FINE WINE AND THE PLEASURE PRINCIPALITY
MORE AUSTRALIANS ARE PUTTING MONACO ON THEIR ITINERARY AND ONE OF ITS GREATEST TREASURES IS IN THE HANDS OF MASTER SOMMELIER PATRICE FRANK.
EACH YEAR one-time teetotaller Patrice Frank acquires more than 400,000 bottles of the world’s finest wine and champagne. About 20 per cent of that haul makes its way to the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo, where as head sommelier Frank has for 13 years overseen one of the world’s largest and most revered cellars.
Cut byhand into the cool rockunderneath the 187-room property, the cellar was established in 1864 by the wife of the hotel’s founder, French entrepreneur Francois Blanc, and expanded to its current capacity in 1874. Today, it housesmore than 550,000 bottles, covers 1500 square metres and includes 6000 different wines, organised by vintage and then region. A tour costs 4000.
Every nation that produces wine is represented, including Australia and New Zealand. However, 98 per cent of the bottles areFrench, and among themare such expensive drops as the famous 1945 Chateau Petrus, which sells for a mere 14,000 a bottle. A few are literally priceless, such as the 1835Chateau Bel AirMarquis d’Aligre (the cellar’s oldest) and the 1890Chateau d’Yquem. Others are legendary, including seven bottles of 1929 Chateau Margaux cleverly hidden from German and Italian troops duringWorldWar II.
“The head of the cellar put the greatest wines we had from before the war, along with the jewels of the 12 or so families who lived all year in the hotel, in a corridor and closed it off by stacking lots of empty bottles in front of it,” Frank says. “The soldiers tried taking the bottles down. They took down one layer and then two, but eventually they stopped.”
Sadly, the 1835 Chateau Bel Air Marquis d’Aligre is, to use Frank’s word, “indrinkable”. But if you have a spare 9000, you can enjoy one of the 1929 Chateau Margaux, so long as you drink it quickly. “If you give this wine too much oxygen, youwill kill it,” he explains, while visiting toSydneywith a trade delegation to brief travel leaders on tourism developments in the principality. “So I open the bottle and serve it directly to a special big glass. The wine is perfect during 40-45 minutes, after which it is finished.”
Over the past three years, the number of Australians and NewZealanders visiting Monaco has increased bymore than 50 per cent, which puts Australasia within the principality’s top 10 international markets. As the head sommelier, Frank is always on hand to offer Australians his expertise, but his primary concern is ensuring his customers “take pleasure”.
“If they want to take a red bottle with the fish, then that is not a very good day for me in terms of technical information. But it is more important to understand the pleasures of the client than to impose my mind. The client is the king.”
Given the hotel’s pedigree and the stature of his role, it would be reasonable to assume Frank had been groomed for his position from a very early age. However, in his youth he was a dedicated athletewhodrank only fruit juice andplayedrugby for a French championship-winning team. It was only in 1990 that he fell in love with wine, when during the summer holidays he helped his brother and his mother-in-law in their one-Michelin-star restaurant in Cognac.
At the time, he was studying law in Bordeaux, but he decided to quit and instead took the exam to be a wine waiter. Two years later, he qualified as a sommelier. Over the next decade, he worked in a variety of top establishments in France and Luxembourg, as well running his own restaurant in Cognac for two years until in 2000 he was offered his current role at the Hotel de Paris Monte- Carlo by its owner, Societe des Bains de Mer (SBM).
Monaco’s largest employer, SBM was established by Blanc in 1863 under the direction of the then prince of Monaco, Charles III. It now boasts a portfolio of tourism assets that includes theMonteCarloCasino, theOpera deMonte-Carlo, four luxury hotels and a range of restaurants, night clubs, spas and golf courses. The company is publicly listed, with its largest shareholders including the Monaco government and the royal family, the Grimaldis. In addition to being his employer, the current head of the House of Grimaldi provided Frank with the highlight of his career in 2011. Working withmaster chef Alain Ducasse, whose three-Michelin-star restaurant Louis XVis in the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo, Frank and his team were tasked with serving the wine at the wedding reception for Prince Albert II andCharleneWittstock.
Hotel de Paris Monte- Carlo head sommelier Patrice Frank with a bottle of Chateau Petrus.