Culture

The Story Behind Montmartre’s Grape Harvest Festival

Found amid the hilly Paris neighborhood surrounding Sacré-Coeur is the Clos Montmartre, the city’s last working vineyard. Tucked into a green space behind the splendid Musée de Montmartre, the small, neat vineyard at the corner of rue des Saules and rue Saint Vincent is an incongruous sight. Among the beautiful, bourgeois houses of Clignancourt, the Clos Montmartre is just over the north shoulder of the famed cabaret Lapin Agile.
The Wine Harvest of the Clos Montmartre (C) The Wine Harvest of the Clos Montmartre Montmartre had its wine-growing heyday in the late 18th century. Vines initially introduced to the Paris region by the Romans stretched from Ménilmontant to the slopes of the Butte Montmartre in the mid-1800s. But, by the turn of 20th century – and in no small part due to the 1870 Siege of Paris – there was barely a grape vine to be found.
Costumed attendees, Fête des vendanges in Montmartre, 1939. Credit: wikipedia commons Clos Montmartre is not a historically ancient feature of the neighborhood, but one with a very interesting history, nonetheless. Back in 1921 a group of artists and illustrators, including Francisque Poulbot and Adolphe Willette, founded a friendly association who declared themselves the “Republique de Montmartre.” They were a kind of safety committee that fought against the ravages of vandals and sought to help the disadvantaged children of the 18th arrondissement. They also devoted themselves to preserving the hill’s artistic reputation and drew other artists, writers and musicians to the group. Together they asked the city of Paris to grant them a patch of land in order to stymie real estate developers from buying up huge chunks of their beloved Montmartre. The city of Paris created the vineyard in 1933 and today the plot is still under the city’s direction. An exciting addition for the residents of the day, the vineyard was largely celebrated before its first bottle was uncorked!
Montmartre vineyard. Credit: Basili / Wikipedia The vineyard is a small and defiant one, taking up a meager .15ha on the wrong side of a steep slope, whose north face gets little benefit from the sun. Twenty-seven varieties of wine arise from the Montmartre vineyard – including Gamay, Pinot Noir, and the occasional Sauvignon and Riesling. The wine of course can’t compete with those from the caves of Bordeaux or Burgundy but that’s not the point. The Montmartre wines are up close and personal – a locavore’s dream.

Found amid the hilly Paris neighborhood surrounding Sacré-Coeur is the Clos Montmartre, the city’s last working vineyard. Tucked into a green space behind the splendid Musée de Montmartre, the small, neat vineyard at the corner of rue des Saules and rue Saint Vincent is an incongruous sight. Among the beautiful, bourgeois houses of Clignancourt, the Clos Montmartre is just over the north shoulder of the famed cabaret Lapin Agile.

The Wine Harvest of the Clos Montmartre (C) The Wine Harvest of the Clos Montmartre

Montmartre had its wine-growing heyday in the late 18th century. Vines initially introduced to the Paris region by the Romans stretched from Ménilmontant to the slopes of the Butte Montmartre in the mid-1800s. But, by the turn of 20th century – and in no small part due to the 1870 Siege of Paris – there was barely a grape vine to be found.

Costumed attendees, Fête des vendanges in Montmartre, 1939. Credit: wikipedia commons

Clos Montmartre is not a historically ancient feature of the neighborhood, but one with a very interesting history, nonetheless. Back in 1921 a group of artists and illustrators, including Francisque Poulbot and Adolphe Willette, founded a friendly association who declared themselves the “Republique de Montmartre.” They were a kind of safety committee that fought against the ravages of vandals and sought to help the disadvantaged children of the 18th arrondissement. They also devoted themselves to preserving the hill’s artistic reputation and drew other artists, writers and musicians to the group. Together they asked the city of Paris to grant them a patch of land in order to stymie real estate developers from buying up huge chunks of their beloved Montmartre. The city of Paris created the vineyard in 1933 and today the plot is still under the city’s direction. An exciting addition for the residents of the day, the vineyard was largely celebrated before its first bottle was uncorked!

