Parisians turn Dionysian the first weekend in October with Montmartre’s annual Grape Harvest Festival. This year’s Vendanges à Montmartre will see its queen, film star Sophie Marceau, christening this year’s brew “Cuvée Dalida,” after a beloved Egyptian-born singer, who before her death 10 years ago lived in Montmartre. Along with wine tastings and a parade, the festival will feature the inauguration of place Dalida (where rue de l’Abreuvoir crosses rue Girardon) by the mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi.
Until recently, much of Paris was a collection of villages, fragments of which can still be detected by the sharp observer. Needless to say, their wine-loving inhabitants covered a substantial portion of their territory with vineyards…to everyone’s joy.
According to legend, the area around Montmartre was in all likelihood the home of the most expert connoisseur of them all, the very god of wine, Dionysus. Since the dawn of time, the 18th arrondissement has been a place of pilgrimage. Hilltops and summits had always aroused the imaginations of people, who believed them to be the abode of divinities. The ancient Celts are believed to have attributed mystical powers to the hill of Montmartre and to have erected ritual megaliths on the sacred hill, under the guidance of the Druids.
This was also a place of worship for the Romans, who built temples here for the gods Mars, Mercury and perhaps Jupiter. But above all, it was the martyrdom of a Christian, Saint Denis, that put Montmartre on the map as a sacred place of pilgrimage (martyrium was a cemetery for persecuted Christians, hence Montmartre and rue des Martyrs).
Montmartre’s artists’ community in the ’30s remembered the gods and the wine. Off to the left of rue Norvins is the rue des Saules, named after the willow trees that once grew on this watery spot. On the right is Montmartre’s vineyard, a neat, bright-green patch cheerfully tilted downhill towards rue St-Vincent, but against all logic, exposed to the north! This is because it was planted in 1934 by Montmartre’s merry yet incompetent intelligentsia to revive old traditions.
Their knowledge of wine growing was limited indeed, and unaware that grapes need four years before they can be pressed for wine, they went on to organize the first grape-picking ceremony the following year. […] The President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, and the Minister of Agriculture, Henri Quenille, who were offered the first two bunches of grapes. The grape-picking ceremony has been repeated every October since, except during World War II. The wine is pressed in the cellar of the mairie and sold at auction in April. The labels of the bottles are painted by local artists and the money raised is used for charity, a tradition initiated by the artist Poulbot for the children of the hill immortalized in his paintings.
The Golden Drop
Another area in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, the village of La Goutte d’Or, became renowned more than any other for the quality of its wine.
In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate at no. 42, is la Villa Poissonière, an incongruous countrified alleyway decked with the same romantic street lamps as those that decorate la Butte Montmartre. It seems to have been placed here by mistake. On either side stand charming old houses, some attractively embellished by ceramics, each with its exquisite, pocket-size garden filled with the twittering of birds.
The site is believed to have been the property of a wine-grower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on a sunny slope rolling gently to the south. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the wine of La Goutte d’Or had attained such renown that during a European contest at the time of Saint Louis it shared third prize with the wines of Alicante and Laconia. The first prize went to Cyprus, the “Pope” of wines, and the second prize went to Malaga, the “Cardinal” of wines. The wine of La Goutte d’Or was crowned the “King” of wines, which also tells us something about the position of the royal authorities in the hierarchy of medieval Europe and their struggle to gain independence from Rome. It was customary at the time for the city of Paris to present the King with wine from La Goutte d’Or on his birthday.
Clos des Morillons
The vineyard of the Clos des Morillons in the Parc Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondissement is not quite so famous, but, here too, vendanges take place in September. Some 600-700 kilos of grapes are picked each year, accompanied by folk dancing and music as the harvest is loaded onto a brightly decked cart. The following summer, several hundreds of bottles of Clos des Morillons Pinot Noir – a fine vintage, according to connoisseurs – are sold for 50-60F each at 38, rue des Morillons. The proceeds go to charity.
The vineyard, with its 700 vines, was planted only in 1985, when the park was laid out. It was meant to rekindle old traditions, for before the Revolution, the vineyards of these sunny, southern slopes were the pride of the village of Vaugirard. Mention of its export to England dates back to 1453. An even earlier document, now kept at the National Archives, goes back to July 1230. This is a sales deed written on parchment, confirming that Milon Bergen and his wife Agnès sold one acre of vineyard to Etienne Poirier for the sum of 15F minted in Paris, paid in cash.
In 1717 as many as 27 of the 95 houses of Vaugirard were taverns, which meant they served wine. Parisians would come here on Sundays and holidays, especially after 1786, when the oppressive toll walls were built around Paris (in this arrondissement, on the site of the Vaugirard, Pasteur, Garibaldi and Grenelle boulevards). Beyond the walls, wine escaped taxation and entertainment was cheap. Louis-Sébastien Mercier recorded that “one drinks wine, one eats strawberries and peas. One dances to the sound of fiddles, musettes, and oboes.” However, the prosperity did not last long; the profit-seeking wine growers of Vaugirard replaced their vines with a new stock that yielded much more wine, but of poorer quality. The demanding consumers would have none of it and by 1810 there were no vineyards left in Vaugirard.
