Tucked inside an enchanting wine bar on Charleston’s King Street a couple weekends ago, my husband and I shifted into a lower gear to celebrate our anniversary. My Mom (bless her heart!) stayed back in Beaufort with our son while we packed a bag and hit Highway 17 for a quick getaway to the Holy City. Once a sanctuary of religious tolerance in a period when the Church of England was practically de rigeuer, Charleston earned its moniker for the relative variety of churches that sprouted along Meeting Street. The pint-sized yet picturesque city was also a wet hot center of boozy freedom when the southeast was parched dry, which stands to reason why Charleston is arguably the greatest city in South Carolina for wine – and good wine at that.
In any case, my man and I had just sat down in our favorite wine haunt, Bin 152, eponymously named for its address on 152 King Street, when I remembered why I loved this joint so much in the first place. Littered with bucket list wines available through Coravin, the menu boasted producers I simply never encounter in South Carolina. Among greats, imported by New York houses, were also myriad offerings from Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch. Now, I don’t intend this to be a post only drummed up for the sake of wine geeks, but Kermit Lynch is a name every wine drinker should come to know and inevitably love. So, before I wax on about the nirvana that was reached in a single bottle of wine, let me first tell you a bit about Kermit.
With a $5,000 loan and a blazing passion for old world wine, Kermit Lynch substantially aided and changed the American wine market forever back in 1972. He sought out French artisanal producers who were crafting wine the way their ancestors had – without manipulation – the way nature intended. These wines had – and still have – that gout de terroir (taste of the soil), that inimitable quality that delivers sense of place and purity of fruit all in one sniff or sip. The wines he introduced to the American lexicon were unlike anything we had yet to experience on our shores. No one was bringing these home-grown, family wines to the States. Although there are numerous importers that now feature small, traditional producers, Kermit Lynch was and remains a trailblazer here in America. He’s won multiple James Beard awards along with France’s Legion d’Honneur, but all you really need to remember is this: when you see, “imported by Kermit Lynch,” on a label, buy that wine.
As I perused Bin 152’s list, I came across name after name that made my heart flutter; it was hard to narrow it down, then at last I came to Jean-Paul Thévenet and I knew I had the winner. A red beauty so full of rustic purity, easy charm and inimitable minerality, this complex yet delightful vixen from Morgon made me remember how I had fallen in love with the Gamay varietal in the first place.
When many people hear the name Gamay or Beaujolais, they usually think of Beaujolais Nouveau – an insipid youngster that reeks of bubblegum (truly) and lack of depth. This was always my take on Beaujolais until I experienced the transcendent magic of a fine Beaujolais Cru. It changed my life. Beaujolais Crus are represented by ten villages in the appellation, which are south of and technically part of the greater region of Burgundy, but their grape is Gamay, not Pinot Noir. And although I love a great Burgundian Pinot Noir more than just about anything on earth, it comes with a serious price tag, whereas fine Beaujolais Cru – even from producers at the apex of the appellation – is shockingly affordable. In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say that Beaujolais Cru offers among the greatest price-to-quality in the world of red wine – though not all producers are created equal. When seeking out a Beaujolais Cru, look for Morgon or Fleurie (my favorite villages); if Kermit Lynch is an option as the importer, go for it; and keep an eye out for the names Jean-Paul Thévenet, Guy Breton, Jean Folliard and Marcell Lapierre as well as Jean-Paul Brun and Julien Sunier.
A little history here, Thévenet, Breton, Folliard and Lapierre were lovingly dubbed, “the gang of four,” back when they forged an ambitious movement to turn back the hands of time and started crafting natural wine that bucked the local trend of over-cropped, manipulated, carbonic macerated Beaujolais Nouveau – aka plonk. They farmed biodynamically and organically, eschewing chemicals, in favor of letting nature take its course. They opted for indigenous yeast for fermentation and aged their wines in large, neutral Slovenian oak foudres or cement, which allowed the true nature and minerality of the wines to speak for themselves. Fast forward a handful of decades and many youngsters are following in their footsteps – the result: the world is once again beginning to take notice of Beaujolais. Luckily, the prices are still ridiculously reasonable and the quality has never been higher.
The sweet nectar of the Gods I quaffed back in Bin 152 was a Beaujolais Cru from Morgon, crafted by Jean-Paul Thévenet. One of the original gang of four, third-generation Jean-Paul has been sharing his wealth of knowledge with his son, Charly. His small five-hectare domaine boasts vines that are between 45 and 110 years old! He keeps his yields low, farms biodynamically, harvests and sorts by hand then ferments with indigenous yeasts his whole clusters – low and slow – in cement. After which the wine is aged on its lees (spent yeasts) in 5-7 year old Burgundian oak, which leaves the wine unmasked by a heavy-handed oak signature. The wine is bottled without fining or filtration, which allows every nuance of terroir as well as varietal purity to speak.
Jean-Paul Thévenet only makes 2,000 cases a year – seeking quality over quantity. So to find this rare gem in our little haunt in Charleston, South Carolina made it all the more enjoyable. Every sip ushered in a wave of appreciation for the man that made the wine, the importer who had the guts to gamble on an unknown and all the trailblazers out there who seek out something pure instead of the sole quest for the almighty dollar. What we experienced was pure beauty and in that moment, away from home and responsibility, my husband and I remembered not only that we loved one another, but that we really still dig each other. To my husband, to Kermit, to Beaujolais Cru, to Charleston and to you for reading – Cheers!
Tasting Notes: The tantalizingly pure and perfumed nose charms with aromas of freshly picked wild strawberry, red cherry, pomegranate and raspberry laced with dew-kissed peonies, violets and black tea. The refreshing and vivid wine expands on the palate to deliver even more complex notes of orange zest, cranberry, a hint of grape seed, a touch of tree bark, subtle licorice, white pepper, herbs de Provence and unmistakable granitic minerality that lingers on the palate like a haunting tune that echoes in the mind. Although its energy and depth are there in spades, this wine isn’t heavy handed – it’s refreshing, delightful and has the uncanny ability to disappear before your very eyes.
For your perusal: