BY HAMISH GREENING
The entire principality of Monaco covers less than 200 hectares, giving the world’s highest concentration of millionaires space to play in an area roughly equivalent to Burgundy’s three largest Grand Crus (Corton, Corton-Charlemagne and Clos de Vougeot) combined. The winding streets navigate you through a temple dedicated to excess, where fast cars, high stakes poker tables and outrageous super yachts are the bread and butter for seasoned residents. But what role does wine have to play in the kingdom of decadence? In just 48 hours, I discovered a myriad of incredible options to satisfy any oenophile who favours Petrus over poker…
Arriving in Style
Unless you arrive to Monaco by sea, all journeys start and finish at Nice airport; a perfect excuse to catch lunch at one of the region’s best restaurants, ‘Les Agitateur’. Simple plates of pasta and fresh local fish take a back seat here, for whilst the food is good, it’s the restaurant’s wine allocations you’ve really come for. Make sure to work your way through an impressive hit list of top producers from the Rhône Valley, with the usually unobtainable Château Rayas and its sister estates all gracing the wine list for well under market price.
When it’s time to enter Monaco, a taxi may seem logical, but helicopter is often recommended as the most cost-effective option … modes of transport notwithstanding, you’d best choose your accommodation wisely. Monaco is notorious for its widespread disdain for corkage, but there are a few notable exceptions where you are able to enjoy wines from your own collection in peace. Le Méridien is the only hotel in Monaco with its own private beach and asks no more than a gesture of a corkage fee – for which they’ll provide you with ice buckets and glassware galore, so you can break open some serious bottles with your feet in the sand.
Champagne and Superyachts
Ready to catch up with a friend on the ground, I picked up a sensational bottle of Billecart-Salmon’s Cuvée Nicolas Françoise 2002 (the house’s legendary Blanc de Blancs) in town for just over a hundred euros. Ollie Pryce is a young Englishman living his best life in the Mediterranean’s most exciting port as a yacht broker for Y.CO, the most exciting name in the region’s vast and passionate nautical scene. Ollie takes great pride in knowing the people he calls his clients inside out, recalling each individual’s likes and dislikes at the drop of a hat. Strolling through the marina, he gives a few cursory nods to familiar faces, before pointing at 90 metres of the cleanest fibreglass I’ve ever seen, ‘he likes his Super Tuscans – always asks for old Sassicaia – but she only drinks Dom Pérignon and Whispering Angel… whatever the weather!’.
Just down the road is The Niwaki. The newest splash in Monaco’s culinary pool, you can expect high end Japanese cooking, a Hakkasan-style interior and a sommelier who knows his stuff. We began with a Chelsea Vintners favourite, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2007, which was drinking as beautifully as ever. Australian drinks maestro Rob Willey advised on pairing their list of rare sakes with a selection of fresh sashimi, before getting into some serious Burgundy to complement their exquisitely grilled lamb chops. The list here is extensive and not inexpensive (stretching even to a DRC Romanée-Conti 2005) but one would expect no less considering that the cheapest car in the vicinity was a Porsche Taycan and my view of the Plage du Larvotto was obscured by an incredible replica (assuming it wasn’t the real thing!) Batmobile from the Tim Burton series of films… parked inconsiderately across two spaces. Batman must have been in a rush to make his dinner reservations.
A Morning Stroll
After breakfast on the beach, a morning’s browsing should begin at Dionysos. Hidden away between a selection of patisseries and restaurants in the heart of Monaco, this is the passion project of three extremely talented former sommeliers. Combining decades of discoveries from Europe’s Michelin-starred establishments, they’ve not just curated one of the most exciting wine shops I’ve ever visited, but also one of the best priced. A walk amongst their sparsely decorated shelves is like a journey through everything you wished you’d been smart enough to buy. Not only can you find almost any wine you’ve ever dreamed of, but they only seem to sell the best vintages for drinking now and at upsettingly good prices. I spent plenty of time grazing the walls of Leroy, Bonneau and Sine Qua Non, but left with a suitcase full of mature grower Champagne and cult wines from the Rhône, Loire and Jura – still leaving room for the afternoon’s adventures.
