This is not a city in which to buy blindly - the overpriced and the mediocre are depressingly abundant. Yet Paris does shelter a number of knowledgeable wine merchants - or cavistes - who are every bit as passionate about their trade as some of the better vignerons they represent.
All is not well within the small world of the Parisian cavistes who, like many small shopkeepers in the capital, feel threatened by the huge buying power of the hypermarkets. Frankly, some cavistes do little to help their cause by applying excessive mark-ups and selling brand wines - such as the ubiquitous Mouton Cadet - which are of little appeal to wine enthusiasts. But a handful have woken up to the fact that, by offering a well-chosen range of domaine-bottled wine at sensible prices, they can largely trump the pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap philosophy of the hypermarkets. What is more, they offer a level of service that is generally both intimate and excellent, although don't bother asking for a wine list so you can ponder your purchases at home - one caviste greeted my request by pointing to his shelves and telling me that his list was "sous vos yeux".
To get a sense of Parisian wine-selling flair, visit the Caves Legrand, tucked away behind the Palais Royal in the second arrondissement. This wine merchant - one of the oldest in Paris - oozes belle-epoque charm, with its inviting blend of fine wine, foie gras and confectionery. But what most impresses about Legrand is its commitment to rooting out some of the best producers in France - and not just from the classic regions. Here you can find what must be the most exhaustive selection of quality wines from the Languedoc-Roussillion in France - and perhaps anywhere - from top estates such as Mas Jullien, Domaine l'Hortus, Domaine Henry and Chateau La Voulte Gasperets. Try Fancois Henry's sweet, concentrated 1994 Saint-Georges d'Orques, Coteaux de Languedoc at 53ff (pounds 5.90), the powerfully aromatic 1996 Mas des Bressades, Costieres de Nimes, a steal at 26ff (pounds 2.90) or, from the same estate, an ambitious Cabernet-Syrah, vin de pays for 52ff (pounds 5.80), with beautifully integrated new oak and considerable ageing potential.
At the luxury end of the scale, Legrand is currently touting special offers on Cotes du Rhone from the fine 1995 vintage, including the much sought-after Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape, from the late Jacques Reynaud. Unfortunately, this is only available as part of a six-bottle case including Thierry Allemand's Cornas Chaillot, Robert Jasmin's Cote Rotie and a Cote du Rhone from Jacques Reynaud's second estate, Chateau de Fonsalette - all for 880ff (pounds 98) a case until 30 April. Legrand is also particularly proud of its selection from the celebrated Alsacien estate of Zind-Humbrecht. If you can't stretch to the 1994 Gewurztraminer Rangen, Selection de Grains Nobles, 850ff (pounds 94.40), try the dry, honey- and rose-scented 1993 Gewurztraminer Goldert for 103ff (pounds 11.50).
Beaujolais lovers should track down George Duboeuf's retail outlet just off the Champs Elysees. Here, within spitting distance of the haute-couture houses which line Avenue Montaigne, there are some excellent buys, which prove that Beaujolais can be a bargain. Try Jean Descombes' cherry-packed Morgon, 39.5ff (pounds 4.40), Duboeuf's delicious own-label Fleurie, 45ff (pounds 5), or his Cotes de Brouilly, 39.5ff (pounds 4.40). Georges Dubeouf obviously has good contacts throughout the French wine world since he also has a good stock of bottles from elite producers such as Guigal in the Rhone -including a stunningly perfumed 1995 Condrieu, 148ff (pounds 16.50)- or Alain Brumont in Madiran whose Medoc-like 1994 Chateau Montus is definitely worth a punt at 58ff (pounds 6.40).
If you prefer to buy your wine in the anonymity of a department store, try Lafayette Gourmet - the upmarket food and wine department within Galeries Lafayette. A novelty here is the bar where - at a price - you can sample wine by the glass in tandem with Lafayette's foie gras, caviar and truffles. Highlights include a particularly ripe and honeyed declassified Meursault, the 1995 Bourgogne Blanc from Domaine Charles et Remi Jobard, 50ff (pounds 5.60), a lavishly-oaked but succulent 1993 Saumur-Champigny from the perfectionist Foucault brothers at Clos Rougeard, 79ff (pounds 8.80), and an extensive range of vintage Champagne at the lowest prices in town, including Bonnet 1989, 120ff (pounds 13.40), and Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart 1989, 190ff (pounds 21). Lafayette even stocks a small selection of wines from Spain. South Africa and... England. But for the best - indeed, only - respectable source of non-French wines in Paris, cross the Boulevard Haussmann to Marks & Spencer where you can find most of the chain's standard Chilean and Australian range for prices around pounds 1 cheaper than in the UK.
French supermarkets rarely warm the hearts of wine enthusiasts, but a few in Paris are worth the detour. In the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse, Inno - owned by Galeries Lafayette - has a basement dedicated to food and wine. The gamut of French wine production is here, from the characterful bargain-priced 1994 Domaine des Mabrieres Faugeres, 16.8ff (pounds 1.90), to classics such as the Comte de Vogue's l993 Musigny Vieilles Vignes 456ff (pounds 51). Between these two extremes, notable buys include the seductively fruity 1994 Chapelle de Bebian, 47ff (pounds 5.20) and, for the cellar, the classy l994 Chateau Clerc Milon, l00ff (pounds 11) - the baby brother of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
But for the ultimate Parisian wine-buying experience, nothing can rival a visit to Fauchon, France's most famous food store. Aptly described by Milan Kundera in his novel Immortality as being "10 times more expensive than anywhere else, with the result that it is patronised only by people who get more pleasure out of paying than out of eating". Fauchon is the last place where you expect to get good value for money. So imagine the pleasure of descending into Fauchon's impressive, and extravagantly priced, wine cellars to unearth a bottle of Domaine Talmard's l995 Macon-Uchizy, a seductive. pineapple-fruity white burgundy for only 42ff (pounds 4.70). As you go to pay, while the sommelier wraps the wine and delivers it for your collection upstairs, you can afford a smile in the knowledge that, in this temple of Parisian snobbery, you have walked away with a bargain
Where to find them:
Caves Legrand 1 rue de la Banque, 2e. Metros: Bourse or Palais Royal (42 60 07 12) - also at 119 rue Dessous des Berges, 13e (45 83 58 88) - a warehouse with easy parking; Georges Duboeuf, 9 rue Marboeuf, 8e, Metro: Franklin Roosevelt (47 20 71 23); Lafayette Goulmet, 52 Boulevard Haussmann, 9e. Metro: Havre Caumartin (48 74 46 06); Marks & Spencer, 33 Boulevard Haussmann, 9e. Metro: Havre Caumartin (47 42 42 91); Inno, 35 rue du Depart, 14e. Metro: Montparnasse (43 20 69 30); Fauchon, place de la Madeleine 8e. Metro: Madeleine (42 66 92 63)Reuse content