Ali Baba and the 41 (000) Bottles of Wine
France will soon have a second Louvre – the one known and loved by all in Paris will, if a former boilermaker gets his way, be complemented by the Louvre du Vin, an extraordinary collection of 41,000 grands crus now looking for a home in the south-West.
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For Michel-Jack Chasseuil, a retired Dassault Aviation artisan has made it his life work to build what he maintains is la plus belle cave du monde, a priceless Ali Baba treasure-house of fine wines dating back to the 18th century. Among the treasures, started in 1960 and spanning wines from 1735 to 2011, are an absinthe from 1910, a rhum from 1985 , a Fine Champagne from 1805, an Yquem 1847 , an 1880 Madeira wine and two exceptional crus de Bordeaux.
M Chasseuil has garnered his collection over the past forty years and now wants to donate this priceless treasure to a foundation to run it as a “Louvre of wine” for the nation.
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Presently his extraordinary collection — some 34,000 bottles, 3,000 Magnums, Jeroboams and Imperials and 4000 bottles of spirits – is housed in the secured cellar of his manor at Fonfolet on the edge of La Chapelle-Bâton, a tiny Deux-Sevres village in western France. Any wine loving visitor lucky enough to enter this Ali Baba treasure cave is overwhelmed by the presence of this testament to hallowed names and extraordinary vintages representing, he says, a collection of the very best he could find from all the wine growing regions of the world. The collection according to one report is “offered to respectful oenophiles with an almost religious reverence”.
The temperature-controlled wine cellar is silent except for Gregorian chants the wine collector says help the contemplation of hallowed bottles and great names on display from the four corners if the globe. These naturally include patriotic emphasis on France — Pétrus, Yquem, Romanée Conti, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Latour, Cheval Blanc among others holding pride of place in the collection.
This former artisan — grandson of a bricklayer, son of a postman — who retired from Dassault 20 years ago, is aware that his fabulous collection represents an unrivalled heritage for France and is currently seeking backers and a site for a foundation that would enrich and perpetuate his work. Despite fabulous offers from the rich and famous including Russian and Chinese wine moguls, he has so far resisted all attempts to buy his collection or even specific, rare and treasured collectors’ items from it. “They are just not for sale”, he says.
The 70-year old devotee of Bacchus has over more than four decades of perseverance and heroic obstinacy acquired his treasure store, for the pleasure of showing this wine wonder to connoisseurs du vin from around the world. Michel-Jack Chasseuil told Slate magazine recently how when he dies he’d like the collection to be continued by a foundation for the benefit of the nation.
The value of the wines in his collection has increased 100-fold over the years, boosted by the arrival on the market of rich Russian, American and Chinese wine buffs in turn driven by investor guides such as that of US wine critic Robert Parker.
Today, says M Chasseuil, he can no longer afford the soaring prices of top quality and rare vintages. He said the Chasseuil Foundation he is currently setting up to run his “wine Louvre” would ensure the collection was preserved as part of the “heritage of humanity”.
The Deux-Sevres cellar today is worth tens of millions of euros. “I bought, bartered, borrowed from the bank and invested my retirement pension in this passion of a lifetime and now I aim to set up a foundation, hopefully in Saint-Emilion (he has ties to Libourne where his only son Jeremy runs a vineyard) although I have been contacted by people in Bordeaux and elsewhere, also interested in the idea”, he said.
He hopes the foundation will establish a committee of wise men to decide which wines to buy to continue the collection. He would also like to see it create a sort of “Nobel Prize for wine” to be awarded annually to the world’s best winemaker .
- MJ Chasseuil tells his story and selects 100 non-standard bottles in a well illustrated 250-page book published by Editions Glénat (45 euros) and entitled “100 extraordinary bottles“. The book has been translated into seven languages including Chinese.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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