When La Tour d’Argent lost its second Michelin star a few years ago, continuing its slide down the ranking of top French restaurants, television crews were camped outside for days. Its food may not be what it once was, but this Left Bank institution is as newsworthy as ever. To many people, it is the most famous eaterie in the capital, a four hundred year old restaurant that continues to attract actors, musicians, business leaders, politicians and the Parisian beau monde.
The food isn’t bad, just a little predictable and pricey at E180 for the tasting menu. No matter. There are still two things that make a visit to La Tour d’Argent unforgettable. The first is the jaw-dropping view from the sixth floor dining room, taking in Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, the Centre Beaubourg and the quais of the Left Bank.
The second is the wine list, which can justifiably claim to be the greatest in France. So extensive is the 450,000 bottle selection that guests have been known to arrive two hours early at La Tour d’Argent, just to read a part of it before dinner. If I tell you that the full list weighs a bicep-straining 9kg, you’ll have some idea of its dimensions.
For lovers of great French wines, there is no better place to drink. To take only two examples, the warren of cellars contains thirty-five vintages of Château Cheval Blanc and ninety-five different Montrachet Grands Crus. The same strength in depth applies to virtually every top wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône, with vintages dating back to the late-19th in some cases.
La Tour d’Argent specialises in old wines. And when I say specialise, I mean it. Apart from a youthful Aligoté (used to make Kir) and the excellent non vintage house Champagne, the youngest wine on the list, red or white, is a 2003. “If I can’t keep a wine for 20 years,” says the restaurant’s wry English chef sommelier, David Ridgway, “then I don’t really want to buy it.” Maturity is not always an easy sell, mind you. “Apart from here,” he adds, “the people who like to drink older wines in restaurants are probably drinking bad older wines, and that can put them off.”
Patience, good provenance and temperature-controlled storage conditions are the key. La Tour d’Argent buys nearly all of its own wines young, storing them until Ridgway considers they are ready. The list does contain younger vintages, tantalisingly held “en vieillissement” in the cellars, but these are off limits to diners. One punter apparently offered $1000 to drink a youthful, if highly praised, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and was turned down.
Unless you know a fair bit about wine it’s hard to know where to start with such a list. It is arranged by region and appellation, starting with the youngest vintage and descending, step by venerable step, into the past, but there are no tasting notes and no indication as to the style of the wines.
That’s where Ridgway comes in. Each week he makes a personal selection of 20 or so bottles that he thinks are at their peak, which certainly cuts the choice down to a palatable size. Failing that, you can ask him to recommend something else. He’s been working at the restaurant since 1981 and estimates that he has served 700,000 bottles of wine in his twenty-eight year stay. The man arguably has a deeper knowledge of old wines, especially Burgundies, than anyone else in France.
I gave him a budget of E100 per bottle, modest by the standards of La Tour d’Argent, and asked him to choose a red and a white to partner the seven course tasting menu. His choices were as unpredictable as they were brilliant, matching the food to perfection. The 1985 Riesling Grand Cru Muenchberg, Lorentz (E95) and the 1985 Montus Prestige Madiran (E95) were delicious old wines, the first a dry Alsace Riesling of haunting restraint, the second a mature, Tannat-based red that’s as good as many a Classed Growth Bordeaux at three times the price.
It’s almost sacrilegious to say it, but the list could be improved. A few by the glass wines would help, although there are 1000 half bottles by way of compensation. I’d also like to see more information about the producers and vintages, even if you’d need a small crane to prize the resulting list off the table. Lastly, a handful of younger wines wouldn’t go amiss. Not everyone wants to drink six year old Sancerre.
But these are caveats. This is an amazing treasure trove of wines, priced fairly and sold with knowledge, passion and obvious enjoyment. If they gave Michelin stars for wine lists alone, La Tour d’Argent would have three.
La Tour d’Argent, 15 Quai de la Tournelle, 75006 Paris. Tel : 00 33 1 43 54 23 31
IN THE BIN
Number of wines: 450,000
By the glass: 2
Under E30: None
Over E100: 4000 plus wines
Best value: 1991 Volnay Pitures, Domaine Boillot at E125 per bottle
Worst value: 1982 Château Pétrus at E19,826 per bottle
Expense account adjuster: *****
Sancerre index: Not applicable. No one else sells six year old Sancerre.
Originally published in Intelligent Life