It would be a travesty to wander back up to Monte Carlo’s historic look out and not consider stopping in at Le Bar Américain. An institution of the Hotel de Paris, this 1920’s inspired shrine to soft leather and timber décor has hosted numerous presidents and featured in no fewer than two James Bond films. You’ll forgive me for casting the wine list aside on this occasion, but I was seated next to Alina Bodleva (a.k.a. Miss Russia and Miss World 2021) thus a glass of rosé, no matter how famous the label, simply wasn’t debonair enough for my inner Sean Connery. Instead, I enjoyed a perfectly executed Negroni, accompanied by a plate of freshly chopped fillet steak tartare and serenaded by a 7-piece band nailing their take on George Gershwin’s Summertime.
The World’s Greatest Wine Cellar
As you exit the Hotel de Paris lobby, something extremely special lies beneath your feet. I’m not referring to the secret tunnel linking it to the Hermitage Hotel (originally designed for unscrupulous husbands and wives to meet their forbidden lovers), but the legendary caves. Often described as ‘The World’s Greatest Wine Cellar’, the hotel’s cellar was created in 1874 by Marie Blanc, who employed 100 workers to dig over 10m into the tough Monaco stone. The magnificent result spans 1.5 square kilometres and houses no less than 350,000 bottles. The bulk of the contents consists of First Growth Bordeaux and prestige Champagnes, of which the hotel’s consumption can exceed 300,000 bottles a year… these are kept closer to the entrance for obvious logistical reasons. Step over a few cases of 1990 Le Pin and you can feast your eyes on the best selections, including 1890 d’Yquem and unfathomable amounts of 1945 Mouton. None of which is for sale, of course…
This historic temple survived looting during Nazi occupation by obscuring the most revered sections of the cellar with vast piles of smashed bottles of ‘lesser’ wines. Perhaps more impressively still, it survived numerous parties thrown by the iconic Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, whose wild celebrations in the 1970s are the stuff of Monaco legend. Sadly, the cave is strictly closed to the public, so you’ll need an inside man within the Sociéte des Bains de Mer or some serious industry clout to wangle your way in, but to stand within the many walls is a truly humbling experience for any wine lover.
Sunday the Monaco Way
A stroll down to Monaco’s world-famous yacht club will bring you to the Wine Palace Monte Carlo, sitting pretty a mere 10 yards from a berthed 7-deck superyacht (or two). A dramatic staircase lined by floor
to ceiling Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2012 elevates visitors to the port’s best selection of spirits, from premium sipping tequilas like Clase Azul to Japan’s Hibiki 21 and an entire cabinet of Macallan – including the mythical Red Collection! Assuming you resist the urge to spend nearly a million euros on Scotch’s most collectible set, head back down to the air-conditioned bliss of the cellar. This is all about big names and big vintages from big regions. Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Napa in all their glory. The best bit? Whilst you are always welcome to sit and enjoy a drink on the waterfront, all the bottles are priced for you to take home and enjoy by the hotel pool.
Dinner at Cantina Antinori gives a feel for the more Italian side of Monaco, offering simple elegant cooking paired with an all-star wine list of back vintages from Tuscany’s most famous estate. Start with a glass of Cervaro della Sala 2016, the estate’s iconic Chardonnay, and a bowl of their suitably luxurious take on a classic carbonara, which replaces pancetta with salty cured wagyu strips and a generous helping of summer truffles. Then delve into the countless back vintages of big hitters Tignanello and Solaia, paired with a perfectly seared fillet steak tagliatta. We finished the night with aplomb, polishing off a sensational Rieussec 1986 with a specially prepared olive oil ice cream.
Monaco may be most famous for its annual Formula 1 race, the glitzy casinos and multi-billion-pound collection of superyachts, but this tiny principality also offers a host of delights for any wine lover. Whether you prefer perusing endless walls of First Growth Bordeaux in the world’s most outrageous wine cellar or tasting an eclectic selection of cult wines presented by a talented sommelier, you’re sure to end the day with a bottle of great Champagne, listening to the lapping of waves against 300-feet hulls and the far-off revving of a Maclaren P1 – and isn’t that what life is all about?