Wine blending in an 18th-century royal cellar [Paris]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau

Sommelier Jan Roche leads us down the stairs through an unsuspected 18th century wine cellar, just below the Trudon mansion in the heart of Paris by the royal palace of Le Louvre. Back then, barrels were stored to age for royal consumption by one of the few wine merchants to the king, simply rolled to the royal residence once ready. If the wine story of these historic cellars has been interrupted by the piercing of the 1900 subway tunnels ending the royal connection, today, the dimly lit and stylish cellars have found their original function back. At Les Caves du Louvre, the underground is a paradise for wine lovers where we are about to learn all about wine aromas, grape varieties and ultimately blend our own wine!

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We take a seat at a long table set-up like a chemistry class in which beakers are filled with more engaging liquids than in my high school souvenirs… And just like during high school, before practicing, Jan gives us just enough theory to start off, describing the primary, secondary and tertiary aromas of wine:

  • The primary aromas are the first expression of a young wine: the fresh red fruits, like cherry, raspberry or strawberry notes in a Pinot Noir or the acidic fruits in wines from cooler climates such as Riesling from Alsace climates (green apple). Another primary aroma is the tannins also described as a vegetal hint (mint, cut herbs, grass) in a Cabernet Sauvignon for instance.
  • The secondary aromas evolve during the fermentation process and when the wine is aged in barrels. An example is the buttery taste resulting from a second or malolactic fermentation in white wines from Burgundy, or clove, coffee, vanilla or smoke derived from the barrels.
  • The tertiary aromas develop thanks to the oxidation process created by the oxygen penetrating through the cork when it is aged in a bottle, such as mushroom scents in an old Pinot Noir, tobacco in an old Syrah wine or leather in a well-aged Bordeaux.

A wine can be enjoyable if it only possesses one of these aromas, and it is considered complex if it has at least two. “If the wine loses its primary aromas during the aging process, meaning that when you open a vintage and you do not have any fruits on the nose, it is dead though,” Jan specifies. “But today, the whole point of our workshop is to focus on primary aromas,” he concludes.

The five beakers in front of me are filled with five different grape varieties of fairly young wines in order to do so. A sheet in front of me lists the varieties that I have to grade from one to five according to acidity, tannins, intensity, and alcohol levels in which we are all guided by the sommelier.

I close my eyes and inhale before tasting the light Cinsault, a type of grape famous for creating young, fruity and fresh wines. Rather high in acidity, which brings the freshness, its intensity level is on the low side, meaning that the taste does not linger for a long time. The absence of tannins (derived from the pits and skin) does not allow for this wine to be aged but to be drunk young or blended.

I repeat the process for every beaker: smelling, tasting, grading. I find the Grenache, a resistant grape variety which flourishes in warm climates lower in acidity and more tannic and intense with hints of strawberry, liquorice and spices; spices that I enjoy greatly in the Syrah, mixed with aromas of blackberries; the stronger in alcohol Carignan gives a short-lived acidity with a great intensity; lastly, I swirl a bit of the Mourvèdre in my glass and let its ripe red fruit notes take possession of my mouth with its high tannins and its full-bodied intensity.

I start playing the chemist and take my pipet to mix the wines beginning with a perfectly balanced GSM blend, used in different proportions for many Rhône Valley wines such as Châteuneuf-du-Pape: 33% Grenache, 33% Syrah and 33% Mourvèdre. I swirl the wine in my glass, look how it tears and curiously take a sip, ending in a grimace! It is way too tannic! Looking at my cheat-sheet with my grades, I replace the Mourvèdre by the Carignan, and I am much happier with the result. I keep experimenting, making sure to clean my palate with some fresh baguette (and some delicious cold cuts and cheese purely for the pleasure as I cannot resist!).

I am surprised by the huge differences in tastes when twisting proportions even slightly and realize the complexity of wine making as never before. If I am maybe not a connoisseur, but definitely a wine-enthusiast who has taken pleasure in visiting many vineyards from California (LINK) to South Africa (LINK), and France of course, this workshop is very insightful and fun at the same time. Jan advises us as we are about to bottle our elixir: 50% Grenache, 25% Carignan and 25% Mourvèdre gives me a fruity, smooth and not too tannic wine with some depth that I am enjoying… This is it!

In the next room, I proudly cork my own bottle before sealing it with wax, and gluing the printed sticker of my own design – the first Best Regards From Far branded wine! Santé to this!

If we both truly appreciate a well-aged wine, we drink our bottle the next evening like the vast majority of wine that is purchased, as we are eager to taste it with friends. Understanding the process better, realising that some blends like in the Douro Valley in Portugal are composed of 35 grape varieties and that at the other end of the spectrum, red Burgundy is 100 percent Pinot Noir, we fully savour our blend with pride and having the utmost respect for the delicate craft of winemakers.

Travel tips:

  • 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.
  • If you have a bit more time, indulge yourself into an amazing wine and cheese pairing workshop!
  • 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)!

For more in Paris, click on these images:

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