Wine opinion: Parisian vineyards

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 7:32am

It makes perfect sense for Patrice Bersac to live and work in Paris' Bercy district, just a short stroll from the restored wine warehouses of Cour Saint-Emilion, now converted to cafes and bars humming with students and day-trippers.

Until the last merchants closed up shop in the 1960s, and for a good century beforehand, this was one huge wholesale wine market, receiving wines from all over France to be unloaded on the Quai de la Rapée along the River Seine or - later - the adjacent railway station. In the 18th century the village of Bercy was just outside of Paris' boundaries and was exempt from taxes on goods.

Wines and spirits were offloaded here, where they were bottled and stored. When in 1860 Paris' limits were redefined and Bercy became integrated into the city proper, the tax exemption was lifted, but the wine business continued and subsequently warehouses known as the Entrepôts de Bercy were built to supplement the city's other wine centre at the Halle aux Vins.

Traces of Bercy's winemaking history can be found if you look hard enough: the old rail tracks that transported the barrels can be seen among the paving stones in Cours Saint-Emilion, the cobbled streets have names such as Rue de Macon and Rue des Sauternes, and there are even a few rows of vines in a corner of the Parc du Bercy known as Les Treilles (the vines).

But to really understand the full significance of this site, you have to take the shaky lift up to the third floor of a high-rise Parisian apartment block, where Bersac works as president of Les Vignerons Franciliens Reunis, a group that is aiming to give Paris back its winemaking heritage.

The headquarters of the association seem to comprise mostly shelving units, besides Bersac's dining room table, wine boxes on his balcony, and micro-vinification experiments in his kitchen.

But the knowledge that he guards here is astonishing.

Assembling an artillery of folders containing precise documents and historical maps, he explains how the merchants in Bercy were not just bringing in wine from Languedoc, Bordeaux and Burgundy, but from their own backyard.

In the 19th century, Paris (or the Ile de France, the eight modern-day departments that include and surround the capital) was one of the largest wine producers in the country.

In 1852, vines in the area stood at 44,000 hectares (compared to, for example, 28,000 hectares in Burgundy today). Parisian winemaking was clustered around hilly areas that have now been swallowed up by urbanisation - such as the district of Belleville, birthplace of Edith Piaf.

Production fluctuated with diseases and wars, as all over France, but from the mid-19th century, was in slow decline, until there were just 2,751 hectares left in 1929.

Today there are 20 hectares in the Ile de France, with less than one hectare in downtown Paris, and one hectare in the suburb of Suresnes; the only vineyard in the region classified as a commercial enterprise, with the right to trade its wine (Cotes de Suresnes, a table wine) and therefore governed by EU rules.

The rest of an assumed 200 pockets of vines have no official status. The resulting wines have no official planting rights and are allowed for experimentation, research, festivals, town hall events, or charity only.

This is true for the most famous inner-city vineyard, in Montmartre, and the other three official vineyards of the Ville de Paris-Bercy, Parc Georges Brassens and Belleville. They have no right to trade their wines, so the yearly harvest is sold off at auction and the proceeds donated to charity.

Bersac believe there are about 26 wine producers in central downtown Paris, and others in the planning stages. Some are growing vines on their streets, sharing the harvest with their neighbours. He'd like to see them recognised and protected.

"The producers with no planting rights could be asked to pull up their vines, pay a fine, or send the production to the distillery. We want to see some official protection for these citizen winemakers, many of whom as safeguarding nearly forgotten historical varieties."

Bersac is applying for IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée, formerly Vins de Pays). He met with the governing body for IGP last month to present the official winemaking charter that is necessary for all IGP wines, and they are now studying the project.

"In five years, I would like five IGP vineyards in the Ile de France. I hope that Vins de Suresnes will be the first, and receive IGP recognition in 2013, to be bottled 2014," he says.