March 22, 2014 by Emma Bentley
Picture yourself in 18th century Paris. The streets are narrow, smelly and just as ridden with vagabonds, ragamuffins and the more-than-just-occasional four-legged rodent as they are today.
Now imagine that the Eiffel Tower has not yet been constructed, nor has the Montparnasse Tower. Haussmann has not been born and thus the entirety of the city ressembled what we refer to as the Latin Quarter today. There is a large hill in the background so far to the north that it is considered the countryside. The 42,000 hectares surrounding this mediaeval town are planted with vines. The vineyards stretch to as far as the eye can see. This was the most important viticultural area in France.
By the end of the nineteenth century, there were no fewer than 4450 wine merchants operating in the Paris area and around 11,000 “débits de boissons” (drinking holes.) The reason why cabarets, bars, and other establishments of ill-repute (i.e. the Moulin Rouge) flourished in the area of Montmartre to such an extent was because alcohol tax was not payable outside the city gates and the city limits did not yet stretch that far.
Le Clos de Montmartre, the vineyard situated on the hill behind the Sacré-Coeur, can trace its history back to Roman times. Records suggest that wine was being produced in the area even as far back as that. In the sixteenth century, we have more records and the inhabitants of the area now known as Montmartre were mainly labourers. There were around fifteen fully operative windmills at this time – however, you may not have realised that they were not being used for grinding grains into flour, but for pressing wine.
This was all about to change. The arrival of the railways brought about an invasion of wine from the south (from warmer climates, where the wine was marginally more drinkable) to this northen town. Bit by bit, Montmartre was urbanised, criminalised and turned into an infamous hedonist’s playground, with its numerous cabarets and taverns of various forms of iniquity. Wine was still being consumed, but the drink of choice had moved on to absinthe.
By the start of the 20th century, not a single vine was left.
It was only in the 1930s that the “Vieux Montmartre” group, vociferally led by Mr Francisque Poulbot (more commonly remembered nowadays for his illustrations, above) pushed the Montmartre Council to replant the vines. The first harvest finally took place in 1934.
The principal grape varieties are Gamay and Pinot Noir and what is most remarkable is that the vineyard, just as before, is entirely north-facing. The wine itself is not particularly note-worthy, it’s rather more what it stands for and its scarcity that makes it popular.
The 80th Fete des Vendanges (“Harvest Celebration”) took place in 2012. Almost 2000 bottles were sold and the proceeds were then ploughed back into the welfare projects in the 18th arondissement.
Little Pieces of Trivia
There is actually second wine producing vineyard in Paris – “La Vigne de Paris Bagatelle” – a private vineyard in the 16th arrondissement.
The Goutte d’Or is so called as a reference to the golden colour of the white wine that this area produced. In mediaeval times, the City of Paris would traditionally give the King a gift of this golden wine.
Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877) based around the theme of alcoholism and poverty in the late 19th century was set in the Goutte d’Or.
Find out more about other tiny vineyards in Paris here.