I suppose it was adrenaline that surged when I recently set eyes on the list at Nice Matin, a Provençal restaurant on the Upper West Side. There I was, expecting a standard-issue list. Instead, I was handed a leather-bound book, almost 60 pages’ worth with 2,000 selections, packed not only with trophy bottles like 19th-century first-growth Bordeaux, well-aged grand cru Burgundies and tête de cuvée Champagnes, but also wonderful selections in the neighborhood-friendly $50 and under range.
Here was a list to satisfy anybody, whether you want California fruit bombs or old-school Napa cabernets, grower Champagnes or a good selection of half bottles, reds from Lebanon or (who knew?) a 38-year-old cabernet franc from Brazil.
It’s been a most unlikely journey for Nice Matin. When it opened in 2003, William Grimes gave it two stars in The New York Times, noting “an evenhanded international list of 140 wines that could use more from the South of France.” Since then, the restaurant has settled into comfortable middle age, serving a loyal clientele from the neighborhood as well as travelers staying at the Lucerne Hotel, which shares the building. But the wine list has gone stratospheric.
What other way to explain such treasures as a 2008 Pouilly-Fumé Silex from Didier Dagueneau for $120, about the price you might pay retail? Or a 1983 Cos d’Estournel, a top St.-Estèphe almost 30 years old, for $225? Perhaps, like me, you are a fan of good aged Graves, as we persist in calling white Bordeaux from Pessac-Léognan? You won’t find a better deal than a Domaine de Chevalier 2000 for $170, unless you continue down the list and spot the 2001 Laville Haut-Brion for $220.
Nice Matin won’t rival a wine destination like Veritas for vertical depth of great wines and old vintages, but in what casual neighborhood restaurant will you find La Mission Haut Brion 1970, a very good vintage, for $330, a 1998 Brunello di Montalcino from Soldera for $350 or a 1961 Barolo from Giacomo Conterno, a truly great wine, for $500?
Of course, if you want good value and money is no object, I would be tempted by the 1944 Lafite-Rothschild, harvested just months after D-Day, for $1,600, or the legendary 1865 Latour, from the year Lincoln died and before phylloxera devastated the vines of Europe. What’s $14,000 compared with history?
Outside of the fantasy realm, I, like most people, would gravitate to great affordable bottles, and this is where Nice Matin really comes through. A fresh, lively 2009 Valpolicella from Vaona, one of my favorite producers, is just $36, while a chalky, unusual white 2008 Coenobium, made by nuns at the Monastero Suore Cistercensi in Lazio, is $42. How often do you find a 10-year-old Burgundy for $77, like a 2001 premier cru Savigny-lès-Beaune, from Chandon de Briailles?
And, having taken Mr. Grimes’s point to heart, Nice Matin now fulfills its Provençal promise with perhaps the best list of Bandols and Provençal wines in New York. I would try the excellent, structured ’09 Pradeaux rosé for $52, or, with a selection of 14 vintages, a Bandol red from Château Vannières, like the 2002 for $80.
Great lists don’t just happen overnight. Not long after it opened, Nice Matin made a concerted decision to improve its wine offerings, beginning in 2004 when it bought 25 mixed cases of Bordeaux, Burgundy and German riesling that had once belonged to President John F. Kennedy.
Since then, Nice Matin has bought the cellar of Chanterelle after that restaurant shut down, and part of Country’s after it closed. Meanwhile, the beverage director, Aviram Turgeman, with his associate, Gabriel Richter, prowls through a network of collectors and winery owners, seeking mature older vintages to add to the list.
“I really want people to come and enjoy grand cru Burgundies and first-growth Bordeaux and not break the wallet,” Mr. Turgeman said. “I also want to highlight wines in the $30 and $40 range, because we are a neighborhood restaurant.”
Acquisitions require capital, and Nice Matin, more than many neighborhood restaurants, has resources. Along with other spots, including Café d’Alsace on the Upper East Side, L’Express in the Flatiron district and Marseille in Hell’s Kitchen, Nice Matin is part of theTour de France restaurant group, whose owner, Simon Oren, resolutely supports Mr. Turgeman’s efforts.
“I love wine, I believe in wine, I really, really admire wine,” Mr. Oren said. While he features wine at all his restaurants (and beer at Café d’Alsace), Nice Matin is the group’s vinous flagship.
Lest anyone think Nice Matin is concerned only with trophy bottles, one regular, Carl Schecter, a portfolio manager at a hedge fund who lives nearby, recalled eating at the bar recently. With his three courses, Mr. Turgeman paired a Greek white from Mount Olympus (“Delicious!” Mr. Schecter said), a riesling from Alsace and a Greek red.
“It’s like a wine school, if you want it to be,” Mr. Schecter said.
The annals are replete with stories of great wine lists picked clean after word gets out. But Mr. Oren is confident the Nice Matin list will endure.
“We have good inventory, and we know quite a few people with cellars who are happy to sell to us,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to maintain the list for at least five years.”