Parisian Wine Harvest — Encore

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Paris has lots of hidden secrets, among them some patches of neat little vineyards, scattered in different parts of the city. Now, with the Vendanges round the corner, is the time to explore these pocketsize vestiges of days not so long gone by, when the city was a collection of villages and winegrowing was as common as selling junk food is today. Now is the time to join in the annual grape-picking festivities, be it in Montmartre, or elsewhere, usaully on a Saturday, in late September or October, according to weather fluctuations. Vineyards clung to the slopes of western Paris too, now 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 every 22 January – the holy day of Saint Vincent, patron of the vineyards – who was celebrated here with much rejoicing. But later the wines of Passy and Chaillot began to compete with it, eventually bringing about its decline. Passy still honours its dionysian past by way of its wine museum at 5, Square Charles Dickens. Le Musée du Vin, also known as Le Caveau des Echonsons, occupies a vast 14th-century vaulted cellar. This was once part of the domain of the Minimes, whose wine-growing monks kept their wine in these vaults. Here you can see historical scenes animated by wax dolls showing, for example, Napoleon tasting a Bourgogne and Balzac walking own the stairs in his white dressing-gown to escape his creditors; bailiffs in his nearby home on rue Raynouard, as well as a display of various items connected with wine. The bonshommes cultivated their vineyards roughly on the site of the present rue Vineuse and their claret was so praised that Louis XIII came over to drink it after the hunt. Of all Paris’s vineyards, Montmartre’s is the most renowned. Continue along rue Norvins and turn left into rue des Saules, named after the willow trees that once grew on this watery spot. On your right is Montmartre’s vineyard, a neat, bright-green patch cheerfully tilted downhill towards rue Saint-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 organise the first grape-picking ceremony the following year. The ceremony was held all the same and was honoured by the presence of both 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, whom he had loved and fostered, and immortalised in his paintings. East of the hill of Montmartre, is an area called La Goutte d’Or, a working-class area, the one-time home of Emile Zola’s Gervaise. But the name “The Golden Drop” evokes better times. In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate at no. 42, is la Villa Poissonnière, an incongruous countrified alleyway sloping gently down towards you, 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. This site is believed to have been the property of a winegrower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on its 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 when 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. Further east, in today’s 20th arrondissement, is the rivalling hill of Belleville, which claims to be the summit of Paris. However, Montmartre seems to beat it by half a meter, even though the people of Belleville claim to the contrary. Be it as it may, in pre-industrial days Belleville was a land of neat strips of vineyards clinging to its sunny slopes, now revived symbolically in the recently created parc de Belleville, as a nod of respect to its pastoral pastThe village of Charonne, in the 20th arrondissement, but further south, was a village of winegrowers favoured by Jean Jacques Rousseau, as he reported in Reverie d’un promeneur solitaire, an account of his ramblings in the Paris area. If you wish to be among the last to see the seamier side of old Paris before it is relegated to the historical archives, and your feet are up to it, continue along rue Vitruve as far as rue des Orteaux, then turn left. To your right, on either side of rue des Vignoles – whose name alone evokes the vinegrowing past – lie several narrow streets, lined with crumblinghouses and hovels, which have retained the exact layout of the vineyards they have, regrettably, replaced. Here too, concrete is fast devouring the little crumbling houses, whose ill-fated tenants were poets and wits. The first alley to your right on rue des Orteaux, beyond rue de Vignoles, has been dubbed Impasse Dieu, not to mark some spiritual yearning, but just to honour the memory of one of the inhabitants of Charonne, a certain Monsieur…
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