Working-class Paris had to contend with cheap sour wine, known as “guinguet,” that they drank on weekends in open-air taverns that were situated just outside the city toll gates and therefore sold their wine untaxed. The taverns came to be known as “guingettes.” Today the Métro line Charles de Gaulle/Étoile-Nation follows the exact line of the toll walls of Paris, which were demolished by Haussmann in 1860. On much of the route the trains run on elevated rail tracks, which enables riders to visualize where the city boundaries lay until quite recently.
Lower-class Paris could not afford to be fussy about the quality of the wine it absorbed, but it surely absorbed a lot. On the eve of the French Revolution, there were 7,000 establishments in the capital selling cheap wine (five times the number of bakeries!) and Parisians drank a yearly average of 200 pints each. Under such circumstances, the savage brutality of the mob during the chaotic days of the Revolution is not surprising.
With so much wine flowing about, the banks of the foul river attracted the most wretched riffraff, who weild away the hours in unsavory dives along the river, drowning their misery in cheap alcohol, engaging in brawls and crime. It was among the embryonic working class of Faubourg St-Antoine (now in the 11th and 12th arrondissements) and among the rabble of the future 13th (“more wicked, more inflammable and more disposed to mutiny than could be found anywhere else in Paris,” according to Louis-Sébastien Mercier), that the French Revolution recruited its zealous hordes of angry followers. Restif de la Bretonne, a contemporary of Mercier, described how on the eve of July 14 the bandits from the faubourg St-Marcel passed by his house on their way to join those of faubourg St-Antoine: “Tout cela formait une tourbe formidable” (“All this formed a formidable mob”). And it was the “Patriotes” of the faubourg St-Marcel who were the first to arrive at the Palais des Tuileries on August 10, 1792, and demand the abdication of the King.
Rue des Vignoles
Many street names of Paris still commemorate its ancient vineyards, notably, the rue des Vignoles in eastern Paris, in the 20th arrondissement, the backbone of a small enclave of narrow streets and crumbling houses, which have retained the exact layout of the vineyards they have regrettably replaced. Today this stretch bears such poetic names as passage Dieu and impasses Rançon, Souhaits and Satan! This is the area of the one-time wine-growing village of Charonne, whose vineyards Jean-Jacques Rousseau liked to ramble through, as he reported in “Reverie d’un promeneur solitaire.”
Rue des Vignes
The villages west of Paris also had vineyards which climbed up the sunny hillside of what is now the privileged 16th arrondissement, as witness rue des Vignes and rue Vineuse. Many of them belonged to the religious order of the Minimes, whose convent was located at the foot of the hill of Chaillot, by the Seine. Higher up on the slope was the women’s convent of the Visitation, an order of ladies of quality, founded by Henrietta Maria of France, the daughter of Henry IV and the widow of Charles I of England. A double wall separated the two institutions in order to prevent unnecessary temptations. However, it seems virtuous conduct was not always strictly observed there; in 1800, a 300-meter tunnel was discovered under the section of the toll walls that ran there, through which brandy had been smuggled into the convent. Today a wine museum, located in what was once part of the domain of the Minimes, is worth a visit. Musée du Vin-Caveau des Echansons, noon to 4pm, 5, sq Charles Dickens, rue des Eaux, 16e, Mº Passy, tel: 01.45.25.43.26.
Hills of Auteuil
Vineyards also grew on the sunny hills of Auteuil (the southern part of the 16th arrondissement). Back in the Middle Ages, the wine of Auteuil had gained a reputation that spread beyond the borders of France. A Danish bishop by the name of Roschild thanked the canons of Notre Dame for the excellent quality wine from Auteuil they had sent him as a gift: “Vino optimo Altolil.” At the time of Pierre Abélard, students came to Auteuil to drink its wine and ever January 22 – the holy day of Saint Vincent, patron of the vineyards – was celebrated here with much rejoicing. But later the wines of Passy and Chaillot began to compete with it, eventually bringing about its decline.
Fire brigade water
Last but not least, and unknown to most Parisians, is the tiny vineyard on Rue Blanche, in the very congested center of the city, just north of the Gare St-Lazare. It belongs to the “pompiers” of the fire station at no. 28! The vineyard has six vines in all, nurtured by the fire brigade since 1904. The firemen produce an average of 30 bottles of wine a year. On the second Friday of October the picking of grapes is celebrated with great pomp. The names on the bottles may sound promising – Pinot Noir and Chasselas – but the wine itself is almost undrinkable, although the labels are highly sought after by collectors.
Fête des Vendanges à Montmartre, Oct 4: Art Festival Inauguration, rue Azais, at noon; two parades, one leaving from pl Blanche, the other from the corner of rue des Martyrs and rue des Abbesses, at 2:30pm; official ceremonies, 3-5pm. Evening: Local restaurants feature wine tastings and “Vendanges” theme menus. Montmartre artists open their studios that weekend to the public. Information, Mairie du XVIIIème, 1, pl Jules Joffrin, tel: 01.42.52.42.00.
This article is adapted from Tirza Vallois’ book, “Around and About Paris – the 13th-20th arrondissements,” (Iliad Books). Two other volumes spotlight the 1st-7th and 8th-12th arrondissements. All are available at most Paris bookshops specializing in English-language publications.