Most wine enthusiasts contemplating a dining tour of France salivate at the thought of ordering and drinking wines from the great wine lists of that country's top restaurants. In the past, most of these restaurants had something for everybody -- from great old vintages (at prices that seem cheap when compared to what such wines would command in American restaurants) to regional wines at remarkably low prices.
While some great wine lists can still be found in France, particularly in Paris, their demise is perhaps the most depressing part of a gastronomic pilgrimage through that country. A look at the economics of wine buying from a French perspective reveals why their restaurants are unable to maintain large wine inventories and why the great French wine list is not only in jeopardy, but may cease to exist.
Maintaining a fully stocked wine list has never been an inexpensive proposition simply because restaurants must purchase and inventory vintages of the serious red wines and usually must wait a minimum of 6 to 10 years for them to shed their rawness and grapey youthfulness.
When French wines were inexpensive, this was relatively easy for the top restaurants to do. However, for the last four years the French have witnessed a continual weakening of the franc. This has coincided with a tremendous upsurge in foreign interest in French wines particularly in countries with strong currencies, such as the United States, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and England.
French restaurants, which must pay in francs, have found this competition for wines, especially the internationally known glamour wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, prohibitively expensive.
Several weeks ago, Jean Claude Vrinat, owner of Taillevent, a famed Paris three-star restaurant recognized not only for its great cuisine but also for its wine list, said that the great French wine lists are things of the past.
First, except for his and a handful of other luxury restaurants, no French restaurants could afford either the 1982 or 1983 bordeaux when they were offered for sale as wine futures. In the United States, where we pay for wines in dollars, these futures were offered at what now looks to be sensational bargain prices because the strong dollar made a very favorable exchange rate. But in French francs, the prices were, according to Vrinat, absurdly high for wines that by and large could not be served until they were 8 to 10 years old.
While he acknowledged that because of his restaurant's image as having one of France's greatest wine lists, he had to take a large buying position on the 1982s, and to a lesser extent the 1983s, irregardless of price, he said the price he would have to charge for a bottle of 1982 bordeaux in 1992 (after factoring in the cost of holding the wine for 10 years) will put it out of reach of all but the very, very rich. Unlike most other restaurants in France, Taillevent continues to buy young wines and age them for up to a decade before placing them on the wine list.
Vrinat said that he and his fellow restaurateurs had also hoped that as a result of Bordeaux's mediocre vintage in 1984, those wines would be offered at very reasonable prices so that the restaurants could replenish their depleted stock after skipping over the high-priced '82s and '83s. However, the 1984 bordeaux have now been released at prices higher than the 1983s and this again has precluded the French restaurants from taking large buying positions.
As Vrinat stated, the great majority of French restaurants have not bought any classified Bordeaux wines for three straight years and the likelihood of any of the top wines from these vintages ever appearing on the great majority of French wine lists is extremely remote.
With virtually all of the top French wines of the last three vintages destined for the export markets, Vrinat predicts that wine-loving tourists coming to France over the next decade had better be coming to visit the sights rather than planning to cherrypick the top wines from restaurants throughout the country.
This summer the most commonly encountered word on the French wine lists is "epuise," which means exhausted. One after another wine list is tattooed with this word for virtually any wine older than 1978 as American, Belgian, English, Swiss and German wine connoisseurs drink their way through most of the best and older wines. Since these restaurants have been reluctant to replace their inventories with wines they feel are too expensive and entirely too young to drink, the wine lists have gotten extremely short and depleted.
The silver lining in these developments is that France's least-known great red wines, those of the Rho ne Valley, and France's least-known great white wines, those of Alsace, are now getting more attention from the restaurants. However, as Andre' Lallemand of the well-known Provence restaurant, Auberge de Noves, said last week, the great majority of Americans, Swiss, Germans and Belgians who eat at his restaurant continue to demand bottles of $50-to-$60, young, immature bordeaux and burgundy while ignoring his advice to try one of the reasonably priced, older and more mature rho nes, which in his opinion are not only better but considerably better values.
For wine enthusiasts who continue to demand prestigious bordeaux and burgundy wines, the majority of France's greatest restaurants today can only offer high prices and young undeveloped wines. For the shrewd consumer who wants high quality at attractive prices, there looks to be a new generation of Frence wine lists emphasizing more and more the great red wines of the Rho ne Valley and the superb white wines from Alsace.