Text & Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
It is underneath the Hotel de Trudon mansion in the heart of Paris where we are exploring the secret 18-century wine cellars which used to connect to the nearby royal palace of Le Louvre. Once a busy storage space where the wine was aging until ready for royal consumption and then its barrels rolled underground to the palace, today, the 600 square meters (6,460 square feet) of stylishly renovated historic cellars house some of Paris’ tastiest workshops! Enter the unexpected world of Les Caves du Louvre to explore the best terroirs of France in an in-depth wine and cheese pairing experience – a during any trip to France!
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The wine pairing principle holds in a simple sentence. Valentin Allard, our sommelier for the next two hours puts it simply: “Never pair a strong cheese with a strong wine!” The typical Camembert with a Bordeaux wine, preferably with a baguette and wearing a French beret is good only in bad clichés and worse movies… The whole secret of a proper pairing is not to have the flavours competing against each other, but instead enhancing each other. With this in mind, Valentin is about to take us through all of France’s wine regions and have us taste a wide variety of cheeses to illustrate this principle and educate us about wine tasting in the process.
With dexterity, Valentin opens a bottle of Petit Chablis from Burgundy, pours a sip in a glass and smells it briefly to check whether it is corked. A grin of satisfaction appears on his face and he points to a map of France highlighting the different wine regions and main grape varieties that are rather uniform. Chardonnay covers all of Burgundy for the whites. “We, French people, do not buy a grape: we buy wine from a specific region, and specific vineyard, and even a specific patch of this vineyard.” The vineyard defines not only the terroir but also the wine making process. “For your first pairing I have chosen this AOP Petit Chablis because the Chardonnay grapes grow all the way north of the Burgundy Valley. The weather gives the wine an acidity that is perfect to balance the fat of this soft goat cheese, while the soil composition rich in iodine on this former seabed gives the wine a hint of saltiness.” Valentin continues with passion. Impressed by the explanations and feeling like I can get the hang of it, I start tasting the wine like a pro – thanks to my previous wine assembling workshop – checking the colour, the viscosity, smelling it, and running it through my mouth. Light, mineral and refreshing, with a long and fresh finish to fully enjoy it as much as the slightly acidic goat cheese with its grey ash crust.
Valentin takes us further south, along the Loire Valley where Chenin Blanc grows well amongst the UNESCO World Heritage Renaissance castles. Used for sparkling wines or whites ranging from dry to sweet, the Chenin Blanc can even lead to a buttery and oaky Chardonnay-style finish. “This beautiful grape variety is 100% French and originates from a small hill called Chenin”, Valentin states proudly. We taste a piece of Comté that has been perfectly ripened for 18 months by a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France’s Best Craftsmen a very serious contest awarding the best of the best). The fatty cow-milk cheese blends perfectly with the complex yet fresh wine that cuts down the fat.
A detour through the Rhône Valley and its Syrah grapes in the north and tannin-rich Mourvèdre in the south via the white Marsanne and Roussane allow us to fully appreciate a soft and smooth pérail cheese (from the leftover sheep milk from the renowned Roquefort cheese making process).
Back up north to Burgundy – one of my aesthetically and tastefully favourite wine regions – a Pinot Noir delicately aged in French oak barrels shows a pale ruby colour in my glass. Strawberries and white pepper on the nose, smooth and fresh in the mouth, working really well with the soft Saint Marcellin cheese I am savouring. The excellent complexity of the wine allows for tertiary aromas to develop in its aftertaste.
We even go south to the infamous Beaujolais region. If it is a marketing coup that helps winemakers with their cash flow, the acidic 2-month-old “wine” called Beaujolais Nouveau which is celebrated from Paris to New York City does not do justice to Régnié, nor any of the 12 AOP appellations that can carry the name Cru. “AOP means that the wine has to come from a specific region, while cru is even more restrictive to a tinier patch of land like around this village of Régnié in the south of the Burgundy Valley close to Lyon,” Valentin explains. Based on the French regions, a wine can be Premier Cru or even better, Grand Cru (roughly one to two percent of the Burgundy AOP wine production can bear this elite title designating the wine of the greatest quality), or sometimes Cru Classé like in the Bordeaux area.
While talking about Bordeaux, this is precisely where Valentin takes us for the next pairing. Growing on the right bank, the Merlot grapes compose 100 percent of the Saint Emilion Grand Cru aged in French oak barrel. The deep ruby colour of the Merlot and the black fruits with its smoky finish and rich in tannins is simply delicious and even better with the Cantal cheese he selected for us.
As I start feeling slightly tipsy – after all, I have seriously tasted already 8 elixirs – Valentin is presenting the last two cheeses that some around the table look at disdainfully: Roquefort and Epoisse which distinctive strong smell start filling the vaulted cellar.
Surprisingly, two sweet white wines are lined up, far from the traditional strong red wine with strong cheese indeed. A Loire Valley Chenin Blanc Coteaux du Layon with hints of violets and honey contrasting heavenly with a salty Roquefort. The battle for sweet and salty is ongoing in the mouth and causes some spectacular fireworks! And for dessert, a 17-year-old Rivesaltes dessert wine with the strong Epoisse cheese that has been literally leaking on the cheese board. The orange crust, washed with a spirit from Burgundy, is about the only solid part still holding on this creamy cheese. Its strong taste blends with the Rivesaltes, with its woody and nutty flavour that tangoes with the taste of the cheese all through the mouth. Divine!
With the flavours of the last pairing lingering pleasantly in my mouth, the experience has come to an end and Valentin shows us a few more hidden cellars above which tourists and locals alike crisscross the busy streets, just a stone’s throw from Le Louvre. I have a feeling that we should soon take this knowledge we have gained on the roads of France visiting some winemakers and cheese farms… For now, a stop at the wine store following Valentin’s final pieces of advice will do: “Always go from good to better, mild to stronger and do give contrasts a chance!”
- To live this experience in Paris reach out to Caves du Louvre and sign up for their wine and cheese pairing workshop. Booking way ahead is essential.
- If you have only a limited amount of time you can visit the Caves du Louvre in a one-hour visit during which you will learn about how vineyards are planted, what soil composition does to the grapes and flavours, irrigation strategies, and taste some wines.
- More time and want to get creative? Blend your own!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
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