Le bar à vin in Paris and Charleston
By Jerry Marterer
The wine bar, as we know it today, began in the 19th century in Paris, but wine tasting itself goes back to the village of Bercy across the Seine when it was outside the city limits. Louis XIV, before his death in 1715, granted the right to buy wine, bottle it and sell it free of taxes. By the end of the century, Bercy became the world’s largest wine market, the delivery point for barrels arriving by boat and later by rail. Originally only wine merchants and wholesale buyers had access to the market. After the first bridge linking Bercy to Paris was built in 1832, many open-air wine bars, and Guinguettes, cabaret style taverns, sprung up around the village for Parisians to take advantage of the duty-free wine at wholesale prices. When Bercy was incorporated into Paris in 1860, the tax advantage disappeared. Bercy’s popularity began to decline as bottling in the wine regions became widespread with improvement in transportation. Wine was now shipped directly to customers. The Bercy wine market became obsolete. Weeds and rust took over the stone chais(warehouses) and railroad tracks.
The first bars à vin appeared in Paris in the 1860s. They offered a break from vineyard tastings where “sip and spit” was the norm. The attraction was sampling wines from different regions and vintages. Two of the oldest wine bars are still pouring. La Quincave is an unassuming neighborhood gem in Montparnasse. Wine is paired with sausage, pâtés and cheese.
The Reserve de Quasimodo, near Notre Dame and named for the Victor Hugo character, dates to the 1860s. Despite the proximity, it is not touristy. The cuisine here is not bar food. It is elegant and pairs well with the wines.
The Taverne Henri IV sits close to the tip of the Ile de Cité, where it intersects with the Pont Neuf as it crosses the Seine. It faces the equestrian statue of Henri IV who inaugurated the bridge in 1607. It is not plush, but its bright décor welcomes locals as well as visitors. It’s more of a Bistro a Vin, due to its more extensive menu. Nobody knows its exact age, but Georges Simenon and his character, Inspector Maigret, were often found there in the 1930s. They offer small batch wines from independent growers. In the winter they serve vin chaud (mulled hot wine) to take the chill off. A more recent bar à vin is Le Verre Volé (The Stolen Glass), where the food is of restaurant quality in a rather plain room on the rue de Lancry near the Canal St-Martin. Its wines are not limited to any corner of France, and it doubles as a neighborhood wine store with reasonable prices.
The village of Bercy was given a new life in 1995 when a park was built on land once used by wine merchants to store their vintages. The redevelopment included many apartment blocks now populated by young families. At the other end of the park, is the old cour St-Emillion, named for a famous Bordeaux wine. Rows of stone warehouses face each other on a lively pedestrian street. (Bercy Village today.) Nearly all of them are trendy gourmet shops and terraced restaurants that fill each day in mild weather. In the evenings another old warehouse hosts concerts and plays.
Wine in cafés and bistros is usually served in five-ounce (15cl) glasses, big enough for swirling, sniffing, and forming first opinions on the tongue and throat, while small enough to try several varieties. A standard bottle of wine holds 75cl or five glasses.
In Charleston there are several dozen establishments that bill themselves as wine bars. Some are just bars that serve wine as well as everything else. Some are wine stores that have occasional tastings. Others are established restaurants with a broad selection of vintages. Our first discovery and still our favorite in Charleston is the Bistro A Vin.
Dominique and Florence Chantepie opened the Café Framboise in 2013, serving breakfast and lunch with a French flair to local store and office employees and a brisk take-out business. They opened their Bistro A Vin in 2018 and sold the café in 2020. The Bistro A Vin is in an 1800s building, tucked into the quiet corner of Archdale and Market Street. The building is rooted in enjoying wine and spirits; it was once a grocery store with a blind tiger in the back and later became a liquor store. Their French heritage shows in their selections: artisan French wines as well as other European and American vintages. The atmosphere is casual-chic, and the food is bistro fare: sausage platters, cheese selections, burrata, smoked salmon, Nicoise olives and of course, baguettes.
When travelling in the United States or Europe, starting the evening with a visit to a wine bar is a great way to learn about wines and vintages not found locally.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.