Lionel Michelin is a renowned expert on great wines, particularly on old vintages, and he is as skilled in finding the rarest bottles as he is in seeking out good less well-known wines for every day. A conversation about his passion and city, over a bottle of Clos Beatus Ille 2011 from the Domaine Saint Préfert, a Côtes du Rhône with remarkable fruit flavours.
The first question that we usually ask: are you Parisian?
L. M.: Let’s say that I have been a Parisian for 45 years! I come from a ‘blend’ of 50% Martinique 50% Ardennes. I grew up in Alsace and in Africa too. I came here to study law, in 1968, and I never left.
You studied law: is wine therefore not a vocation?
L. M.: That’s true; for a long time, I was director of exports in a telecommunications company, a profession far-removed from the world of wine! My passion for wine has only increased with time. First, during my studies, at the beginning of the seventies, I had a little job as a driver in a famous fine food store on avenue de l’Opéra, Corcellet, which every morning sent me to Bercy to find wines for the shop. I therefore knew the atmosphere of a wine market with paved streets, wine barrels and wholesalers, which today no longer exists. Then, at the same time, I accompanied a friend who was a clerk in the office of an auctioneer, to a wine auction at Drouot. I bought a batch of bottles there and we opened them all and tasted them. As he knew a lot about wine, he began to talk to us about it. I was 23 at the time and I knew nothing at all; after that I joined a club of fine wine enthusiasts, and that was the beginning of a passion which I still have today.
You therefore began to discover great wines very early?
L. M.: Yes, because with the club, we tasted the best wines in France. Imagine it was a bit like learning to drive a Ferrari! I therefore straight away drank some great things, while at the same time learning to distinguish different wine varieties, regions, chateaux, etc. I can assure you that once you have tasted a Mouton 1947, your perception of wine changes. And Mouton is Bordeaux, but that’s not the only thing in life: Burgundy, Rhône, Loire, French wines, foreign wines, young wines and those in the making …
Once I had become initiated into this milieu of great old wines, tasting them and seeing what made the difference between a great year and an average year, between a great wine house and a less prestigious one, between wine merchants and owners … I began to buy wine and to visit vineyards while at the same time continuing to work in telecommunications; wine had definitely become a passion, an all-consuming passion, which took up all my free time.
However these great wines must have represented quite an outlay in expense!
L. M.: But at the time, in the seventies, those great wines cost nothing! They weren’t in fashion, and few people knew them; a grand cru from Burgundy from a good year like 1959 cost 30 francs [€4.50 Editor’s note] …
Of course, we only bought what was good quality and in good condition. We knew which years to choose, and from which estates and we didn’t deprive ourselves. So, I bought some great wines but also wine for every day; in the eighties I went to Burgundy often and I bought a lot of wine from individual owners.
During all these years, while still working, I used to organize wine tastings at my home, to which I invited some wine growers. In 1982, when my son was born I filled my cellar with Burgundy — but it was a bad choice as 1982 was an average year for Burgundy wine: I should have gone to Bordeaux! It is a bit like the stock exchange, it is easy to know … with hindsight!
1994 was the year that De Vinis Illustribus was created, was it not?
L. M.: That’s right; after 18 years in telecommunications and after deep reflection, I decided to do something in wine. I tried to buy some vines, but they were terribly expensive, and that’s not something you can do overnight. So, instead, I turned to bottles of vintage wine, and created De Vinis Illustribus. I put my collection of 5,000 bottles into the company and began to sell my wines.
You started out with a good investment!
L. M.: It was not a question of speculation. When these old wines are chosen they are at their peak and so are to be drunk. On the other hand, recent wines are bought to mature. What’s more, from the beginning, I bartered with friends and exchanged wine with wine enthusiasts. Wine was only resold occasionally.
Today, some 20 years later, what does De Vinis Illustribus do? And first of all, why this name?
L. M.: De Vinis Illustribus is a reference to the famous Latin textbook written by the Abbé Lhomond in the 18th century: De viris illustribus, meaning ‘about famous men’. And then we are located in the Latin Quarter. What’s more, the shop we are in was already a renowned cellar as far back as the 1930s; it belonged to Jean-Baptiste Besse, whose clients included Ernest Hemingway, as well as the future president of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, then a student at Polytechnique, at the time when the school was opposite the shop.
