Long before Lutèce became Paris, the Montmartre area was planted with grapevines. The Romans had built a temple there dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. A Benedictine abbey was founded on the hill in the 12th Century which included a wine-press operated by the nuns. Although the abbey was destroyed during the French revolution, the vineyards stayed in operation. The Montmartre district became home to church-owned vineyards that produced wines for the local cabarets and drinking establishments. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, wines from other areas began to increase in popularity: outbreaks of disease and the increasing urbanization of Paris meant that gradually the vineyards in and around Paris all but disappeared. Fortunately in the early ‘30s a group of local artists led by Francis Poulbot, a famous illustrator, asked the government to grant them a patch of land between rue des Saules and rue St-Vincent to recreate the Montmartre vineyards. Albert Lebrun's government approved the plan, and Clos Montmartre was renewed in 1933, with the first harvest as early as 1934. Because the artists’ knowledge of wine growing was quite limited, they organized the first grape harvest the year immediately after planting, unaware that grapes need four years before they can be pressed for wine.
The grape-picking ceremony has been repeated every October since, except during World War II. Owned by the Mairie de Paris, the Clos Montmartre - the last active vineyard inside the Paris city limits covers 1,556 sq m and contains 1,900 vines of 28 different grape varieties including Gamay and Pinot Noir. Every autumn, the grapes are picked from the vines and fermented in the cellar of the town hall. Figures give current production at 1,700 bottles per year. Each year’s wine labels are painted by local artists (Titouan Lamazou has created this year’s label) and the money raised is used for charity, a tradition initiated by the artist Poulbot for the children of the hill immortalized in his paintings. Francis Gourdin, a top oenologist who has advised Clos Montmartre since 1995, leads guided tours during the festival and explains to visitors that while it's not easy to make good wine in such a polluted spot, it's not impossible. Those who have tasted the Clos Montmartre give it mixed reviews, and at the cost of €45 per bottle, it’s clear that you buy it more as a pleasurable souvenir of a fun event.
Unlike much of the popular neighborhood, the Montmartre vineyards have not become touristy or kitschy. This is still a local, Parisian affair, or even a neighborhood affair, which, however shouldn’t intimidate you. On the contrary, in fact: you should feel more than welcome to join wine lovers from all over France, locals and tourists, and pack into the funicular that takes you up to the vineyard. Last year, more than 500,000 visitors participated in what has to be one of the French capital's best annual fêtes. Each year, a godmother and godfather of the festival are chosen from among France’s A-list celebrities. This year, singers Jocelyne Béroard, and Laurent Voulzywill lead the festivities - and the local restaurants, bars and cafes offer the godparents’ favorite dishes on their menus. In addition, the theme of this 78th edition will be ”Montmartre celebrates the islands” as France celebrates the Overseas this year.
Get ready for 5 days of festive celebration with 120 exhibitors spread over 1,200 square meters in medieval-style tents offering tastings of wines from France, culinary demonstrations and workshops, mouthwatering and artisanal delicacies. By day, you will see parades of musicians, dancers, costumed politicians, giant papier-mâché puppets and masked harlequins. By night, you can attend concerts and fireworks exhibitions. Have your children join in on the enormous Chorale des Infants (Children’s Chorus). Do not miss the intriguing Cérémony des Non-Demandés en Mariage – (Ceremony of Non-Marriage Proposals), that involves not getting married to your partner in an amusing ritual presided over by the mayor of Montmartre himself, followed by the open-air Bal des Non-Mariés at Place des Abbesses, where singles celebrate not being married. The fête culminates in a big firework display and ends with a grand parade in which members of the confréries bachiques (wine brotherhoods) and chevaleries du tastevin (wine-tasting knighthoods) wear traditional costumes.
The Fête des Vendanges is undoubtedly the best time to visit. Otherwise, entry to the vineyard has to be arranged through the Montmartre tourist office, at Place du Tertre, two minutes from the vineyard. They usually require you come in a group of at least 12 – though smaller groups may be lucky if the vineyard is not too busy – and you pay for a tasting, although the tour is free.
After a visit to the vineyard, try eating at one of these places
Le Vieux Chalet (14bis rue Norvins) is a colourful, family-owned bistro and garden on Place du Tertre
Bistrot Poulbot (39 rue Lamarck) offers worker-sized portions of the classics
Restaurant La Pomponnette (42 rue Lepic) where you can have a wonderful, homely French meal surrounded by Poulbot’s artwork (tel 01 46 06 08 36, closed Sundays and Mondays at lunch)