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October 17, 2009

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Spirits from another age to be auctioned by Paris restaurant

OVER the years, the chief sommelier had forgotten they were there. And when the four bottles of 1875 Armagnac Vieux were finally unearthed from the labyrinthine wine cellar this week, they were covered in a black fungus that looked like matted cat fur.

The landmark Tour d'Argent restaurant, which dates back to 1582, is cleaning out its 450,000-bottle wine cellar, considered one of the best in the world. It is putting 18,000 bottles up for auction in December, an event that has captured the imagination of French wine lovers.

The restaurant is selling mostly wine but also some very old spirits, like three bottles of a Clos du Griffier Cognac from 1788, the year before the French Revolution, as well as the ancient Armagnac, valued at 400-500 euros (US$595-US$743) a bottle. The fuzzy fungus is nothing to worry about -- it thrives on the fumes of such spirits and often grows on long-aged bottles.

The restaurant wants to cut down on wines it has in multiple to vary and modernize its selection.

"You'll probably see, we've got too many bottles," jokes chief sommelier David Ridgway.

Unlocking a padlocked iron gate, he ushers visitors into the restaurant's underworld, where bottles are stacked floor to ceiling in a succession of caverns. Though everything is registered in a computer, there are occasional surprises, like the 1875 Armagnac, which Ridgway came across while looking for something else.

Visitors are offered sheepskin blankets for the chill.

"I like the wine to live a little bit of the seasons, even though it's temperature-controlled," said Ridgway, a Briton who has overseen the restaurant's wine menu since the early 1980s.

The cellar of the Left Bank restaurant, known for pressed duck and its views of Notre Dame, is a part of its history. A sign marks the spot where a brick wall was built in 1940 to hide the best bottles during the Nazi occupation.

Estimated prices at the December 7-8 sale by French auctioneer Piasa start at 10 euros a bottle and go up to 2,500-3,000 euros for each 1788 Cognac, one of which will go to charity.

Chateau Lafite

Among wines on sale are Chateau Lafite Rothschild (1970, 1982, 1997), Cheval Blanc (1928, 1949, 1966) and Chateau Margaux (1970, 1990). The total sale is expected to bring in around 1 million euros.

Buyers can rest assured the bottles aren't counterfeit -- a major problem in the industry -- because the restaurant bought them directly from vintners. As for the restaurant, the timing is right even as Europe struggles amid a global economic crisis.

"I'm sure there are some amazing treasures in that cellar, and it's a good time to sell because the wine auction market has really come storming back" after tanking during the early months of the financial crisis, said Michael Steinberger, author of "Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France."

The restaurant was once the summit of French gastronomy, but recent years have brought setbacks. Longtime owner Claude Terrail died in 2006, and his 29-year-old son Andre now runs it. The restaurant long held three Michelin stars but is now down to one.


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