We have two commercial activities: primarily selling. The sale of great vintage wines, especially French — currently, the oldest bottles we have are a cognac from 1811 and our oldest wines date back to 1920. Next, the sale of great recent wines — Burgundy, Rhône, Bordeaux, etc. Finally, the sale of favourites, 50 or so wine, spirits and champagne references — these are bottles to drink immediately, good well-balanced wines that I select, in a price range of €12 to €50.
The second activity is tastings. We have a venue, this fine 17th century wine cellar that may be privately hired, expertise, and of course a good stock, which turns around 7,000 bottles on average. I give the tasting sessions, which are aimed at groups of 2 to 20 people whether for an hour over three uncorked bottles of wine, a lunch or a dinner, at the shop or in the wine cellar, with four to five wines and accompanying dishes. All in French, English or Spanish. We offer for example a tour of France in wine for wine enthusiasts and complete beginners; foreigners, in particular, appreciate these sessions which enable them to discover the geography of wine and the different terroirs of France, with a map. Clients also have the possibility of incorporating an anniversary wine in order to celebrate a special event like a 20th wedding anniversary.
Who precisely are these individuals? Neighbours, tourists, connoisseurs … ?
L. M.: Half of our clients are foreigners, many come from the United States, Canada and Brazil, but we also have Russians, Chinese and even Australians. Americans, for example, are great connoisseurs of wine; they know their classics. Some clients look for big names: Petrus, Yquem, Romanée-Conti, Lafite … Others are looking more for quality and an exceptional year. French clients are neighbours, enlightened amateurs … But our clients also include professionals, sommeliers from great restaurants who are looking for a specific wine that they do not have on their wine list. The Ducasse Group, for example, often calls me to play a part when a particular vintage is being sought.
So, more than just for bottles of wine, people come to you for advice or an opinion?
L. M.: Exactly. My added value is that I have tasted and drunk all the great classic French wines; I can therefore give an informed opinion about them. I am an epicure; my choice is guided by pleasure rather than snobbishness about a prestigious label. To sum up my philosophy, and the philosophy of De Vinis Illustribus, in a single sentence: I care about old wines not because they are old, but because they are good. The hand of time on a bottle is irreplaceable; French wines improve with aging, which is their particularity. Like the famous ‘terroir’, a notion so difficult to understand for foreigners, it is what makes French wines so unique.
During tasting sessions, you serve food with the wine; who are your favourite suppliers?
L. M.: The first product that comes to mind is bread: I source it exclusively from Kayser, in rue Monge, a few steps from the shop. Next, cheese: Laurent Dubois, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a remarkable selection — his Fourme d’Ambert is exceptional, but also his 36-month-old and 48-month-old Comté. I also recommend Gérard Mulot who makes excellent mushroom pies that go very well with Burgundy wines; he also makes an exceptional chocolate tart … also on the subject of desserts, I’ve recently discovered the patisserie of Carl Marletti, a real treat.
And to finish, what Parisian restaurants can you share with us?
L. M.: I’m very fond of the Relais d’Auteuil, a gastronomic restaurant that serves good simple cooking. They have game in season, which today is more and more rare. And a Marbré of truffles and scallops … More affordable and no less tasty, Itinéraires, near to the shop, is superb value for money and has a lovely wine menu to accompany the food, and L’AOC, another neighbour, serves fine well-cooked food.
DE VINIS ILLUSTRIBUS
48 rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 43 36 12 12
8 rue Monge, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 44 07 01 42
FROMAGERIE LAURENT DUBOIS
47 ter boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 43 54 50 93
PÂTISSERIE CARL MARLETTI
51 rue Censier, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 43 31 68 12
PÂTISSERIE GÉRARD MULOT
6 rue du Pas de la Mule, Paris 3rd
Tel +33 (0) 1 42 78 52 17
LE RELAIS D’AUTEUIL
31 boulevard Murat, Paris 16th
Tel +33 (0) 1 46 51 09 54
14 rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 43 54 22 52
5 rue de Pontoise, Paris 5th
Tel +33 (0) 1 46 33 60 11