It’s a little bit like finding out that another world really exists behind the mirror. This particular other world is hidden beneath the Hôtel de Paris, the famous 5-star hotel in Monte Carlo. It feels as though you’ve discovered it quite by accident. After going past a thick royal blue carpet, a discreet short little staircase leads to a narrow corridor with white walls. It slopes gently downwards over several dozen metres until a right-angle turn, at which point the white walls turn to Bordeaux red. The lighting becomes diffused and a solid black grille appears. A discreetly-placed security camera keeps a watchful eye on the entrance.
The treasure is there – in the cool, silent darkness just beyond the door, from where it seems to mock the burning sun and the revving of Ferrari engines just a few metres above.
It’s a treasure consisting of bottles estimated at a retail value of some €12 million; a treasure that only a handful of owners of great wines have had the privilege of discovering over the last century. 350,000 bottles constitute the largest private hotel cellar in the world, and certainly the most prestigious one, judging by the labels. In this incredible bunker, more than 6,000 different wineries from around the world are referenced, of which a third are from the Bordeaux wine region. But they’re not just any old Bordeaux’s: Only the best grands crus from the banks of the Gironde have been arranged with military-style precision here for more than a century.Open Since 1874
This cellar is a veritable institution to the world of wine and has been so since 1874; the dream of a lady who wished that the likes of Margaux and Yquem would repose here in peace. Before that, Bordeaux wine arrived in Monaco by the barrel and was bottled in a warehouse close to the Place du Casino (the hotel is just across the square from the famous Monte Carlo Casino).
The wife of the first owner of the Hôtel de Paris was one Marie Blanc. Following the designs of the Bordeaux cellars, she decided to have a cellar built on the premises of the hotel, in which bottles could be stored that would, in time, become sought-after rarities. Within the rock, there are more than 1,500m2 of vaulted rooms and corridors in which are stored such rarities of mythical proportions as the first grands crus of Château Margaux, Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Sauternes. All lie peacefully in silence, being only disturbed on very rare occasions.The late Princess Grace was one of those who most notably did like to disturb the peace of this silent collection. By all accounts, she loved to enter this world, playing Alice in her very own underground wonderland of dampness and vaulted ceilings. She used to organise dinner parties here for celebrities of the day that were passing through, the most famous of which was the party for her 20th wedding anniversary.
Today, the only ones breaking the silence of the underground sanctuary are the cellar staff and the sommeliers, under the direction of affable Monegasque Gennaro Lorio. Every day, they bring up hundreds of bottles destined for the hotels, restaurants and casinos of Monte-Carlo SBM – a locally-based promotions company more than 150 years old.
150 Days of Wine Tasting
Monte-Carlo SBM has chosen to put its treasure on display for the first time: 150 years, 150 wines, 150 days. Since the 22nd of last month, big-named Bordeaux wines can be tasted over a 150-day period in the outlets belonging to the group. Prices are not cheap but it’s apparently being done at “very thin profit margins” as it’s essentially a promotional exercise. Judge for yourselves: The cheapest glass comes in at €20, climbing to over €50 a taste for the truly big names such as Château d’Yquem 2006 or Cos-d’Estournel 2007. A glass of stuff in the next layer up (a prestigieux premier grand cru classé) will set you back just over €100, while a glass of 1999 vintage Petrus can be knocked back for a price of €150. The most expensive wine in the “150” taste experience is the rare 2000 vintage Pomerol Le-Pin. At €190 a glass for the privilege, it’s definitely one to be savoured slowly.
The whole operation has been turned into a grand event by SBM, who invited thirty or so owners or representatives of large Bordeaux châteaux to the once-off tasting event at the Hôtel de Paris, in front of which a short-living vine was planted. Celebrities were also wheeled out for the occasion, including Prince Albert of Monaco and Dmitry Rybolovlev – Russian billionaire owner of football club AS Monaco.
A Change of ImageBut there is a very grounded reason for this promotional turn aimed at Bordeaux wines more than any other. Even on this wealthy rock in south-east France where many inhabitants seemingly spend without counting, the image persists of vintage Bordeaux wines as being expensive and less accessible than wines from other regions. Demand for such wines continues to drop and Gennaro Lorio admits that the hotel isn’t buying many more of them or at least “no more of the older wines in any case”. Vintage Bordeaux wine has lost none of its prestige but it hasn’t (in Monaco at any rate) benefited from the rejuvenated appeal that a lot of luxury products have undergone in recent years. In the meantime, in a famous cellar in Monaco, these grand old dames of the wine world will be content to repose for eternity. Until, that is, they receive a second lease of life…