PARIS (Reuters) - It's the most refined and thirst-quenching of diplomatic devices that has helped cement ties between France and its international allies.
But now, the all-French wine cellar of the Elysee presidential palace, which has helped fortify foreign kings, queens and heads of state throughout the decades, is being pared back, with 1,200 bottles to be auctioned to the highest bidders.
Many of the bottles to be offered at the prestigious Drouot auction house in Paris on May 30 and 31 are at the pinnacle of their shelf life and ready to be drunk immediately.
"These are wines that have figured at the presidential table for dinners or receptions," a Drouot spokesperson told Reuters. "Some of them have participated in events linked to the history of the Fifth Republic."
The auction, in which wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy will dominate, is expected to fetch around 250,000 euros ($327,500), some of which will go back into state coffers, according to President Francois Hollande's entourage.
It's the latest episode of belt-tightening as France struggles to lower its soaring deficit to appease euro-zone partners and find 60 billion euros in public savings over five years.
Some auction proceeds will be invested in younger, more modest wines that are still worthy of a president's table, especially one who during his election campaign dubbed himself a "Mr. Normal" who eschewed the excesses of his predecessors.
Organizers say prices may reach as high as 2,200 euros for a 1990 Petrus to as low as 15 euros for a more modest wine.
Called the "divine juice of September" by Voltaire, wine has been produced in France from pre-Roman times, and today it is an integral part of the national heritage.
The Elysee wine cellar is a closely guarded national treasure protected by an armored door. It contains a collection of 12,000 bottles overseen by head sommelier Virginie Routis.
"I choose the wines in terms of the menu, but also in terms of protocol," Routis told Le Monde daily in December. "For a head of state, there would be several big labels on the table."
Britain's government similarly auctioned off vintage French wine from its cellar last month as part of a national austerity drive.
Demand remains high for wine from France, the world's largest wine producer by value, especially from affluent buyers in China and the United States. China is the world's biggest importer of Bordeaux wines.
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(Reporting by Chine Labbe and Julien Ponthus, Writing By Alexandria Sage, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)