There isn’t a tourist to Paris who doesn’t know the ‘Clos Montmartre’. The most celebrated of Paris intra-muros vineyards, the Clos Montmartre epitomises ‘the old Paris’ and contributes greatly to giving one the impression that they are far away from the maddening crowds of the city. This sense of being in the countryside with well-tended vines covering the gentle slope of the ‘clos’ encourages a certain nostalgia for the old Montmartre, glimpses of which are still very much present today.
But beyond this folkloric homage to the vine, the ‘mount’s’ vinous history extends well back in time. The hilltop was already a place of worship and wine cultivation before Christ, and the columns of the old church of Saint Pierre were taken from a temple dedicated to Bacchus. The Emperors Constantius Chlorus and Julien vaunted its wines and were followed by the kings of France. At the beginning of the 12th century, Adelaide de Savoie, the first abbess of the Montmartre Abbey, launched a campaign to extend the abbey’s vineyards, which were for a long while its principle source of revenue. The wine produced there was called ‘Sacchalye’ (from ‘sac à lie’, otherwise known as Claret).
The vine prospered here until the revolution in 1789, when a tax made vineyard cultivation difficult, despite the wines here (especially that of the Goutte d’Or) having attained notoriety as one of the three greatest wines of a world classification after *Malvoisie and Cyprian wine.
In 1815 following the convention of Saint Cloud, the ‘butte’ was occupied by the English who laid many of the vineyards to waste, which seems very much at odds with their modern thirst for the grape. Subsequent to this, the great terracing work of the slopes began and one-by-one, the vineyards disappeared. The war of 1870 then destroyed the few vines that were left.
1933 marked the renaissance of the vine in Montmartre. The director of Paris plantations took possession of the land where the current vines may be found and a group of Montmartrois, with the painter Poulbot at their head, succeeded in preventing a 5-story apartment building from being built there. The mayor of Thomery (a canton near Fontainebleau) planted the first vine from the celebrated Domaine de Thomery on December 1st, 1933. The first harvest in 1935 was attended by the President of France, Edouard Herriot, along with artists of the period such as Mistinguet and Fernandel and a great crowd. The grapes were pressed in the Place du Tertre and the juice was sold in goblets.
But the 2500 vines planted were a mish-mash of nearly 30 different varietals (Pinot Blanc, Muscat Blanc, Morgon, Sauvignon, Chasselas, Seyve-Villard…), which lead to uneven ripening times and confusion for harvest. These have now been replaced and the current vineyard is 70% Gamay, 10% Pinot Noir and 20% of the original varieties (Landau, Sauvignon, Chasselas, Seyve-Villard…). The vines along the walls and under trees produce very little and the fact that the vineyard is northern facing doesn’t help.
Vinification since 1970 has taken place in the Mairie (town hall) of the 18th and in 1986, which was a good year, more than a tonne of grapes were picked, producing between 600 and 700 litres of wine, whereas 1987, not such a great year, produced only 300 litres. On average, between 450 and 500 bottles are produced annually of a rosé with 7° to 9° alcohol and a ‘puzzling’ taste. According to the Montmartrois wine-makers, it is a fine little wine that is ‘rough’, ‘lively’ and ‘drinkable’.
Some of these bottles are sold at auction, often attaining prices that well exceed their relative value, but their rarity and their novelty make them interesting collector’s items. The harvest festivities take place every year on the first Saturday of October, attended by various ‘confreries’ in their traditional costumes. The godfather and godmother of the vine are generally celebrities selected from the world of show business, who accompany the mayor of Paris and the mayor of the arrondissement, and together they symbolically harvest some of the grapes. Depending on the maturity of the grapes, the real harvest takes place either before or after the harvest festivities.
The Clos Montmartre vineyard has been part of Paris’ heritage for some time, with much the same prestige as any of its monuments. But unlike monuments, which may inspire intellectual or aesthetic appreciation, it restores a spirit of lively, simple, village festivity. Thanks of course to Dionysus (or Bacchus if you prefer).
(notes translated from “Les Vins de Paris”, Christine Boiron, published in 1988 by Glénat)
A name as confusing in France as Malvasia is in Italy. A wide range of often unrelated varieties are called Malvoisie although most are light-berried and make full-bodied, aromatic white wines. Perhaps it is most commonly encountered, in the Loire, Savoie and Switzerland, as a synonym for Pinot Gris. The Languedoc's Bourboulenc and Maccabéo, Roussillon's Tourbat and Corsica's Vermentino have all been called Malvoisie in their time, however. (Jancis Robinson)