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Anyone up for 200-year cognac?

world Updated: Dec 05, 2009 09:40 IST

Cognacs bottled before the French Revolution and vintages tippled by the rich and famous -- Paris' famed 16th century eatery, the Tour d'Argent, puts 18,000 bottles of its best up for sale this month.

"I don't even know if I could afford some of the bottles," said 29-year-old Andre Terrail, part of the third generation of his family to run a restaurant variously known as the world's "oldest", "greatest" or "most famous".

On taking over after his father's death three years ago, the fresh-faced restaurateur launched a relatively cheap set menu at 160 euros (241 dollars), yet some vintage champagnes still go for well over 2,000 euros a bottle.

And the wine list itself is worth a visit.

Weighing eight kilos (17-and-a-half pounds), it lists 15,000 wines over 400 pages: The Tour d'Argent boasts one of the largest private cellars in the world, and certainly one of the great historical collections of wine.

"It is a heritage my father contributed to and which I must pass on," Terrail told AFP. "We must keep it alive and build on it."

Blessed with one of the city's best locations, by the Seine overlooking Notre Dame cathedral, the restaurant dates back to 1582.

Today, it is far from being at the cutting edge of fine cuisine, but remains a hot favourite with Paris-loving celebs such as Woody Allen, Paulo Coelho or Pedro Almodovar.

On the food front its foremost dish is pressed duck, made from birds which are strangled rather than beheaded to avoid blood loss and keep the flesh succulent.

Terrail says he decided to auction 18,000 bottles on December 7 and 8 in order to make space for new wines in his vast four-century-old cellars, crammed with 430,000 bottles of wines and spirits up to 200 years old.

"We need to enrich our collection with new wines from new parts of France," Terrail added.

Lording over the two-storey slice of wine history deep in the Paris underground is British-born chief sommelier David Ridgway, there since 1981.

In impeccable French, Ridgway admits it is difficult to part with cellar treasures, expected overall to fetch a million euros, with prices ranging from 10 euros a bottle to 5,000 euros, according to auctioneers Piasa.

Bought directly from vintners, none of the bottles has ever been on the market. Bordeaux wines include Chateau Latour (1975, 1982, 1990), Chateau Cheval Blanc (1928, 1949, 1966) and Chateau Margaux (1990).

Among Loire valley wines is a Vouvray Haut Lieu Huet (1919) while the Burgundy region includes a Puligny Montrachet (1992) and Vosne Romanee (1988).

Profits from the oldest bottle, a 1788 cognac, a Fine Champagne Clos du Griffier, will go to charity.

"We need the cash to buy new wines and age them for the future," Ridgway said.

"The fact is that there is a far greater diversity of wines across France today. If you look at the Loire valley, for instance, because of climate change there are wines there you wouldn't have found 15 to 20 years ago.

"And the young generation of vintners are talented, and have brought huge technical progress."

When he joined the Tour d'Argent almost three decades ago, the restaurant bought from 15 chateaux "but now there are 100," he said. Likewise there were only a couple of dozen top producers in Burgundy where now there are 150.

"And now tastes have changed. Wine is drunk younger by people brought up on sodas. We have to adapt and buy young vintages for the future."