Wine sale of the century: Sold! Paris's vin extraordinaire

When Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris, he amassed an 18,000-bottle cellar of the finest vintages in France. Now the town hall collection is being sold by the city's Socialist leader
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Paris town hall held a jumbo surplus sale yesterday. Municipal brooms at knock down prices? Second-hand dustcarts? No, 6,000 of the finest bottles of French wine ever made - bought to be served to presidents and kings - went under the auctioneer's hammer in Paris for up to €5,000 (£3,350) a bottle.

The wine, assembled by President Jacques Chirac when he was mayor, will now be scattered all over the world. Many lots went to Chinese bidders.

Two bottles of Romanée Conti 1986, the empress of red burgundies and among the most expensive of all wines, went for €5,000 apiece, three times the reserve price. They were bought by a determined but cheerful British buyer, Stephen Williams, of the Antique Wine Company.

Mr Williams also bought 36 bottles of the premier cru classé claret Château Lafite Rothschild 1996 at €700 a bottle. Quite a snip at the price, he said later. Most of these bottles will be passed on by Mr Williams to collectors in the Far East or the United States.

Officially, the wine was being sold off because the cellars of the Paris town hall are chronically threatened by flooding of the Seine. The cellarage has to be reduced. There is no longer room for all the 18,000 bottles, lovingly purchased at the Paris taxpayers' expense, by M. Chirac's secretary general, Bernard Bled (a great wine connoisseur), between 1975 and 1996.

The present Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, chose to sell the very best in the cellars to make a political point. M. Delanoë has cut down on the glittering, international functions which characterised the Chirac years, when the mayor and future president treated the town hall as a springboard to power. The new Mayor, extremely popular with the people of Paris, is more likely to have sandwiches in his office with a trades union delegation than a banquet with the President of Russia.

In any case, how can a Socialist Mayor who campaigned against waste in the town hall serve wine worth €5,000 a bottle? The sale, which continues today, is expected to raise more than €1m to be spent on other town-hall priorities. Dustcarts maybe?

The saddest - and proudest - man at yesterday's auction, was M. Bled, 62, the former right-hand man to M. Chirac who personally selected every bottle in the sale. "This is a terribly sad day," he said. "These wines were bought, not at huge cost, at around a tenth of what they are fetching today. I bought them, en primeur, before they were even bottled, to make sure the Paris town hall could serve its prestige visitors the finest wines that France can offer.

"The new Mayor takes a different view. That is his right. But it is a shame to see such a wonderful collection, maybe one of the finest collections in the world, broken up. The taxpayers of Paris can hardly complain. They are making a handsome profit. What else does the town hall do, which gives a 1,000 per cent return? But personally I would prefer that the wine had been drunk by the guests of the people of Paris, as intended."

Would M. Bled be bidding to save some of his "children" from foreign exile? "At these prices? No, certainly not."

Wine traders and collectors from all over the world flocked to the sale, or sent a representative, or phoned at strategic moments. The chief auctioneer, Dominique Giafferi, cajoled and teased the auditorium. "Is there no one here? I might as well go home," he said when one lot failed to instantly reach double the guide price. He also attempted a comedy double act with the resident wine expert and valuer, Claude Maratier. When M. Maratier started to describe a lot which had already been sold, the auctioneer said: "Will the expert keep up, please."

Most wines fetched double or three times the reserve price. In the early bidding, much of the running was made by a group of four young Chinese, a man and three women. They assembled a fistful of the orange slips handed out by the auctioneer's assistants to successful buyers of some of the world's most renowned wines: Château Latour, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Petrus, Chassagne Montrachet, and, M. Bled's personal favourite, Château Haut Brion.

The young Chinese man in a pinstriped suit bid on almost every lot. He won some. He lost some. One of the Chinese women handled the money and credit cards. Another translated. Who were they? They smiled and declined to say.

Less shy was Stephen Williams. He jovially vacuumed up all 12 lots of three bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild 1996 at €2,100 a lot or €700 a bottle before tax. "This was the best Château Lafite vintage in 10 years," Mr Williams said. "This is one of the best wine sales you could imagine. France makes the best wine in the world. Paris is the capital of this great wine-making country and here we are at city hall."

Two things decide the quality of a bottle of wine, Mr Williams said. The way it is made and the way it is stored. Because these wines had been kept in the ancient cellars below the town hall since they were bottled, they were guaranteed to be in "impeccable condition". He added: "Because of the association with Chirac and because people know that they were originally bought to be served to heads of state and royalty, there is a celebrity factor. Quite honestly, I expected the prices to be even higher."

Mr Williams got a round of applause when he bought both of the available bottles of Romanée Conti - the most prized red wine in the world - for €5,000. He pointed out later that the only other similar bottle now on the market is priced at €6,800.

