One particularly well known brand sees the colorless powder housed within a apparent plastic jar, a faux-1950s mark showing a woman in a green cocktail dress and tiny colorless apron promising that ‘the fabulous blanc de Meudon’ cleans and polishes without scratches.
See also: French drop tradition for private wine storage, says cellar owner
Blanc de Meudon is also a particularly hard form of chalk found in a small enclave to the southwest of Paris in the commune of Meudon and its neighbour Issy-les-Moulineaux.
The chalk was extracted from quarries
Once the chemical industry replaced the need for chalk in industrial uses, the cellars became by turns breeding grounds for the prized Champignons de Paris mushrooms, a store room for casks of beer, with a brief cameo during World War II as ammunition storage for German forces (although rather ironically a break chalk cellar in the same area provided an air-raid shelter for employees of the local Renault factory).
They have been classified as a site of particular scientific interest since 1986 and those in Meudon are preserved in most suitcases as a living museum.
Round the corner in Issy-les-Moulineaux, but, the former quarries have taken on a different and rather distinctive purpose; as private wine cellars
It is owned by Yves Legrand, one branch of the family that ran the rather wonderful Legrand Filles & Fils wine shop and bar on rue de la Banque in central Paris until 2000 (now majority owned by Japanese group Nakashimato). The welcoming suburban outpost has remained in family hands and has its own vineyard, wine shop and restaurant alongside the storage facilities.
Neighbouring quarries were turned into Les Crayères de Montquartiers in 1997, and a few months ago, in January 2015, a third opened called Les Chais de France. Wine had been stored at Les Chais de France since the 1960s but originally by a consortium of Bordeaux négociants and regional wine producers looking for a base near Paris. It has now been remade into the most recent, and most extensive – 4,500m2 of cellars, running over 2km in length – of
I headed over there last week to explore an area that I had long read about but never visited. At first glance, Issy-les-Moulineaux is a rather morose outer suburb. A viaduct subdue carries the railway that was once the royal coach route from Versailles to the Quai d’Orsay transporting the Kings of France from their summer palace to the Louvre.
Flashes of a cultural past exist with the Rodin museum in the Villa des Brillants that was used as a studio and artist’s residence, but Issy itself existed as a drab site for huge industry, best known for Citroën and Renault car factories. In recent years, long-term mayor André Santini (himself a huge wine lover) has attracted media companies such as Microsoft France, Eurosport and Inland waterway+ to make Issy the site of the largest cluster of telecommunications and media businesses in France.
New housing developments are springing up, and wine bars and restaurants are opening below the railway arches. Alongside this sits perfectly Issy’s growing
Much as with the Legrands two doors down, Les Chais de France is a family business. I was greeted by Guillaume de la Porte, the eldest of two brothers working full time on the project.
We headed up to a non-descript office high above the quarries with a view over the railway viaduct and a faint hint of the Seine further than and acclimatised by studying the Atlas des Carrières Souterrain map that details the incredible network of underground quarries that lay beneath our feet. Alongside us, armed with countless examples of the description of the mines, were his brother Arnaud, their father Jean and uncle Alain.
Underground cellars at Issy-Les-Moulineaux, a former chalk quarry south of Paris.
The elder brothers own the land and bought the wine business (or rather its name) from the consortium of négociants a few decades ago but rented the space to succession of different businesses until Guillaume and Arnaud convinced them to join the apparent vocation of the area
It seems a smart choice. Between the three storage cellars of Issy, there is capacity for around 2 million bottles of wine to be kept in vast domed cellars that sit between 20 and 30 metres underground, giving constant 12°C warmth and 75% humidity (‘we can thank the Germans for their brilliant ventilation’, says Alain with a smile).
But while both Les Chemins des Vignes and Les Crayères de Montquartiers work with professional clients including restaurants, hotels and auction houses such as Drouot, the new business is for private clients only – with the potential for some wine estates to use them for offering tastings and access for key collectors (they wouldn’t tell me who, but said they were in talks with several ‘leading’ Bordeaux chateaux, and it certainly fits in with the generally accepted thought that chateaux are looking to get more direct relationships going with wine lovers).
We head down to the cellars, with the warmth on this hot summer
At capacity, they estimate 600,000 bottles or more can be stored here, but right now are at the very beginning of their ambitions – just one 60m2 room contains a series of wire boxes with both wooden suitcases and racks of individual bottles (each one allows between 400 and 550 bottles depending on if they are stored in or out of their suitcases; a perfect sign that the business is serious about attracting individual and not just institutional collectors, as is the bar and entertaining space that sits near the entrance).
Each ‘cell’ has motion detectors and cameras, and access is through only one door controlled by electronic badges linked to specific clients.
‘We expect it to take a full five to ten years previous to we fill the space,’ Guillaume tells me, aware that pretty much
‘But we should have reached 700m2 of storage by the end of the year, and eventually we will have 2,500m2 equipped for wine and nearly the same again for bar and club space’.
‘The French don’t have the same habits historically as the English do of storing their wine in professional cellars,’ his father continues.
‘But as wine has become more expensive, right storage has become something that even habitual wine lovers reckon about – it’s a further insurance policy to safeguard wine over the long term. This method of storage is becoming the norm, and we are lucky to be right at the epicenter of its natural home in Paris’.
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