The area around the Quai St-Bernard at the edge of Paris’ Latin Quarter is strikingly contemporary– in contrast to most of the 5th arrondissement, where the Gallo-Roman, medieval and Haussmannian past is evidenced on nearly every corner. Overlooking the Seine River and just blocks from the botanic riches of the Jardin des Plantes, the riverside quays are home to two imposing modern buildings.
The Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), with its gleaming, intricately designed facade from architect Jean Nouvel and panoramic tearoom, stands to the northwest.
The Sorbonne University’s science faculty buildings–often simply referred to as “Jussieu” after the nearby metro station– loom behind to the southeast. Long decried as unattractive and recently refurbished due to the discovery of widespread asbestos, the structures were inaugurated in 1951. To put it politely, this isn’t a site locals tend to lavish with praise.
Little, if anything, in the area betrays that it was a major center of wine history and commerce for centuries. There aren’t even any particularly notable wine bars in the immediate vicinity.
Yet it was here and at nearby Bercy that the city’s most important wine markets and warehouses thrived, from the early modern period to the mid-1950s, when they were razed to make way for the modern structures you now see.
From 17th Century Wine Market to Early Industrial Powerhouse
The 14th century saw the rise of powerful wine merchants in France, who turned the traditional activity of winemaking– one primarily associated with monks, monasteries and religious activities– into a booming trade, mostly with Northern Europe.
While the most prominent of these merchants were based in the port city of Bordeaux–and they remain powerful to this day– Paris was also an important trading center for wine during the late Middle Ages and early modern (Renaissance) period.
The first Halle aux Vins (wine market) was situated at the current location of the Institut du Monde Arabe’s courtyard, and was built between 1663 and 1665 on the initiative of the Cardinal Mazarin.
It replaced an earlier market at the Port de la Tournelle, and had a more privileged location due to its proximity to the Seine and thus to merchant ships.
The original Halle was associated with the nearby Saint-Victor Abbey, underlining the continued ties between religious establishments and winemaking in the pre-industrial period.
All wine merchants were permitted to trade at the new market, charged a half livre per muid of wine sold (an old French unit of measurement for volumes).
Then in the nineteenth century, demand for wine from overseas markets including England and Holland skyrocketed. The Industrial Revolution had brought mechanized production methods to the table, making it possible to scale up like never before.
Starting at the beginning of the century, wine consumption rose, and continued to do so over the course of most of the century. Demand for wine more than tripled in France between 1800 and 1865.
On the orders of the Emperor Napoleon I, a new, much larger wine market was built to meet this new craze, completed in 1845. Much of it was covered, and its two large buildings occupied several streets around the Quai St Bernard, including the space used by the premises of the former Halle and the land once occupied by the Saint Victor Abbey.
Its vast lanes were named after France’s main winemaking regions– Champagne, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Languedoc– and it attracted merchants from across the country. The French artist Paul Cézanne depicted it in an 1872 painting, underlining its allure and importance.
With its warehouses and hundreds of underground cellars, the new Halle aux Vins was able to store enormous quantities of wine and eaux de vie— upwards of 500,000 casks. But it couldn’t keep up with ever-increasing demand, particularly following the advent of industrial rail transport and speeding distribution standards.
As a result, a new network of warehouses, Les entrepôts de Bercy, were built nearby in 1869, near the Port de Bercy on the opposite side of the Seine. It would become even more important than the Halle aux Vins during the early 20th century, following significant expansions.
While the French wine trade was majorly set back by the phylloxera vine blight in the mid-nineteenth century, Quai St Bernard and Bercy continued to be important sites for the wine trade in the capital well into the twentieth.
The End of the Wine Markets & Rise of a Postwar Cityscape
The heyday of the Halle aux Vins and the Bercy wine warehouses ended in the mid-twentieth century, as Paris rapidly modernized following World War II.
As the historian Catherine E. Clark underlines in her fascinating book on how the city has been captured and imagined through photography, Paris and the Cliché of History, the demolition of the Halle aux Vins coincided with new zoning regulations that were designed to “remove industrial activity from the city’s core”. She notes:
“In 1958, the wine markets left their centuries-old location along the quai Saint -Bernard in the 5th arrondissement. Eleven years later, the central markets at Les Halles were moved to the suburb of Rungis in order to facilitate the flow of goods arriving via highway and the Orly airport. The result of all this change, according to journalist and art critic Andre Fermigier, was ‘Paris III’, a radical new cityscape of modern skyscrapers and highways that rose up alongside and over the remains of vieux Paris and Haussmann’s Paris.” (166)
One could easily argue that Fermigier’s assertion of a new cityscape taking over the one planned by Haussmann in the 19th century is overstated. After all, Paris has been remarkably conservative in preserving its late-19th century layout and facades. It’s been reluctant to erect bold new edifices at the furious pace a city like London has.
But his and Clark’s observations on the razing of the wine market and the medieval Halles in the city center are important. By transferring centers of traditional industry such as produce, agriculture, and wine to the capital’s periphery, Paris gave way to new infrastructures and industries.
That the site of Les Halles is now home to the city’s biggest (and persistently maligned) underground mall seems apt, given the accelerating rise of consumer capitalism after World War II.
And another mall, the Cours St-Emilion, stands at the former site of the now-defunct Bercy wine warehouses (Entrepots). It was named after the celebrated wines of the eponymous southwestern French town.
The demise of these important wine markets and warehouses in Paris also offers clues around the capital’s decreased standing in the French wine trade from the 20th century.
These days, Champagne, Bordeaux, Bourgogne and other major winemaking areas are the industry powerhouses, particularly since the advent of AOC (appellation d’origine controllée) labeling rules.
These strictly regulate how and where wines may be produced and firmly tie production methods to the terroirs where vines are raised. Paris naturally lost prominence as a result, since it’s not noted for excellent terroirs or climate.
Paris’ role in French wine culture is now relegated to largely ceremonial celebrations such as the feting of Beaujolais Nouveau in bars around the city, and the Vendanges de Montmartre, a festival centered around the capital’s only remaining active vineyard.
Meanwhile, the Parc de Bercy features a small ornamental vineyard, in honor of the former independent village’s prior status as a winemaking area, much like Montmartre.
Of course, Paris remains a great place to taste the diversity of French wine, not least owing to its dozens of excellent wine bars, shops, and restaurants boasting wine lists wordier than your average long-read magazine feature.
But remembering these lost wine markets and depots reminds us how much the city has changed– as have consumer tastes and priorities when it comes to wine.