The secret was out about the French wine tasting experience at Ô Chateau long ago. Despite its inclusion in a dubious list of “private Paris” experiences that “hover below the normal tourist radar”, according to The New York Times, Ô Chateau has long been in the guidebooks.
At the time of writing, it was #5 experience in Paris Attractions on Trip Advisor, which means, like Cook’n With Class, it was placed more highly than visiting the Eiffel Tower, garnering a mind-boggling 193 reviews (when we last checked) dating back to 2004. The lovely women we met on Meg Zimbeck’s foodie tour were also signed up for a wine tasting here.
It was this dichotomy – on the one hand it being considered an off-the-beaten-track activity by The New York Times writer, and, on the other hand, it being one of Paris’ most popular things to do – that had us intrigued. Normally, we’d resist something so mainstream in favour of a tasting at a local wine shop, but we couldn’t resist the urge to test out the experience for ourselves.
What was true from The New York Times article was that owner Olivier Magny had abandoned a previous career path to pursue a dream to help visitors to Paris better understand the complexities of French wine. Soon after Olivier started Ô Chateau in 2004 as a small wine-tasting operation in his parents’ apartment, his business boomed.
Ô Chateau now offers daily wine tastings, including a ‘Wine, 2, 3’ introductory tasting, a ‘Tour de France of Wine’ aimed at those with more experience, champagne-tasting cruises, plus the ‘Wine and Cheese Lunch’ we tried.
The tastings are held “underground” – in Les Caves du Paradis, once King Louis XV’s private wine cellar –though contrary to what the Times story suggested, they’re not difficult to find: you’ll be given the address when you book (also on the brochure, website and map), and if there’s nobody to greet you out front, the number is on the building and the door in the courtyard has a sign saying ‘wine-tasting’. There are racks of Ô Chateau brochures outside to confirm you’re at the right address.
The location, a vaulted stone cellar of several rooms, is very atmospheric, with tastings – depending on the group-size – held either around a u-shaped seminar-room table, or, like ours, in a more intimate setting, perched on stools around a high table.
If you don’t like large group activities check numbers when you book, as some days there can be 20 or so participants. The day we did the tasting, there were six others, and a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide, Lionel Medoc.
According to Medoc, his mother told him he was born in a wine barrel – which explains why this young man from Burgundy became a wine-maker. Lionel trained for a year in the Sonoma wine region in the USA, and then worked in Argentina and Australia before returning to France.
Lionel begins our French wine tasting by finding out a bit about each of his participants and their wine knowledge and preferences. Around a table laden with bread boards bearing delicious French cheeses, jambon and baguettes, bottles of gorgeous wines, myriad glasses, and tasting notes and pencils, are two other well-travelled couples, from the USA and Canada; a young American woman who admits to disliking wine but is desperate to appreciate it; and Celine, a French sales manager at a nearby hotel who is here to get a taste of the courses she promotes to her guests.
His mission today, Lionel tells us, is to demystify French wine and give us some keys to understanding French wines – we’re going to learn everything from the colour codes of the French wine bottles to how to read the old-fashioned labels the French use which Lionel complains have no information – “the French are so hopeless at marketing themselves” he says, shaking his head. It’s this kind of honesty, not snobbery, about French wines that Lionel exudes during the whole experience that is so refreshing.
Speaking of refreshing, we start off the tasting with Champagne, of course. Lionel explains where the Champagne region is, how Champagne is made, and how the mix of chardonnay and pinot noir differs depending on the intended market.
“In California, they mix champagne with OJ. Do that in France and you go to jail!” Lionel warns us to much laughter around the room. “Instead, in France, we offer ladies two or three glasses of Kir Royal (Champagne and crème de cassis). Believe me, it breaks the ice on a first date! As does, oysters and caviar!” Given how handsome Lionel is and how he has the rapt attention of every female, that’s probably not necessary.
We then proceed to taste a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and a Chardonnay from Burgundy – with the tasting notes having a non-too-subtle shot at Californian Chardonnays. Lionel explains why when shopping for French wines you rarely see what the grape is that the wine is made from.
“We’re just really bad at marketing ourselves,” he says again, something that even he, a Frenchman, just can’t seem to comprehend. Given that there are 455 appellations (designated wine regions) in France it’s no wonder people get confused trying to buy French wines.
Lionel then runs through the typical wine tasting protocol, including sucking air into your mouth while you have a mouthful of wine. Only Lionel can make this look remotely sophisticated.
“In France, sometimes the sommelier will speak bullshit and it can be very boring, but it’s still good to learn the basics of the wine vocabulary, how to describe the look, smell and taste of wine, and then develop your own,” says Lionel.
He mentions that the Chardonnay we’re trying has the aromas of brioche (the sweet French bread). It’s an aroma that I always associate with French Chardonnays, but could never figure out just what it was or how to describe it.
A discussion starts about the etiquette of sending a bottle of wine back. While it’s not okay to send it back simply because you don’t like it, it is expected if the wine is ‘corked’. A wine can be spoilt for a variety of reasons: the cork could have been contaminated with TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), the wine could have had contact with air due to a faulty cork; it could have been ‘cooked’ by being stored in high temperatures or being exposed to sunlight; or the wine could contain too much sulphur.
A good sommelier will sniff the cork before offering you a taste and take it away if he gets a hint of the tell-tale signs, such as the smell of wet newspaper, cat’s urine, or wet dog. If in doubt, send it back.
We move on to the reds with one from the South West (Sud Ouest) from the appellation of Fronton. It’s light but actually quite complex, consisting of the grapes Négrette, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (Shiraz). I don’t refuse another pour of this one.
Lionel espouses the health-giving properties of red wine because of the tannins, although I think I’m well exceeding his ‘two glasses a day’ prescription. Some of the guests have a hard time ‘getting’ tannins, probably because the lovely wines on the table, now including a Chateau Lanessan 2003 from Bordeaux, are sitting barely sipped on the table. Odd.
The cheeses and meats were delicious and there were plenty of them, but cheese isn’t enough for lunch for us – especially after (quite) a few glasses of wine, so, class over, we bid adieu and thank Lionel for a fascinating course (which it was). I spot that there is more than half a bottle of Chateau Lanessan left on the table and I’m half tempted to become a wine thief.
Over lunch we decide to reject the heavily marked-up bottles and opt for the house wine. As I’m seated next to the bar I can see that the waitress is snipping the corners off one of the biggest wine bladders I’ve ever seen to get the last out of the ‘box wine’.
As we sip the insipid drop, we toast to the complexities of the French and their wine. We might have learnt a lot today, but clearly there’s a lot more to learn about the French and their wine.