Montmartre vineyard. Credit: Basili / Wikipedia

The vineyard is a small and defiant one, taking up a meager .15ha on the wrong side of a steep slope, whose north face gets little benefit from the sun. Twenty-seven varieties of wine arise from the Montmartre vineyard – including Gamay, Pinot Noir, and the occasional Sauvignon and Riesling. The wine of course can’t compete with those from the caves of Bordeaux or Burgundy but that’s not the point. The Montmartre wines are up close and personal – a locavore’s dream.

Harvested wine grapes. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Viguié/ Ville de Paris

From the autumn harvest on this fraction of an acre, a lofty yield of 1700 demi-sized bottles is aimed for. The wine that head vintner Francis Gourdin oversees has been described as light and appealing, but not very complex. Auctioned off for about 40-50€ bottles of the previous years’ vintage are considered collectors items. For its quality, it’s expensive but the money raised from the sale of these demis goes to charity

Festive activities. Credit: Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre/ Facebook

The profits of the Cuvée du Clos Montmartre auction are shared with children and seniors living in the 18th arrondissement, through a series of neighborhood initiatives, which include communal meals, Christmas events, and cultural outings, such as paid expeditions to the circus.

Keren Anne and Jul. Credit: Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre/ Twitter

Le Clos Montmartre is fermé à clé to the public for 51 weeks of the year, but many a guided tour will walk its perimeter and perennial borders. The only time on the calendar when select visitors are welcomed inside the gates is during the five-day-long festival called La Fête des Vendanges. A whopping half a million attendees come to the slopes of Montmartre to enjoy this family-friendly bacchanal centering on the folklore of harvest time. Montmartre’s grapes are harvested and brought down to the basement of the town hall, where they are pressed, fermented and bottled. Not surprisingly, it’s the only government office in Paris that makes wine.

Portrait of Aistide Bruant by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public domain

“Rejoice in doing good” is the motto that members of the Republique de Montmartre are loyal to. The pinnacle of their year is celebration around the Montmartre grape harvest. Today they are distinguished from the throng by wearing the outfit of Montmartre denizen, Aristide Bruant, immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec in a red scarf, black cape and floppy black hat.

Festive activities. Credit: Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre/ Facebook

This year, the Fête des Vendanges is back in the 18th arrondissement from Wednesday, October 6 to Sunday, October 10, 2021 with a program filled with many wine-themed events. The Fête des Vendanges schedule will be launched with an acrobatic performance of free runners as a nod to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Besides the grape harvest and the auction of the 2020 vintage, there’s a whole slate of family-friendly events over the five days. On the weekend, there’s a festive costume parade with many in folkloric dress. A tasting fair called the Parcours du Goût features scores of vendors of French wines, and merchants from all corners of France who offer tempting selections of sausages, charcuterie, oysters, honey, cheese, and, bien sur, beaucoup de vin. Scattered throughout the days are creative performances, art exhibits, lectures, cooking classes, contests, and energetic selections from the 18th arrondissement’s children’s choir.

Rue des Saules and the Montmartre vineyard. Credit: Mbzt/Wikipedia

On Friday and Sunday, the Clos Montmartre can be toured. Saturday at 10 am is the ceremonial unlocking of the vineyard, open only to those invited by the fête’s ambassadors, but witnessed by many. On Sunday, there is a public picnic in the park Chapelle-Charbon. A musical ambiance will surround these events. The French music scene will be evident in street performances and concerts.

An accordion player at the Fête des Vendanges. Credit: titou net/ Wikipedia

As far back as 1934, the festival has been tied to a famous sponsor – an interesting artist, singer, actor, or model selected to be the symbolic marshal of the event. One of France’s best-known performers, Mistinguett, was the festival’s first figurehead. Other recognizable names include Carole Bouquet and Sandrine Bonaire. Artist Keren Ann is 2021’s sponsor.

A ball, free to everyone upon the festival’s finale, aims to make all generations happy with a dj spinning a variety of eclectic titles and exciting beats and rhythms. At days-end, fireworks visible throughout much of Paris, will silhouette the basilica of Sacré-Coeur.

All events are free-of-charge unless otherwise stated. Some events must be booked in advance or have special access conditions. Please have a look at the detailed program  for further information.

Lead photo credit : Festive activities at the wine harvest. Credit: Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre/ Facebook

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