Elysee Aromatic - Journey Into The Wine Cellar Of France's Presidential Palace

Virginie Routis, Presidential sommelier
Virginie Routis, Presidential sommelier
Raphaëlle Bacqué

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.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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