That the Butte’s wine is almost undrinkable has never gotten in the way of what has to be one of this capital’s best annual fests!
As with any good party, this one has something for everybody: it’s part folklore, with fraternal orders from the winegrowing regions of France turning out in traditional robes and quirky hats, and part Arbor Day parade, complete with Harvest Queen, marching bands and street theater.
Paris’ grape-picking tradition, dates back to the time of Asterix. Admittedly, the vine hit some hard times along the way. Most notably, a 200-year hiccup that began when the 1st-century Roman Emperor Domitian forbade vineyards in Gaul. Whether this was because he felt that the indigenous population was getting a bit too merry – or, because Italy’s wine merchants didn’t need the competition – is a matter of dispute…
It wasn’t until the 3rd century that the Gauls were able to replant their vine stocks. By the next century, Lutetia (ancient Paris) had become one of the four winegrowing capitals of Gaul, along with Bordeaux, Narbonne and Trèves.
Paris vintages had their heyday during the Middle Ages, when they were exported to Picardy, Normandy and even England. The wines of Montmartre (or Mont Mercure, as it was then known) were particularly favored. One of them, La Goutte d’Or, was called the “king of wines.”
By the 17th century, apartment construction threatened the city’s grape-growers. And, come the mid-1800s, the poet Gérard de Nerval lamented, “Every year this humble slope loses another row of its scrawny vines down a rock quarry…
Farewell harvest baskets! Farewell grape harvests! Tomorrow houses will grow here instead of grapes.” By WWI the last vestige of Montmartre’s once-plentiful vineyards was no more. Enter Poulbot. Francisque Poulbot was a Montmartre artist, known for his paintings of chubby street urchins. In 1930 he mobilized the population of the Butte against developers planning to build on the vacant portion of land bordering the famous cabaret Au Lapin Agile. Poulbot and company occupied the site and proclaimed it their “Liberty Square” – three years later, the city of Paris planted vine stocks there.
In 1934, the intrepid mayor of Montmartre, Pierre Labric, created the fête du vin, conveniently overlooking the fact that it would be at least 10 years before the vines produced the least yield. Fortunately winegrowers in the provinces agreed to provide some 30 tons of grapes to get production rolling, and by the 1940s the Montmartre vineyard was elaborating its own nectars.
Today the quartier produces about one ton of Gamay noir (with white juice), Pinot noir and Landay grapes (thick-skinned and acidic owing to the vines’ location on the north slope of the Butte), enough for about 700 bottles of Le Clos Montmartre rosé wine. The actual harvesting is done by a handful of workers from the City of Paris’ parks and gardens department, and doesn’t always coincide with the date of the festival. The pressing of the grapes, carried out on the place du Tertre during the 1940s, now takes place in a specially designated “cave” belonging to the 18th arrondissement’s town hall. JC