Walking into Le Chai — galerie du vin, it’s easy to feel a sense of awe and intimidation. The space is so simple and elegantly beautiful: high ceilings with exposed beams, brick walls, and tables adorned with wine bottles, each perfectly spaced from the other. The wines are sorted on the tables by country, so you see one table marked, “Spain,” another marked “France,” still another marked “Austria,” and so on. Look closely, and you’ll notice something very significant about the countries and regions represented here–they are all “Old World” (European) countries. Not a single Sonoma or Napa Valley bottle to be found at Le Chai; instead, wines from France, Spain, Germany and Italy abound, with a few other European countries represented as well.
The reason for this, according to owner Christian Depken, is simple — he only sells European wines because he is a purist (he’s quick to point out that this is not the same as being a snob, a point that I concur). As Christian explains, Europeans have been making wine for well over 500 years, so they have the tools to make superior wine: they know how to utilize their climate, the soil type, and most importantly, their experience. Christian gives me a quote that embodies his philosophy of wine, which is: “The best wines come from vines that suffer.” This perfectly sums up all that makes European wine superior to its “New World” counterparts, and speaks volumes about Christian’s passion for the wines that fill his shop. You don’t have to worry about sticker shock here, either. Another draw of the wines stocked in Le Chai are their prices — because European vineyards have been producing their wines for centuries, and in large quantities, you don’t run the risk of paying $500 for a bottle of a case of only 20 ever produced. Don’t get me wrong — if you are looking for something like that, then Christian can definitely accommodate you, but if your price range is a little (or alot) lower, then speak up. Christian can and will find a wine that will satisfy your palate and your purse.
Many of the wines that occupy Le Chai are ones that aren’t familiar to the casual wine drinker, which is exactly the point. Le Chai exists to educate consumers about wine, and without the use of a “point system,” which is, in Christian’s view “counterproductive” to understanding and enjoying quality wine. As Christian explains, his job isn’t to push wine novices into buying expensive wine, but rather to provide context; he goes on to explain that when most people don’t like the taste of a wine, they don’t consider any other factors such as climate or soil — instead, they blame themselves and their “unsophisticated palate.” The amount of time and energy that Christian puts into researching and selecting his inventory means that he can dispel that notion and steer customers into choosing something that they will enjoy, or if they find something that they do not enjoy, he can at least explain why that may not be the wine selection for them.
The pride and passion that Christian takes in Le Chai is evident at a glance around his store, and yet there are more subtle clues that this is a place that takes wine seriously. For example, the storage of the product — the bottles that are precisely displayed are just that, for display only. The wines that leave with a customer are pulled from storage, where they are kept under fastidious conditions that reflect the wine cellars of the Old World, in a dark room with a temperature of 55 degrees and 70% humidity. And of course this makes perfect sense — why would anyone want to pay for wine that has been sitting on a rack under the glare of fluorescent lights for the last month? Even the name echoes the love of the Old World and embraces the functionality of the shop: a “chai” (pronounced “shay”) is what those in Bordeaux call a cellar.
I’m tickled that there is a quality wine store within walking/biking distance of downtown (and it’s right on Forsyth Park, too!), but I think my favorite thing about Le Chai (besides the wine that I bought from there, of course) is the way that the store perfectly embodies its owner’s ideas and philosophy of wine. The store is beautifully appointed, but clean and spare. The displays of available wines are carefully curated, like the pieces of art in a gallery. The wines have all been carefully selected by someone who truly cares about making good wine available over appealing to the masses. As you peruse the selections, you’ll find no cards with stars or suggested food pairings, but any questions that you have are answered by Christian, who is eager to share his knowledge of and enthusiasm for wines of the Old World with Savannah. If there was a ever a place that seems to revel in the enjoyment and appreciation of wine for wine’s sake, it’s Le Chai — galerie du vin. We followed Christian’s recommendation and purchased something new to us: a French malbec. As we enjoyed it later that night with our dinner, we toasted Le Chai and its welcome presence to the Forsyth Park neighborhood in Historic downtown Savannah.
15 East Park Avenue, Savannah, Georgia 31401