Jane Anson names some of the most exciting sommeliers in Bordeaux and, in doing so, uncovers some of the city's best restaurant wine lists.
Are restaurant wine lists like politicians, in that every city gets the ones it deserves? If so, Bordeaux must be cleaning up its act.
Just ask Alexandre Morin, who moved to Bordeaux five years ago to become sommelier at Le Chapon Fin, one of Bordeaux’s oldest and most illustrious restaurants.
First opened in 1825, it was here that Mouton, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion signed a letter in the 1920s to commit to bottling wine only at the estate instead of in négociant cellars.
In 2012 when Morin started, the Chapon Fin had 800 wines on the list, of which 700 were from Bordeaux. Morin, along with owner Sylvie Cazes, took that to 1,200 references with 500 from Bordeaux. It was a great gig for a young sommelier who had spent three years between the Bluebird in London and Wild Fire in Sydney before moving to Bordeaux, but he quickly realised that the Chapon Fin cellar was an exception to the rule.
‘Bordeaux forgot wine was supposed to be fun’
‘It got tiring walking into bistros in Bordeaux and seeing the same 10 wines on every list,’ he says.
Pretty quickly he worked out why. ‘Négociants acted like sommeliers in this city for too long. Whenever a new restaurant opened, the first person through the door was a salesman for one of the 10 big merchant houses. And they were all selling off the same list of standard Bordeaux names. Put that together with the typical clients in the restaurants – one in four adults in Bordeaux work in the wine industry, and they all want to see their wines on the list – and it became a vicious circle.’
‘Clearly Bordeaux has always had a serious wine culture,’ he continues. ‘But that was part of the problem. So determined to celebrate its own achievements that it forgot wine is supposed to be fun.’
Bordeaux restaurant wine list ‘revolution’
But just like the city itself, Bordeaux’s wine lists have been undergoing a revolution. Partly because visitor numbers have gone from two to six million in the past five years alone, with the majority of the new arrivals under 30. Partly because the locals have been opening up to a café culture that was unthinkable a decade ago. And partly because a new generation of sommeliers, many from outside of Bordeaux, have worked hard to change the conversation. Below are the guys who are leading the charge.
Fabrice Moisan, L’Univerre
- Wines In Cellar: 1,550
- Wines on List: 900
- Wines by the Glass: 16
The sommelier’s sommelier (even though he is more accurately a restaurateur). Moisan sent a shot of excitement into Bordeaux wine lists back in 2009, when he co-founded Le Verretigo, a restaurant that closed down in 2012 but that can be given the accolade of opening up Bordeaux wine lists to the wider world.
Today he owns L’Univerre, the restaurant that attracts pretty much every serious wine lover who comes to the city. L’Univerre has as many German Rieslings on the list as it does classified Bordeaux. It has the biggest allocation of Château Rayas and the widest range of Burgundy and Barolos – at prices that are well below anything you will find at the smarter restaurants in town.
I headed over to see Moisan on a sunny Saturday afternoon (and came away with a Domaine Arnaud Tessier Meursault Les Casses Têtes 2013, that he said was his find of the year). He’s unwilling to ascribe himself as the founder of any revolution and says instead that he just saw an opportunity. ‘I was aware, when I used to come to Bordeaux for Vinexpo wine fair, that there was nowhere for wine lovers for drink. I knew that a lot of people passed through Bordeaux, and nowhere was catering to them’.
Moisan has been collecting wine himself for 25 years (first ‘expensive bottle’ was Domaine de Travallon 1992 from Provence) which gives him the all-important allocations of prized names. ‘We just want to offer the wines that we love, and be reasonable about the prices we charge. And because they are good prices, we tend to sell a lot – so our margins come through quantity, not per bottle’.
Gilles Davasse, Le Flacon
- Wines In Cellar: 200
- Wines on List: 150
- Wines by the Glass: 5 white and 5 red
Fabrice Moisan’s co-founder of Verretigo, Davasse is a former wine shop owner from Toulouse who once worked at the brilliant Le Verre Vole wine bar in Paris. He now owns one of Bordeaux’s newest and most interesting wine bars Le Flacon. This is a totally different approach to L’Univerre in that Davasse keeps his list short and to the point. ‘I am looking for fresh wines, often low or no oak from producers that I know well and trust,’ he says.
Only 15 wines here are from Bordeaux on the current list, with the rest of the exceptionally well-chosen labels from further afield. And it’s always worth going back because you know there is going to be something new – this week sees two arrivals from Domaine Hubert Lignier while last week they had a brilliant range of Domaine de Trevallon in magnum from 2005 and 2012.
It’s hard not to get just as excited as Davasse about what’s coming next.
Alexandre Morin, Le Point Rouge
- Wines In Private Collection: 40,000
- Wines on List: 1,200
- Wines by the Glass: 40
Morin left Le Chapon Fin last October, lured over to one of the most exciting new wine venues in Bordeaux. Le Point Rouge opened in mid-December and has a secret weapon in its arsenal. It offers access to the cellar of one of the city’s most renowned private collectors, Claude Matignoles. Now co-owner of Le Pointe Rouge, until last year Matignoles owned the café Regent in the centre of town, best known as a spot for a quick breakfast with views over the Grand Theatre.
In private, he has long been a prolific wine collector (making headlines in 2012 for buying a €155,000 Royal Salute 45-year-old whisky that you’ll now find here), and his cellar forms the basis of the list now curated by Morin. Set in part of a disused château down on Quai de Bacalan (yet another part of Bordeaux that is set to be transformed over the next few years), they are going for a ‘speakeasy’ feel with a discreet entrance hiding a cavernous interior.
And besides the incredible wine list – specialising in vintage Champagnes, a brilliant range of names by the glass and well-priced older vintages – the bar also has over 100 cocktails that trace the history of the drink from the 1800s onwards, and the biggest collection of whiskys in the city.
A cigar bar is opening in a few months.
Régis Deltil, Cité du Vin (coming soon)
Régis Deltil could be set to take over all the others, as this is the man in charge of the wine list at the Cité du Vin, set to open this summer.
The restaurant there, Le 7, is reportedly going to have a cellar with 12,000 bottles of wine, and he will also oversee a wine shop with examples from over 80 producer countries worldwide. The Cité du Vin boutique will be housed in a 4-metre high circular space displaying around 10,000 bottles, with prices from €5 to €50, and the restaurant is set to offer the widest range by the glass in the city. It sounds like it could really transform the wine scene in Bordeaux, although the problem for Deltil is the very ambition that is set out here – to make this a truly global wine centre.
Since the Bordelais don’t have great form at importing the best that other countries have to offer, the tough part will be representing not just the countries themselves but the great producers – the big names and also the hungry, exciting newcomers. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.
The Michelin Sommeliers
And we shouldn’t forget that all of a sudden there’s a crop of Michelin-starred restaurants in Bordeaux, with wine lists to match. Here we’re talking about:
- Frederic Rouglan at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Le Grand Hotel (where you can pick up a few bottles of English sparkling wine such as Coates & Seely or Camel Valley alongside the 545 other wines on the list and some particularly interesting verticals of classic Bordeaux names)
- Mike Germon at Joël Robuchon’s La Grande Maison (1,500 references, including all the grands crus classés of the Médoc, Sauternes and Saint Emilion, plus some excellent older Burgundies)
- Richard Bernard at the Saint James (look for the excellent range of old Madeiras including some incredible D’Oliveira).
- Over at Le Chapon Fin, Morin has been replaced by Jordan Aniorte, who continues to offer some of the best wines by the glass in Bordeaux (40 of them at any one time, using the Coravin system, so you just might get lucky and find DRC Romanée Saint Vivant 1997 or a Mouton 1978…)
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