“I don’t sell wine, but as I have too much, I decided to host dinners to enjoy them,” explains François Audouze in the lobby of the Covent Garden where he is staying. Commencing with a first event in December 2000, this extraordinary French collector has organised an unparalleled annual programme, usually 15 evenings per year, and bar exceptions like this evening, usually in Paris, where his cellar is located.
Venues form a roll call of the city’s old guard of top Michelin haunts – Le Meurice, Guy Savoy, Hôtel de Crillon, George V, Le Bristol and Taillevent, with Le Laurent a particular favourite that has played host to no fewer than 40 such evenings. Audouze (first picture) has also organised two dinners in Beijing in 2009, and even one at Le Gavroche, back in 2003 – his only previous event in the UK.
Strolling with Audouze to Soho’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon as one of his eight guests, I silently thanked Hugo Campbell-Davys, founder of members-only lifestyle guide Urbanologie – which was promoting the £1,000-a-head dinner in the UK – who had brought the evening to my attention earlier in the week and organised for me to attend. After a little research and a subsequent interview with Audouze, it seemed fair to say that this would be an experience worthy of interrupting my evening’s intended Daredevil binge on Netflix.
François Audouze was born in Hérault in 1943 and, having taken over a steel business in 1971 and seen it through its IPO 18 years later, he then bought, built up and sold various industrial-sector companies before retiring a little over a decade ago to devote his time to his abiding passion: collecting and enjoying the world’s oldest and finest wines with like-minded enthusiasts.
Aged 20, Audouze had already been starting to enjoy fine wines, but his epiphany a few years later was a bottle of 1923 Climens Sauternes he recalls as being “just so much better than anything I had tried before” and which started him on an incredible vinous journey. He began collecting seriously in 1976, already the tail-end of the heyday for collectors as the rise of Robert Parker in the early 1980s and the success of Bordeaux’ 1982 vintage was to bring in its wake a new breed of buyer – the speculator – and the game would be forever changed. Since then Audouze has garnered a singular reputation for sourcing very old wines. One of the most venerable in his cellar is from 1791, but there is a healthy smattering of vintages either side of 1900, with 1928 clearly a favourite year. While the relative infants from 1990, 1988 and 1982 are well represented, the legendary years 1961, 1959 and especially 1947 (wines from the latter having featured in no fewer than 88 of his 188 dinners) form the enviable core.
When asked how he sources such old wines, Audouze laughingly replies that even he is not old enough to recall the 1870 En Primeur campaign, but has always bought from where others were not looking and so developed a reputation that means now the wines come to him – he receives 20 emails a day offering him rare stock. He never buys reconditioned bottles, preferring “ugly but genuine” originals and assiduously avoids anything that might not be the genuine article – “a recorked Mouton ’45 in my cellar? Jamais”. He compares his buying strategy to a butterfly landing on a flower, entirely as the fancy takes him, enjoying “the freedom from logic”.
Conversely, the construction of Audouze’s dinners is far more scientific, involving a six-month lead time, during which he will decide on the wine line-ups and venues for the next three events. Looking in his cellar, he chooses wines to create a narrative and to explore different themes: “I often feel like a painter or perhaps composer – for example tonight is a symphony on the motifs of variety and surprise.”
When asked what particularly attracted him to wines of great age, Audouze replies “an old wine is like a well-worn pebble – round, smoothed by time. A young wine is like silex – sharp, jagged.” His subsequent admission is unexpected: “English people know old wine better than the French.” (While I have often described the difference in palate either side of the channel as “chalk and chervil”– our Gallic neighbours enjoying wines green and sappy where we Brits prefer dust inside as well as on the bottle – I could not imagine a less likely advocate of this belief.) “However, I must have drunk 99 per cent of the wines that are considered legends,” he continues. “The most repeatedly profound has been Jaboulet’s ’61 Hermitage La Chapelle, as well as Mouton Rothschild 1945. And their 1900,” he adds.
Also a champagne lover, he found Cristal ’49 and Dom Pérignon ’29 to be particularly memorable, while Montrachet from 64, 65 and 69, enjoyed recently, have shown Audouze how timeless white burgundies can be. “The 1860s – that is,” he clarifies, before reminiscing about finishing one of his dinners with D’Yquem 1861 (at the château).
He has hosted a dinner with five vintages of Domaine Romanée Conti across a century (1899-1999) and separately a 56-bottle vertical of Clos de Tart. All these extraordinary experiences are recounted with evident pleasure but not in a way that ever appears boastful or gloating, more like a veteran football fan reminiscing over a lifetime spent staunchly following his team. “Perhaps only Michael Broadbent [founder of Christie’s wine department] has drunk more old wines than me,” Audouze reflects, and then chuckles, “but at least I could choose the company.”
Despite enjoying such rarefied wines so regularly, François is anything but a wine snob. “My approach to tasting is hedonistic, not professional. The most important thing about collecting old wines is to open them.” True to his word, while builders completed renovations to his house in the south of France, Audouze served them magnums of 1988 Pibarnon Bandol – keen for them to share his enthusiasm for fine wine. Others, who clearly do so and enjoy his company, include five particular guests who have come to 25 of his dinners, at which they will definitely have tried the two consistently most popular wines he presents – 1964 Damoy Chambertin Clos-de-Beze and a 1865 Cypriot Muscat. Audouze stresses how important the company is in order to properly enjoy wines at their best, agreeing wholeheartedly with my suggestion that a modest wine can taste wonderful with good friends and a great wine unexceptional with bores.
Audouze’s second Damascene moment was aged 30, having opened a bottle of Chambertin 1929. “My wife does not drink, so I kept half the bottle and it was appreciably better at lunch the next day. I was fascinated to learn why.” Subsequent experiment has convinced Audouze that slow oxygenation restructures the wine. After leaving bottles upright overnight to ensure all sediment has settled at the base, he suggests that opening bottles four or five hours before drinking will reinforce the liquid, whereas decanting (which he avoids) collapses it. “Of the 2000 bottles I have opened in this manner, the bad ones have not exceeded 1.5 per cent”. Audouze is now famous not only for his cellar but also this particular method of opening and preparing wine. The results of the Methode Audouze we were to see over the course of five hours, accompanied by L’Atelier’s 10-course tasting menu…To read about Tom’s adventures on the night, click back on Monday May 11…
In the mean time, oenophiles might like to read about the launch of a ground-breaking new wine club, 67 Pall Mall – or read more of Tom’s wine adventures – from a cycling trip round Burgundyto vine dining in Venice.