Hillside vineyards overlook the River Seine with the white buildings of the city center forming the backdrop. At Épinay-sur-Seine, and elsewhere in greater Paris, known to the French as the Île-de-France, wine growing has enjoyed a renaissance thanks to the valiant efforts of enthusiasts.
“And it’s not cheap plonk either,” says one of these aficionados, Norbert Lison, 71, who's president of the Confrérie du Cep d’Épinay (the Brotherhood of the Vine Stock of Épinay). Under this title, a handful of retirees are harvesting and treading grapes, then bottling the precious drop. Since 2003, 448 pinot gris vines have appeared in this working-class town in the northern suburbs of Paris, where traces of vineyards have been found dating back to 862.
Thanks to the support of the municipal government and the work of the volunteers, a few lucky people can enjoy a fruity dry white wine with aromas of honey, apricot and “a touch of honeysuckle,” says viticultural consultant Emmanuel Monteau. Production in 2011 was just 450 liters.
In Pontoise, in the Val d’Oise, more enthusiastic volunteers tempt the curious with their annual production of two ginglets (slightly acidic wines) made from baco and chardonnay grown in the town's small vineyard.
For one of these volunteers, René Bazot, 74, caring for this vineyard is a “pleasure like no other." At least once a week, he says, “you’re working with friends, sharing food together.”
If Franciliens (the name for residents of the Île-de-France) are passionate about wine, it’s because they are “looking to restore a sense of brotherhood, to recreate conviviality,” says Xavier-Privat Charvin, 35, who planted Paris’s only private vineyard at Paris-Bagatelle in the 16th arrondissement.
Patrice Bersac, president of the local wine industry association, Vignerons Franciliens Réunis, promises that with white, red, rosé and even sparkling styles, Île-de-France produces wines of originality and flavor.
The former engineer, with a long pepper-and-salt beard and wire-framed glasses, is a vigorous advocate for the region's wines. His goal: to win recognition for Île-de-France’s winemaking heritage and to “revive professional viticulture” there.
For the moment, only one wine, from Suresnes (Hauts-de-Seine), has been commercialized. The others are known only to a small circle of enthusiasts. Bersac’s dream is the establishment of an IGP with the title “Paris-Île-de-France.”
“That would allow us to demand a high level of quality and to obtain recognition, which would translate into a higher price,” he explains.
But do Île-de-France wines deserve this? “The quality varies widely from one vineyard to another,” says Philippe Faure-Brac, judged the World’s Best Sommelier in 1992. He reports that there are some good wines, and the whites are generally better than the others. Faure-Brac has them on the wine list at his restaurant, the Bistrot du Sommelier in central Paris, along with wines from the suburbs of Montmartre and Suresnes.
Obtaining an IGP “would be legitimate,” he says. “Île-de-France has been a great viticultural region but we would need a sufficiently large harvest and to prove that the quality is right.”
Which is no problem as far as Bersac is concerned: “We’ve made progress with quality, and growers have projects ready to go.”
Paris’s regional vineyards: a tradition inherited from ancient times
The collective efforts to restore vineyards to greater Paris mark the return of a tradition born in Gallo-Roman times.
In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian sang the praises of the region's wines. At the fall of the empire, religious orders took over grape production with the aim of developing it further.
Towards 1225, the poem “The Battle of the Wines,” written by Henri d'Andeli in honor of King Philippe Auguste, set out an early classification system for French wines. The list includes those produced in Argenteuil and Montmorency, now suburbs of the French capital.
The region’s vineyards reached their maximum area of 42,000 hectares (103,000 acres) in the 18th century, making greater Paris the largest wine-growing are in France, according to the Vignerons Franciliens Réunis. But in the 19th century, industrialization, phylloxera and the expansion of the railway system sounded the toll for wine production in the Île-de-France.
But in 1933, a handful of Parisians, anxious to protect an area of land from growing urbanization, planted the vines of Clos Montmartres. It was the beginning of a renaissance.
Thirty-two years later, in the suburb of Suresnes (Hauts-de-Seine), Etienne Lafourcade, an assistant mayor and grandson of a Bordeaux winemaker, restored the municipal vineyard on the slopes of Mont Valérien. Today, it covers one hectare and is the only Île-de-France wine available commercially (at 9 euros/$11 a bottle). This month, on October 6 and 7, the town marks its 29th Festival de Vendanges, or harvest festival.
In the rest of the region, rehabilitated vineyards in Sannois (Val-d'Oise), the Parc du Sausset (Seine-Saint-Denis), and Sartrouville (Yvelines) share cultural and educational aims.
According to Patrice Bersac, the Île-de-France now has more than 150 vineyards with at least 100 vines. His association says the main white varieties are chardonnay, sauvignon and pinot gris and the principal reds are pinot noir and gamay.