Deep underneath the Elysee Palace, next to a bunker with the code name "Jupiter," is the best wine cellar in France. The bottles sit in crates and lie on racks in half-darkness. The air-conditioned room holds more than 15,000 bottles, from the best wine-producing regions in the country - significantly more than the cellars of the French Foreign Ministry, parliament or Senate.
Among the treasures are Grand Cru wines like those of Pétrus, Lafite and Mouton, and fine Champagnes.
A small portion of this precious stock, about 1,200 bottles, will be auctioned off at a sale on May 30 and 31. It is not because the Socialist French president, François Hollande, wants to completely renounce luxury. "In doing this, I am not trying to emphasize that I am a 'normal president,'" he reportedly told staff.
The reason behind the auction is that there are not enough of many of the wines to be able to serve them at banquets. He said the proceeds from the sales are supposed to go toward the purchase of more modest cuvees, and the "surplus will flow into the budget."
'Ambassadors of French Culture'
Wines to be auctioned include Riesling and Gewürztraminer from the Alsace region; Chablis, Corton and Meursault from Burgundy; wine from the Loire Valley; wine from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley. The estimated values range from between 30 and 2,500 per bottle.
A poetic press release from the auction house Kapandji Morhange stated that the sale reflects a "spectrum of our oenological Savoir faire." The wines, the auction house said, are "ambassadors of both French culture and tradition."
The wines have been especially well-cared for at the Élysée, because they were considered the country's wealth and heritage. Since 1879, when the palace was officially chosen to be the residence of the president of the republic, the best bottles of wine have been stored here for the purpose of enjoying them at ceremonious state dinners. The German soldiers who raised the Nazi flag over the building after the occupation on June 14, 1940 flouted this tradition when they plundered the wine reserves for a victory celebration.
The palace received a new wine cellar in 1947, and after every harvest the best vintages have been added. Some of the viticultural proclivities of past heads of state are surprising.
- General Charles de Gaulle liked to drink wine, but especially loved Drappier Champagne, which he voluntarily paid for himself.
- François Mitterrand especially liked Haut-Marbuzet from the Médoc region.
- His successor Jacques Chirac preferred to drink the Mexican beer Corona in his private chambers. His wife, Bernadette, the hostess of the palace, had the wine cellar renovated and eagerly took care of the regular purchase of prestigious wines such as Mouton-Rothschild or Margaux, leading the budget to increase by a healthy 20 percent.
- Under the non-drinker Nicolas Sarkozy (who has said he prefers to listen to how others talk about wine) the wine purchases were cut back because of the economic crisis. But with 250,000 annually, the Elysee Palace sommelier, Virginie Routis, still had an ample budget.
A Certain Prestige
Routis, who kept her position when Hollande took office, is now overseeing the current sale. The wines chosen for auction were brought to a vault at the wine cellar Chemin des Vignes, in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris, three months ago. Bottles such as a Château Suduiraut from 1967 or a Château d'Yquem Premier Cru from 1855 are ready to be appraised.
"These excellent products let people dream," said Yves Legrand, owner of the vault. And he doesn't just mean the quality of the goods, some of which are slightly dusty. Almost as important as the wine itself is the previous owner.
"The fact that these bottles come from the Elysee gives them a lot of prestige," said a staff member. And to guarantee that this prestige will be visible on the table at home, the bottles will be labeled with stickers in blue, white and red -- the colors of the Republic.