With a world of wine in constant evolution, I sometimes get excited about potential regions of tomorrow, trying to sniff out the next Grand Crus, so much that I eventually forget the great actors of the past. Places that have been looked up to by many and that History eventually forgot.
If you were a Frenchman, born anytime between the fourth and the nineteenth century, there’s a good chance you’d have drank wine produced in the Paris area. In fact, at its best (18th century), it would have been the largest area under vines in France! Nowadays, if you travel to Paris on a holiday, the never-ending grey roofs overlooked by the tall buildings of La Defense or the elegant Eiffel tower pointing towards the skies make it hard to believe. Although some rural areas can be found, grain seems to be the most common choice and the wine lists available around the region don’t showcase any local batch.
So, what happened? Where did it all go? Throughout of the 19th century, various social & natural factors can explain this disappearance.
Phylloxera: the Mysterious Plague
The now well-known aphid-like bug started its journey across Europe in the mid-19th century. By 1863, vines in the Southern Rhone valley were starting to die mysteriously, quickly spreading across the whole country and even beyond borders.
With no cure for the pest other than to uproot the vineyard and graft it entirely over American vitis vinifera rootstock, the future of the various wine regions depended on the determination of their own people and their ability to invest.
At the same time, while the whole vineyards had to be redesigned and reorganized, some competing plans for the Paris area started to emerge. What if the land could be used to become even richer? What if agricultural productions weren’t the best way to make money? A new vision was starting to spread, another Revolution in fact: the Industrial Revolution!
The Industrial Revolution
With the production of goods being more and more organised, the era of single machines being able to produce what a whole workforce was needed for beforehand, the many plots of land around Paris became potential headquarters for the Industry. Imagine for a moment, facing two possibilities as a landowner: working hard in a vineyard where climatic conditions could, in one night, ruin your yearly production, to make barely enough money to pay your staff and investments or cashing in a big cheque to sell your land and relax for the rest of your life? Even the most passionate, hardworking traditionalists would eventually hit the one bad year too many that would guide their decision…
Smoking chimneys started to replace the rows of vines, high-profit industries gave the Nouveaux Riches enough cash to support their social ascend, they’d eventually purchase one or two vineyards to talk about in social nights out, but more in the dreamy sunny South than the grey industrialized Capital.
Expansion of the Urban Areas
With new jobs flooding the area along the Industrial growth, the workers needed a place to stay. The last vineyards were eventually bought by builders or local authorities to welcome these new inhabitants. Stones and cement got poured over the land, buildings flourished while the vines were uprooted. The biggest wine region of France was gone within a few decades…
The Modern Revival
Heavy industry eventually flourished to the point where their avid owners tried to make money from anything, the weight of their greed on the poor workforce saw the rise of new ideas carried out by the likes of Marx or Proudhon. The people needed more money, more spare time and a more human treatment. Some industries refused to change, choosing to develop more and more robotic slaves to replace the workers or to relocate in places where these annoying new ideas of freedom hadn’t spread yet. Others tried to change but couldn’t adjust the new costs to their profits. Eventually, factories closed and areas got abandoned. The land was free again, not for long.
With no need for these big ugly buildings, and more and more mouths to feed, agriculture became trendy again. There weren’t many fields around at first, and some mad scientists had come up with magic powders that could lead to unbelievable yields! We all know what the results on our soils was, packed mud with no natural resources, but this is another debate.
Eventually, the old fame of the Paris vineyards started to emerge from old publications. Could we do it again? In the early 20th century (around 1933), the village of Montmartre saw a few rows of vines being reintroduced. In the second half of the century, other parts of the region welcomed the plant again.
Today, a few growers can be found, and along with EU regulations of the AOP system, allocations are given very carefully to plant new vineyards. Of course, the current strongholds of production get the lion share, with more allocations for replanting given to them. But slowly, a few plots get planted again in Ile de France (the Paris region).
Introducing the Winerie Parisienne
As a part of this movement, the Winerie Parisienne started to produce wine in 2015 in the courtyard of a Parisian building. With no direct link to an Old World tradition and a bunch of young guys leading the movement, a strange hybrid of Old & New World was born.
At first, the two entrepreneurs behind the project couldn’t own their vineyard, so they started long-term partnerships with growers in the other regions of France to go and harvest the grapes on site and get them sent over night to the winery. A certain Australian approach of the production, confirmed by the very New World way they called themselves: “winemakers” and not “vignerons” (vine growers). The various cuvées of whites, reds, rosés and sparkling were labelled as Vin de France (with no specific region of origin) and were more fruit bombs than traditional terroir-driven austere batches. Eventually, after a couple of years in production, the duo realised that controlling the production from the vineyard to the winery could allow them to concentrate on other aspects of wine, including more terroir elements.
In 2016, thanks to a partnership with local authorities, they planted their first vines in Davron, Yvelines. Not quite sure about the result, they decided to experiment with grapes from very different backgrounds (Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc). Would the soils and climate favour one or the other, only time will prove it and a few years are necessary before the vines give any good-quality fruit.
Before hitting the road to South America, we decided to pay them a visit in their brand new winery located in the very urban city of Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis. Far away from the landscape of Saint-Estephe or Chablis (or any other wine region I’ve been to), some very interesting wines were produced there.
As a part of our initiation to their range, we got to try the freshly vinified rosé straight off the stainless steel tank. It always feels so special to do so with winemakers. The wine had a pale, Provence-like hue with great natural acidity and floral/crunchy red berries aromas. A very good Rosé indeed! More recently, I was pleased to see their white and red sold in a local supermarket, hopefully people will start considering the area for its wines again!
I should have written this article ages ago, but I got caught by the beauty of South America and sort of left it aside. Here is the first of a long series about these guys, we’ll probably take you soon to their vineyard and show you their many challenges. It’s not everyday you get to witness the birth of a vineyard and a wine region altogether, especially in Europe! We’re quite excited by the idea, and we hope you are too!
TO BE CONTINUED