The Golden Cellar in the Silver Tower
A Tour of the Cellars of La Tour d’Argent with David Ridgway Head Sommelier
Built by Charles V in the 14th century on the left bank of the Seine in the heart of Paris, the southwest tower of the Château de la Tournelle was:
Made of champenoise stone, so rich in mica it glittered in the sun, it became known as the “Silver Tower”
Champagne plays a glittering role inside La Tour d’Argent welcoming guests in the restaurant and on the wine list, however the heart of the cellars is the Cote d’Or, creating a cave d’or or golden cellar of wine.
Continuing the theme of precious metals, the setting and view from the tables of the sixth floor of the tower is platinum.
And the party begins! Champagne, which liberates its short-lived bubbles, creating laughter and happiness…
Now, me, Claude Terrail, I will tell you confidentially, you exclusively – you can not have a fête without its glittering cascades. Its Champagne bubbling around will open the dance for you, the dance for friends, sharing in the same joys.
You have bottled the whole French spirit. Champagne, fill my glass Champagne, I’ll drink to my loves! Champagne, to my friends! Champagne for ever!
David Ridgeway adds his professional opinion:
The effervescence should be there to sublime flavour rather than derange the palate.
The house Champagne is produced by Legras in Chouilly, 100% Grand Cru 100% Chardonnay, with a focus on ultra brut.
David prefers the use of reconstituted grape must than sugar mixes resulting in much fresher flavours and better quicker integration, and does not oxidise as much. The champagnes rest for minimum 6 months in cellars before being served.
The house champagne is the only champagne served by the glass:
More expensive wines are not a positive thing, taking away the image of the producers losing the rarity and luxury image of the product, becoming just a party drink rather than a great wine. The price of a prestige cuvée can put the host or guest ill at ease by price, and if there are three or more a bottle is more cost effective.
David’s favourite Champagne vintages to drink now are 1996 and 1973.
Claude Terrail says:
Our cellars are mostly devoted to burgundy wine. Here, among so many famous others, you can see the three finest jewels; a Chambertin 1865, a Clos-Vougeot 1870, a Romanée 1874.
David Ridgway is a collector, curator and conservator of wine, and lover of Burgundy.
There is a lot more Burgundy than Bordeaux. Traditionally cooking has been more oriented to Burgundy. Burgundy is more complicated than Bordeaux.
Bordeaux has an image of being stereotyped – luscious, ripe wines or hard unyielding wines with not much middle ground. Burgundy is more sensual therefore appealling and capable of ageing perhaps better than Bordeaux.
Burgundy offers diversity. For example four different growers from Chambertin Clos de Beze and continuing down the côte like that are lots of different people and wines that we work with. We have four growers from Le Musigny so even if there are just 4 to 6 bottles per grower this gives great diversity.
There is more fidelity between grower and purchaser in Burgundy. We do not worry about allocation unlike in Bordeaux where the first, highest bidder gets the wine. Some years we will not buy Bordeaux but we buy Burgundy every year. For example, Le Musigny by de Vogüé or Roumier are less expensive than second growth Bordeaux. The cost:value image is no comparison.
La tour d’Argent has bought piéces at the Hospices de Beaune auction in the past, the last time “Cuvée Nicolas Rolin” in 2005.
The Hospices de Beaune auction is a wonderful charity, but the control of quality during élévage after the purchase is not enough to guarantee quality:price value.
Ridgway is not very excited about vintage 2009, especially in Burgundy, except in the Beaujolais. He says that Morgon and Fleurie in particular will be very good, but that is not a priority for the restaurant.
David’s favourite Burgundy vintage drinking well now is 1985. And his favourite climats:
I love Richebourg (or ideally Le Conti being snobby) more than La Tâche, and Vosne Romanée and Musigny which are the heart of the Côte de Nuits.
The Tour d’Argent prides itself on having the most technically perfect cellars in Paris … glorious treasures and most renown bottles, some rare trophies, certainly collectors’ items and also some fine specimens selected from unparalleled vintages. Treasures were saved from the German occupation during the Second World War thanks to Claude Terrail, who personally walled up part of the cellars on the night of 14th June 1940.
The cellars began to lack space in the 1990s, however the proprietor Claude Terrail and Ridgway did not want to rent space or store wines off site, so in 1998 a second level was excavated below.
A welcome site at the bottom of the staircase are four bins built into the wall each containing a two month supply of 600 bottles of house Champagne, a total of eight months’ supply.
The cellars house 400,000 bottles now after a heyday of 500,000.
The diversity is still the same with 15,000 different wines. The quantity will not go up anymore but diversity will become more and more important.
The exceptional and unique auction of 18,000 wines from the cellars of the Tour d’Argent twelve months ago raised 1,542,767 euros and has created empty shelves that will be re-sized to take more Burgundy. For highlights of the sale see: https://amantduvin.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/la-tour-dargent-wine-auction-2009/
18,000 bottles are sold per year compared to 25,000 in its heyday, however, the restaurant is now closed two days per week and six weeks per year resulting in 25 to 30% less time open. The chef has capped the number of customers in a single setting from 100 now to a maximum of 80.
Ridgway has been Head Sommelier since 1981 and is present in the restaurant every day it is open.
The wines are computerized, and every room in the cellar has a letter, and each bin a number.
Glimpsing names or colours on labels and capsules as each room flashed past was memserising and exciting, passing every few seconds under another wine-arch, it was hard to follow how large this maze it. David referred to it modestly as “our little cellar”.
The Wine List
La Carte des Vins is a 400 page book containing 15,000 wines. Seven wine lists are updated everyday, slightly changed with one or two pages replaced according to availability.
Wines are arranged on the list by region then vintage. Each region is presented geographically for example the Côte d’Or of Burgundy from north to south, starting with Gevrey Chambertin to Puligny Montrachet, and again within a village appellation, so their 70 or 80 different vignerons of Chambertin will be arranged by vintage, followed by Chambertin-Clos de Beze, Chapelle, Charmes etc. south.
Ridgway takes the 6:55 am TGV to Burgundy most Monday mornings when the restaurant is closed to taste wines.
A lot of wines are delicious when young, then go into a closed-up stage. Wines are never taken on and off the carte, so nothing is made available until Ridgway declares the wines ready to drink. For example 2009s that have been bought en primeur will appear under a heading “En Vieillissement” (under maturation) for many years before being served.
People like to see what David is buying – their own judgements are confirmed or influenced.
Throughout its 500 year history:
Hard times … only gave the Tour a more silvery shine. The wine cellar … is a source of marvel, frequented by lovers of fine wines as well as members of the high society.
The Walt Disney/Pixar animated film Ratatouille (2007) was based on La Tour d’Argent. The restaurant was consulted during the production, but no one in particular was portrayed. The film was welcomed and has had good repercussions, demonstrating that this establishment is not an ivory tower.
As I left La Tour and walked across the Quai, the sky was blue and the sun was shining as the temperature dropped to zero and snow flakes floated across the ever glittering tower.
Visit 15 December 2010
 Terrail, Claude Nothing Is More Serious Than Pleasure. La Tour d’Argent, ASA Editions, Paris, 2002, p. 57
 Ibid, p. 67