Tucked amid the city’s urban sprawl, dozens of secluded vineyards dot the French capital and produce some of France’s most exclusive wines.
When I first met Irene Henriques, it was the hottest-recorded week in French history. She was standing at the foot of her vineyard wearing long trousers and a thick khaki workman’s coat. When I asked how she wasn’t melting, she laughed and replied in her soft-spoken voice, “After 30 years of wine-growing, you get used to it.”
Gesturing towards the rolling, bucolic hill behind us, Henriques begged, “It’s beautiful, no?” I had to agree. The land that she and her team have spent decades cultivating looks like a Rococo painting come to life; an Arcadian vision of the French countryside. Climbing wisteria and lilacs line the surrounding iron fence, while apple and pear trees provide much-needed shade. Henriques’ most important crops, the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Muscat grapes, crown the hill, gorging themselves on sunlight.
France has strict vine-planting regulations, and until recently, only certain regions – including Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Champagne – could bottle and sell wine commercially. But in 2016, an EU-mandated liberalisation of the French wine sector extended the right to sell wine commercially throughout most of France. Yet, wines produced within the French capital can still not be sold to commercial markets because of the perceived threat urban pollution may have on the grapes.
But the goal of Parisian vineyards was never to make money. So rather than going from wine cellars to wine sellers, the bottles have always been auctioned off to benefit the city during harvest time. Also, because the vines are owned and operated by the City of Paris, you can’t just go for a tasting or a tour, as you can in other French regions.
The secret vineyards of Paris only open their doors to visitors at certain times of the year. In the first week of October, during the Fête de la Vigne et du Raisin, visitors can participate in wine tastings, learn the science of winegrowing, and go on guided tours of vineyards. Some vineyards can also be visited during the Fête des Jardins, a festival that celebrates urban gardens, in late September. If you can’t make it to either, there is one privately owned vineyard in the city, La Vigne de Paris-Bagatelle – a chic hotel built in 1926 located on the border of the Bois de Boulogne park — that offers wine tastings, guided tours and oenology courses by appointment.
“The Parisian vineyards combine aesthetics with technical innovation while recalling the viticultural history of the Île-de-France,” said Sylviane Leplâtre, head oenologist for the City of Paris, “They are an invaluable teaching aid for city dwellers, which is the characteristic of urban vineyards.”
Today, the modern French wine connoisseur might snub their nose at the idea of visiting Paris’ tiny, community-minded vineyards. But there was a time when The City of Light was the centre of wine production in the country.
Paris has a rich vinicultural past that shouldn’t be overlooked
“Most of the time when we think of French wine, we think about regions like Bordeaux, Bourgogne, the Loire Valley and Champagne, but Paris has a rich vinicultural past that shouldn’t be overlooked,” said sommelier and Parisian wine-tasting tour guide Emily Lester. “The area of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés [a chic shopping district in the heart of the 6th arrondissement] was actually home to a large vineyard site that was originally established for the church that had existed since the 6th Century.”
In fact, winemaking in Paris is an ancient tradition dating at least to the Romans, who once built a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine and agriculture, in what is now Montmartre.
Though the wet climate and unreliable soil of Paris were not as ideal as sunny, dry Bordeaux – with its perfect mixture of clay, sand and gravel – transport was very limited in pre-industrialised France, so it made sense to produce wine in more highly populated areas. At its height in the early 17th Century, Paris’ wine industry boasted more than 4,450 winegrowers who oversaw a staggering 42,000 hectares (or 420 sq km) of vines in and around Greater Paris. In fact, the 18th arrondissement’s Goutte d’Or, or “Golden Drop”, district takes its name from a wine produced in Paris until the 19th Century.
But in the mid-19th Century, a series of epidemics ravaged vineyards throughout Europe, with France one of the hardest-hit regions. When it was finally safe for merchants to replant their vines in the early 20th Century, the City of Paris was growing, and much of the available land was under development and no longer open to winegrowers.
Luckily for oenophiles, the proliferation of the French rail system in the 19th Century meant that wine could be easily be transported from regions with better soil and weather, like Bourgogne, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, to the capital. By the early 20th Century, not a single vineyard remained in Paris.
This changed in the early 1930s when artist Francisque Poulbot spearheaded a campaign to turn a neighbourhood park into a vineyard, thus creating Paris’ largest and most famous vineyard today: the 1,556 sq m Clos Montmartre. Today, the Clos produces about 1,500 bottles of wine per year, which are auctioned off in the second weekend of October at its annual Grape Harvest Festival, just as they have been since 1934.
The four-day soiree is organised by the Commanderie du Clos du Montmartre who parade through the streets in their wine-red robes at each year’s festival. Commanderies are brotherhoods that have existed in France since the 13th Century. Most disappeared after the French Revolution, but wine commanderies re-emerged in the 19th Century as a way to rebuke the austerity and rigid values of Revolutionary France. “We are the only wine commanderie in Paris,” said Ginette Rousselin, who has been a member of the Commanderie du Clos du Montmartre for 15 years. “We represent the festive and ceremonial aspect of wine-making in Paris.”
Though the Clos du Montmartre was the first to revive the art of winemaking in Paris, others have followed and flourished in recent decades. The miniscule Clos des Morillons, located in the 15th arrondissement’s Parc Georges Brassens, grows atop a once-thriving 18th-Century vineyard. In 1897, the vines were removed to make way for slaughterhouses. But in 1983, in an effort to revive the cultural history of the area, 700 Pinot Noir vines were planted on four sunny terraces. Today, the Clos des Morillons continues to produce a limited number of bottles each year – their 2009 Pinot Noir vintage received the Orchidee d’Or (Golden Orchid) award given to the best wines produced in Île-de-France.
In Paris’ trendy north-eastern district of Belleville, an area known for its dive bars and excellent Chinese food, hides another small winery called the Clos de Belleville. Like Montmartre, this Parisian vineyard also has a long wine-growing history. “‘Clos’, or enclosed vineyards, were maintained by Carolingian monks in the 9th Century [in what is] currently Belleville,” explained Parisian wine expert and tour guide Geoffrey Finch. “Little by little, the vineyards disappeared and now all that remains is a small 500 sq m plot planted in 1992.”
Further south, in the Parc de Bercy, lies the Clos de Bercy, which produces 350 bottles of wine a year with its Chardonnay and Sauvignon grapes. In the 19th Century, Bercy Village was the hub of Parisian wine commerce, filled with storehouses where the biggest wine merchants of the day set up shop. It was also home to taverns, cabarets and guinguettes (restaurants with dancefloors), where the working class would come to sip wine and be merry. Unfortunately, most of the original village was razed to make room for the Parc de Bercy in 1983, but the vines now growing there are a powerful homage to the area’s past.
After visiting the vines in the Butte Bergeyre, Henriques offered to take me to her vineyard’s cellar, where all the wine is produced and bottled. As we walked down the hill towards the Louis Blanc metro station, she told me about how she ended up at the Butte Bergeyre: “I started out at accounting school but never finished,” she laughed. “I didn’t become passionate about gardening until I came to Paris at the age of 18.” Today, in addition to tending to her Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Muscat grapes, Henriques also grows tomatoes, cabbage and other crops on the small plot.
The Butte Bergeyre’s wine cellar is located in the basement of a modernist-style building in the Crimée district. There is one tub where all the grapes are mixed and one barrel where the red wine is aged. On the far wall is a wine rack that contains all the bottles produced this year awaiting the autumn auction. Looking at the small room, I was struck by the passion Henriques has for Parisian winemaking – going to the vines everyday (“And two Sundays a month!” she said) and harvesting them, all to produce a few bottles that cannot even be sold.
“Paris used to be full of vineyards,” she said, admiring the small rack of Buttes Bergyere bottles. “We want to keep that tradition alive.”