintners, none of the bottles has ever been on the market. Bordeaux wines include Chateau Latour (1975, 1982, 1990), Chateau Cheval Blanc (1928, 1949, 1966) and Chateau Margaux (1990).

Among Loire valley wines is a Vouvray Haut Lieu Huet (1919) while the Burgundy region includes a Puligny Montrachet (1992) and Vosne Romanee (1988).

"I don't even know if I could afford some of the bottles," said 29-year-old Andre Terrail, part of the third generation of his family to run a restaurant variously known as the world's "oldest," "greatest" or "most famous."

Terrail said last week he decided to auction the 18,000 bottles to make space for new stock.

"We need to enrich our collection with new wines from new parts of France," he explained.

The Tour d'Argent is far from being at the cutting edge of haute cuisine but remains a hot favourite with foreign tourists

On taking over after his father's death three years ago, Terrail launched a relatively cheap set menu at 160 euros (241 dollars), yet some vintage champagnes still go for well over 2,000 euros a bottle.

On the food front its foremost dish is pressed duck, made from birds which are strangled rather than beheaded to avoid blood loss and keep the flesh succulent.

Its wine list weighs eight kilos (17-and-a-half pounds) and lists 15,000 wines over 400 pages.