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Report: France

Winelovers flock to French presidential wine auction

Drouot/Elysée Palace

The first day of an auction of 12,000 bottles from the French presidential wine cellar confounded critics by raising nearly 300,000 euros. More bottles go under the hammer on Friday.

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The Elysée cellars are working cellars and regularly renew their stock, spending around 150,000 euros a year.

But the Socialist government, now on an austerity drive, has chosen to sell off 10 per cent of its fine wines and use the funds to buy cheaper wines from up-and -coming winegrowers, with any surplus revenue ploughed back into the state coffers.

The wine itself isn't at the auction - you don't move good wine without good reason - so potential bidders could either check out the bottles on the online catalogue or go and view them at cellars in south-west Paris.

On Tuesday and Wednesday a steady stream of wine-lovers and sommeliers poured into the Chemin des Vignes cellars in Issy les Moulineaux, where the 1,200 bottles up for auction have spent the last three months.

Among them was Casimir Perier, who happens to share his name with a former French president.

The presidential cellar at the Elysée Palace wasn't around back in late 19th century, when Jean Casimir-Perier held office. 

It was set up in 1947 under Vincent Auriol. Since then its fine wines, including rare Bordeaux and Burgundy, have adorned every state event, forming the backbone of much soft diplomacy à la française.

Perier is interested in a box-set of vintage Cognac.

Ambroise de Montigny, wine expert for the auction, goes behind a large metal barrier where boxes of two, three, six and 12 bottles are laid out on wooden pallettes.

He brings out a large oval-shaped oak case containing five bottles of cognac.

"We know what to look for in a bottle without tasting them," says Montigny. "They’re in very good shape. It’s because of the cellar itself. It’s perfectly equipped to control and age wine."

That Elysée Palace rubber stamp is part of what makes this auction so special, says auctioneer Ghislaine Kapandji.

"There's always a risk in buying wine at auction but we know the wine has been kept in optimum conditions, it hasn't moved out of the presidential cellar since it was bought," she points out. "That's an important kind of guarantee."

Perier was drawn for that very reason.

"The presidential cellar is one of top three in Paris," he says, "along with the Tour d'Argent restaurant and the National Assembly. That's why I'm interested in this auction, you're sure of what you're bidding for.

"I like vintage wine and you can't find that in wine shops, only at auction. I’m also looking for wines from 1990 because it’s the last great year for Burgundy."

Montigny takes out a bottle of 1990 Clos de Vougeot, a Burgundy from a very good winemaker, he says. The bottle hasn't been reconditioned.

"It's still in perfect shape, the level of the wine almost touches the cork, so it hasn't lost anything, even if it's more than 20 years old," he explains, turning the bottle gently around.

Like all the bottles on auction it has a special additional label certifying it has come from the Palais de l'Elysée with the date of sale.

And don't imagine you can rip it off and stick it on a bottle of your favourite plonk.

"If you try and get it off, it will just rip apart. It's very frail," explains Montigny.

He adds that the Kapandji-Morhange auction house will also be keeping a close track on where the wines end up.

Which will be where?

There've been fears they could all find their way into billionaire's safe deposit boxes, held as trophy wines, far from their native French soil.

While China continues to be the world's biggest importer of Bordeaux, Montigny says, demand for French wine is also strong in the United States and within Europe.

What matters for him is not who buys it but the spirit in which it's drunk.

"I would love everybody that buys one of these bottles to drink it. It’s better to collect good memories with somebody while drinking that bottle, rather than looking at it behind a glass window and saying 'Yes, I’m the owner of this thing, it comes from the Elysee Palace'."

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