PARIS - The wine cellar of the French Presidential Palace – the Elysée – where President François Hollande now resides, is not that far from the command center of France's nuclear arsenal.
Its location remains just as much a mystery. Except for authorized personnel, it is impossible to visit the wine cellar, with the entrance being vaulted shut. More than 15,000 bottles of the very best France has to offer lie within: Châteaux Ausone, Petrus, Figeac, Yquem, the prestigious châteaux of Burgundy, a collection of vintage champagnes etc. This is where the French Republic keeps its prestige and one of its means of diplomacy.
However, it is not so much the French president who gets to enjoy these wines; it is rather for his hosts to gauge how France's reputation lives up to reality. Virginie Routis, the sommelier at the Elysée Palace since 2007, knows exactly how political the choice of wine is: "I choose the wine according to the menu, but also according to protocol. For a head of state, there will be various well-known labels on the table, such as a Château d'Yquem with foie gras, or with meat a 1998 Léoville Poyferré, for example, which is a prestigious, second cru from the Saint-Julien vineyard, classified in 1855." And for simple parliamentarians? "Wines from smaller vineyards, but who still do very good things," she smiles.
Originally from Bordeaux, she graduated from the Gascony hospitality school (Lycée d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme de Gascogne), and started out as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants in the United Kingdom, before moving to the Bristol Hotel, a stone's throw from the Elysée in Paris. Virginie Routis is, however, under strict confidentiality regarding the budget, or even the number of bottles in the wine cellar from the grand cru Romanée-Conti vineyard.
"I have to buy wines from every region in France – there is not a single bottle of wine from abroad – and I meet all the vineyard proprietors in order to taste the wines beforehand," she says. It is rare that proprietors give wines to the French Republic for free; however, the Elysée does sometimes get a discount.
François Hollande has never been to this secret lair. Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not drink one drop of alcohol during his term as president, also did not set foot inside. However, current First Lady Valérie Trierweiler has visited, like Carla Bruni before her, who would often serve wines from her native Italy.
The Elysée's wine cellar in unrivalled. However, the one at Quai d'Orsay, a metonym for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has one of the most beautiful collections of vintage champagnes and Burgundy white wines among its 10,000 bottles. In every French embassy around the world, wine-tasting soirées are organized to promote this product, one of the rare industries where France retains its supremacy.
There is also a beautiful collection in the French Senate, which has all the classics, as well as young labels, and also the best wines from abroad, such as Italy, Spain and South Africa. Meanwhile, the Matignon Palace, residence of the French prime minister, goes all out when hosting foreign visitors. The head of the wine cellar there, a navy officer by tradition, did not think twice when choosing a wine for Queen Elizabeth II during her official visit to France in 2004. He served an astonishing Provignage, a white wine from Touraine made from rare pre-phylloxera vines (meaning vines planted before the influx of grapevine pests). One must be original when welcoming the English, seen as though the Queen has always served extraordinary French wines during every French president's visit to Buckingham Palace: such as a wine from 1945, the year of liberation, and one from 1961, one of the best years for vintage Bordeaux wines.
Dom, “like James Bond”
Wine is deep-rooted in the culture of France. Mostly reserved for the aristocracy under the Ancien Régime, it became popular among the masses after the Revolution in 1789. However, none of the prestige has been lost, with each French president keeping France's tradition alive.
Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (from 1974 to 1981) introduced nouvelle cuisine to the Elysée, a lighter and more fashionable fare during so-modern seventies. Traditions became more relaxed, meaning no more conservative conversations and meat in sauce. The modern President was "very Bordeaux." With him, the Elysée wine cellar gave the châteaux of Médoc predominant place.
Whereas, his rival of the time, Jacques Chirac, who was campaigning to be mayor of Paris in 1977, preferred to drink Dom Pérignon champagne: "Like James Bond!" said his supporters, even though his refined taste for champagne severely contradicted his image as a populist.
However, the economic crisis and the various scandals along the years have forced politicians to be more prudent in their wine tastes. Lionel Jospin, who became prime minister in 1997, even announced that he was watching his figure: "I told myself that I couldn’t put on any more weight, because, in the minds of French people, it meant that I lived a lavish lifestyle."
Nevertheless, electoral campaigns, especially in rural communities, are still played out over France's bistro counters. Wine tasting is almost an essential part to a visit to the Périgord, to Brittany or to the Moselle region. Ségolène Royal, a presidential candidate in the 2007 elections, made sure that photographers captured her happily drinking wines from vineyards across France, knowing full well that her rival Nicolas Sarkozy would quickly decline any glasses offered to him.
Royal had learned well after the terrible gaffe she made when she started out as a young legislative candidate in the Calvados, in Normandy. As she arrived at each farm, she was offered a glass of wine. Without much sense of political tact, she replied: "No thank you, not during the campaign!" Needless to say, she did not win.