Romanée Conti comes from the smallest and most prestigious of all the red burgundy vineyards, a tiny plot hardly larger than a couple of tennis courts a little to the north of Beaune. Mr Williams said the 1986 Romanée Conti was "not the best vintage". A crate of 12 from the 1978 vintage would "fetch $100,000". He seemed satisfied enough with his bargain.

There should be no problem selling on his captures, he said. The fact that they were "Chirac" bottles would help. "The beauty of wine is that every bottle has its own story," he said. "If you've fallen out with your wife, you can always talk about the wine."

Other people in the room, potential private buyers, were startled by the scale of the bids. Examples included €1,250 for six bottles of Château Rothschild 1993, with a label showing a naked child. Such bottles cannot be exported to the US, the auctioneer warned, because they are classified as child porn.

Philippe Brisset, 53, a Paris businessman, was hoping to "buy a 1994 anything at all, because that was the year my daughter was born". He made no bid on the first day. He might have more luck when the sale continues this morning.

Mark Gernand, 60, a wine collector from New York state, said: "These prices are probably going to be too high for me. The Chinese are buying everything but do they really know what they are buying?" Abelardo Blanco, 59, from Brazil, said: "I adore wine and I adore French wine but I don't know if I can justify paying this much. As Robert Parker [the great American wine critic] said: can you guarantee you are going to get more pleasure from one bottle at $200 than 10 bottles at $20?"

And what did the former mayor, now President of the Republic make of the sale? The Elysée Palace, which has fabled wine cellars of its own, declined to say. M. Chirac was a notorious spendthrift when he was at the town hall. He and his wife's frais de bouche, or "personal" kitchen expenses, came to £400 a day over one eight-year period. This spending was recently the subject of a criminal investigation, among several into the misuse of municipal funds in the Chirac era. The inquiry got nowhere.

Whatever the ex-mayor spent all this money on, it was unlikely to have been wine. M. Chirac's favourite drink is Mexican beer.

Pick of the bunch

* Romanée Conti

The rarest and most prized of red burgundies, from a tiny vineyard in the Côte de Nuits, south of Beaune. Often fetches the highest prices of any wine in the world. Regarded as the finest possible expression of the subtle pinot noir grape variety. In Chirac's cellar there were two 1986 Romanée Conti bottles - not regarded as the best vintage ever but they still reached €5,000 each in the auction.

* Château Lafite Rothschild

One of the legendary Médoc chateau names for more than 200 years. A blend of merlot and cabernet grapes which gives great finesse and warmth, which deepen infinitely with age. Chirac's cellars had huge amounts of this appellation, with vintages ranging from 1981 to 1998, and one bottle from 1964. They were much sought after by Asian bidders yesterday and sold for up to three times their guide price at up to €700 a bottle (for the 1996).

* Château Latour

Another of the great Médoc names, from close to he village of Pauillac. This has become of the most prized clarets with American aficionados. The bottles on sale yesterday ranged from 1981 to 1994. The excellent 1989 vintage went for €1,050 for three bottles - a relative bargain.

* Château Cheval Blanc

Another mythical claret but this time from the other side of the river Gironde, in the Saint-Emilion appellation area. Cheval Blanc was the holy grail of the wine lover in the successful Hollywood movie Sideways. It was also a favourite with M. Chirac's wine-buyer, with most years from 1980 to 1994 in the sale.

* Château Petrus

Another mythical wine, a Pomerol, again from the right bank of the Gironde, very close to Cheval Blanc. Mostly merlot grapes, which are given one of their finest expressions by the clay of this terroir. The town hall cellars contained dozens and dozens of Petrus from 1987 to the much prized recent 1995 and 1998 vintages. The superlative 1990, which is on sale on the second day this morning, is expected to go for more than €2,000 and up to €3,000 a bottle.

* Château Haut Brion

A great claret from the Pessac-Léognan area, and a personal favourite of Chirac's wine buyer, Bernard Bled. Yesterday's sales, and today's, include lists and lists of this magnificent wine, from 1982 to 1998. M. Bled's personal favourites are the 1982, 1985 and 1990, all in today's second day sale. The 1990 is expected to go for the relative bargain price of €500 a bottle.

* Château Ausone

A great Saint-Emilion, less known than Cheval Blanc, but a perfect expression of a similar chalky-clay terroir. A mixture of cabernet franc and merlot grapes, grown on the steep southern slopes of Saint-Emilion and the top of the Saint-Martin plateau. Relatively few bottles in the Chirac cellars but the 1992 was much sought after at €1,500 for six.

* Champagne Krug Cru Blanc 1976

The Chirac champagne wine list was dominated by this label and vintage, which should sell for around €300 a bottle. One of the most prized champagne labels but not necessarily the very best vintage.