The wine-lover's dream – in the suburbs of Paris
The hills around the French capital were once famed for their vintages. Now one small vineyard which has survived the urban sprawl is in need of an expert to run it
Thursday 31 December 2009
Wanted: urban wine producer to run small, hilltop vineyard with beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower. No house or château but the successful applicant can easily commute to work by Metro and bus.
The town of Suresnes, in the heart of one of the densest urban conurbations in the world, is searching for a municipal vigneron or wine grower. His or her task will be to prepare the town's two-and-a-half acres of vines – a remnant of the immense vineyards which once surrounded Paris – for official recognition and regional label status next year.
The pretty vineyard, planted mostly with chardonnay grapes, stands just to the south of the tower blocks of the La Défense office district, on the western boundary of the city of Paris. If you look down at the steeply sloping rows of vines, you might be in Burgundy or Champagne. If you lift your eyes, you have an extraordinary panorama of the French capital, from the Eiffel Tower to the Sacré-Coeur.
The vineyard, at the crest of Mont-Valérien, just across the river Seine from the Bois de Boulogne, has been rescued from oblivion by the Suresnes town hall and local volunteers over the past 30 years. It is now the largest of the 134 fragmentary vineyards in the greater Paris area and the only one with full legal status and permission to market its wine.
With the retirement of the previous chief wine grower, the town hall is trying to recruit a wine professional willing to move home from the hinterland of La France Profonde to the Paris suburbs. The brief is to continue the improvement in the local label – Coteaux de Suresnes, Clos de Pas Saint Maurice – in time for its promised promotion next year to "geographically protected" status.
"We are already the only commune in the Ile de France which makes wine according to all the official rules and regulations," said Jean-Louis Testud, the assistant mayor responsible for the vineyard.
There is no reason, he says, why the local wine – which sells for €8 (£7) to €10 a bottle – could not come to be recognised once again as something special. "In the 15th century, the surgeon in charge of Hôtel-Dieu [the ancient hospital beside Notre Dame cathedral] used to recommend all his patients to drink Suresnes wine." Paris was once the biggest single wine-producing area in the world. Until the 18th century, all south-east facing slopes for many miles around the French capital were planted with vines. The largest single vineyard in Europe – and therefore the world – was not in Burgundy or Bordeaux or Languedoc but in the Ile de France, the region around Paris.
Hilly areas which have since been swallowed up by Paris proper – such as the working-class district of Belleville, birthplace of Edith Piaf, and the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the Left Bank, were once vineyards. So was the steep hill of Montmartre in northern Paris, which still has a tiny, urban vineyard.
Suresnes wine was always relatively prized. Most of the other Paris vineyards were mass producers of cheap red and white table wine, which was consumed freely in place of the poisonous local water. It has been estimated that, in the 18th century, every inhabitant of Paris, man, woman and child, drank 250 litres of wine a year. Even in the 17th and 18th centuries, the nobility and haute bourgeoisie tended to shun Paris wines and drink champagne or burgundy (but not bordeaux, which was sold mostly to the British and the Dutch).
Some of the Paris area vineyards thrived up to the early 19th century, but by the beginning of the 20th century they had almost all disappeared. Some were ruined by competition from railway-transported wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the French deep South. Others were destroyed by the phylloxera parasite infestation in the second half of the century and never replanted. Little by little, the once-proud Ile de France vineyards were obliterated by the sprawl of factories and suburban towns.
In 1926, the then mayor of Suresnes, Henri Sellier, an architect of "garden cities", bought a little land to preserve the town's connection with wine. In the 1960s, an assistant mayor, Etienne Lafourcade, the grandson of a Bordeaux wine maker, renewed the municipal vines. In the last 30 years – and especially in the last 10 – the Suresnes vineyard has been modernised and extended and replanted with popular grape varieties. There is now a small, up-to-date winery among the rows of vines. Four-fifths of the grapes are chardonnay; the rest are sauvignon. The vineyard produces 6,000 bottles of white wine a year. Until now this has been sold only at the town hall or local markets. From next year, it will be available on the internet.
There is an association of local volunteers who pick the grapes in September and October. The chief wine-maker is a well-known French food and wine critic, Périco Lagasse, who preaches – and practises – a return to more traditional, less mass-produced oenological methods.
Is Suresnes wine any good? Mr Lagasse certainly thinks so. In the town's official blog, he describes the 2008 vintage of Coteaux de Suresnes as "fruity, with tints of citrus, honeysuckle and fresh almonds, a touch of mineral and delicate aromas of ripe plums, Suresnes 2008 is the perfect accompaniment to a good sole meunière or a feisty whiting..."
An independent wine-tasting blog, Vin-sur-Vin, is not quite so convinced, but is reasonably flattering all the same. "You would not expect the complexity and depth of a (fine) Burgundy chardonnay... but, all the same, we have tasted – and recently – bottles of chablis which are far inferior to this Suresnes." The blog awarded the wine 13 out of 20: plenty of encouragement, but also plenty of room for improvement, for the town's commuting wine producer.
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