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5 February 2017updated 30 Jun 2021 11:55am

Ghost grapes in the walls of ancient Paris

Nina Caplan takes a walk through the rich viticultural history of the French capital.

By Nina Caplan

Some believe that Noah was the first winemaker, planting a vineyard after the Flood in what was surely unhelpfully waterlogged soil. Here was wine in a pleasant torrent, and Noah proceeded to celebrate God’s bounty until he passed out.

There was no rain on Geoffrey Finch’s Paris Wine Walk, but it was nonetheless heartening to find, among the neat rows of obsolete varieties in the small Jardin des Plantes vineyard, a vine called Noah.

Geoffrey’s walks aim to enlighten tourists about the viticultural history of Paris. This, the French national botanical garden, was Louis XIII’s medicine chest, a repository for herbs to cure the royal person, and an open-access sanctuary, offering beneficial respite from the smells and noises of 17th-century Paris. The 700-year-old cedar of Lebanon that still rears above the foliage would have overlooked vines that have long since vanished: it was much safer to drink wine than water, and vineyards flourished across the city. This area is just beside the famous Latin Quarter, where tourists and students still consume wine as if the water were poisonous.

We pause at the Arènes de Lutèce, a vestigial Roman amphitheatre that once kept 12,000 citizens distracted from their discontents. The Romans were the first to plant vines in rainy northern Gaul: if Burgundy and champagne fill our glasses despite the climate, it is Rome we ought to thank. Free entertainment and ever-flowing wine: how adept were Gaul’s conquerors at pacifying the populace! On rue Clovis, named after the Frankish king whose coronation ensured champagne’s place as the pre-eminent celebration wine, Geoffrey points to a jagged chunk of wall, part of the oldest remaining fortification in Paris. It was built at the beginning of the 13th century to keep out – who else? – the English.

Yet here we are, come in peace and curiosity to the very centre of town, and we are thirsty. Actually, I’m practically the only Brit on the walk: most, like Geoffrey, are Canadian. He has lived here thirty years, and enjoys showing visitors the obscure patches of vines the city still possesses. And then, because he knows that very few people love wine purely in the abstract, he takes his guests to a bar or wine shop, or to lunch.

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L’Étiquette wine shop is on the genteel Île Saint-Louis, which was urbanised by that same King Louis who created the Jardin des Plantes. The sweeping 19th-century reconstruction that made modern Paris bypassed this small outcrop, and it still looks very much like a 17th-century village, if one with a remarkable preponderance of boutiques and butchers.

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At L’Étiquette, Hervé is holding forth on natural wine: for him, all other wines are poison, wrung from plants rooted in dead earth that barely deserve the name of vine. This makes me very happy, not because I agree but because I don’t. En route, Geoffrey has bought good cheese, sausage and bread. In between pronouncements, Hervé is opening bottles: an excellent Petit Chablis from Moreau-Naudet, Brand & Fils Pinot Noir from Alsace, which is interesting but lacks length, and a forgettable Beaujolais. I settle in for my favourite pastime, civilised and well-watered argument.

Pesticides, I agree, are awful, blotting out every living thing that was upon the face of the land (as the Bible describes the Flood). The wildflowers that grow between the vines at the Jardin des Plantes are a reminder that monoculture is
only marginally more unnatural than Coca-Cola. Still: I don’t like extremes – including the insistence that any interference with a vineyard is a crime. Compromise, like water, sustains us, and wine is a celebration of the wonders that bloom where disparities meet. We should raise our glasses and agree to differ. That, or we all sink.

Next week, Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage