Viticulture and viniculture in Seine-Saint-Denis

It is not well-known but north east Paris has a long history of vine-growing and wine-making, even if it was only a minor activity in comparison to the wheat plains or Woodlands. Vinyards and the wine industry have long been, throughout the Paris region and in particular in Seine-Saint-Denis, a tradition. « Historically, explains Patrice Bersac, president of Greater Paris Winegrowers Vignerons franciliens réunis (VFR), there were many vineyards around Paris supplying the town with small production in Seine-Saint-Denis until the early twentieth century, in Montreuil, Épinay, Saint-Denis, etc. ». Of relative high quality in the Middle Ages, it was quite nasty in the nineteenth century, the « local wine in Aulnay » was said to be a rather harsh « clairet ». The « Guinguet »  was a rather bitter wine, which gave its name to Guinguettes.

Decimated by phylloxéra around 1900, wine growing disappeared from our landscape. Today, in Seine-Saint-Denis, vines have been replanted and harvest festivals and  festivities around wine are some of the occasions to rediscover this forgotten tradition.

M. Bon Compoint grape harvest in Saint-Ouen © Archives départementales du 93

Book your visit for food discovery

A wine called « françoy »

Probably wine growing had already begun in Gaul, but it was not until in the Middle Ages that it was first accounted for in Ile De France. Quality of the soil and appropriate exposure to the sun  were significant non-negligible elements behind the success of grape growing (viticulture) and the wine industry (viniculture) around Paris.

With the different curves of the river, running through lands of a varied geological nature, the Seine made the soils propice for the delicate cultivation of the grapevine. Medieval historians have acknowledged that the “Françoy” wine or “French” wine or “Ile de France wine” had a certain quality due to the dominant presence of the noble grape variety such as Burgundy pinot that was used to make red wine and oat wheat for white wine. In the Middle Ages, white wine was much more popular then than it has ever been since, in modern and contemporary times. Varieties of lesser qualities of wine existed : Meslier for white wine, Gamay for red wine. Each bourgeois citizen, each abbey, had their own white and black vines depending on the different harvest dates.

It is possible to measure the exact place of the vineyards in the rural landscape of the Middles Ages. Only partial areas, such as those belonging to the great abbeys are known. We do know that the vineyard was  less extensive towards 1300 than it was in 1700 or 1800. This was for two reasons, the population was smaller and above all, wine was not a beverage consumed by the lower classes.

Wine, a delicate commodity, suffered from the long journeys it endured, and also, the wine business was not constant throughout the year. Transportation by water was by far the best way to transport. Merchants knew when the new wine was expected and that this wine had to arrive on the consumer’s table before the frost set in. Wine, at that time, could not be preserved and old wine quickly became undrinkable. No attempt was made to age the wine. Old wine was wine harvested the previous year. Some vintage wines ceased to be of good quality from Easter on and, more often than not, wine merchants threw out unsold wine when the new harvest arrived.

In the Middle Ages, the wine trade went in two directions: towards Rouen and towards England by the Seine: towards Picardy, Flandres and the Netherlands by the river Oise. All wine  growing places situated on the Seine were commercialized by traders from Rouen. (In Rouen, apples trees for cider came about only in the sixteenth century especially in Normandy. Until then, the wine trade prospered).

Note the reputation of « French » wine : it nourrished, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries (even in the Carolingian period) a much larger trade than on the eve of the Revolution in 1789. Wines in Seine Saint Denis were mentioned from the ninth century on due to the vine in Epinay sur Seine. But there were also vineyards in Clichy-en-Aulnoy (Clichy sous Bois) Coubron, Gagny, Livry, Montfermeil, Noisy le Grand, Vaujours, and Villemomble. Even villages where cultivation was their main source of income, as in Tremblay les Gonesse (Tremblay en France), the vineyard was present if just to supply mass wine for the abbots of Saint Denis. Winemakers were also present in Pré-Saint Gervais, then a hamlet of Pantin. Nicolas de la Framboysière, counselor and doctor for Henry IV, said that wines “around Paris are declared beneficial in various ways and that for that reason they do not fulfill the test of acrid vapors”. Traces of these « enclosed » vineyards remain in our memories through old street names, such rue des Vignes in Epinay, rue du Clos-Barré (now called rue Jules Guesdes) in Petit Tremblay or the former Rue du Pressoir in Pantin.

Vineyards since the ninth century

In general, abbeys were predominant in the development of grape growing and distribution of wine. In the Paris region, it concerned both Parisian abbeys and Norman abbeys. The abbey of Saint-Denis had a vineyard around Argenteuil (one of the most famous in the Paris region) and Cormeilles en Parisis. The abbey of Saint Germain des Prés considered the vineyard in Suresnes, on the slopes of Mount Valerien as its crown jewel. As for Notre Dame de Paris, two sets of land were chosen: on the right banks of the Seine and the Oise, all of Vauréal, Jouy-le-Moutier and especially Andrésy ; on the left banks, a vast territory, from Flins in Mézières passing through Aubergenville and Epône.

Presence of the vine in Epinay, divided between various non-clergy and religious lords, was attested in documents from the ninth century. The inhabitants of Epinay made their living from port activities on the Seine, and, in particular, from the vegetable and cereal trade and from production of a wine that competed with that of Argenteuil. The same went for Noisy le Grand, which belonged to the Parisian abbey of Saint-Martin des Champs, or in Rosny-sous-Bois, owner of the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, where wine had been around since the Middles Ages and where production was carried out by more than half of the population. In Montreuil, from the middle of the seventeenth century, wine growers raised walls to plant the most fragile fruit varieties. These walls were covered with trees improperly called “murs à pêches”. Indeed, peach trees were exposed only to the southern edge while Chasselas grapes were trained to grow to the top.

Saint-Ouen, which was in the hands of the Canons of Saint-Benoît of Paris (before the monks of Saint-Denis became the proprietors), had long been a village of winemakers. Sales deeds, numerous in the thirteenth century, were proof of this. Gautier Ribout bought vineyards in 1249 in a place called Chantaloue. Guillaume le Bourrelier acquired two pieces of vineyards in 1254 and, the same year, Aubin le Mercier acquired six acres. Saint-Ouen (just like Pantin) possessed an ordinary wine-press, which meant that it belonged to the lord who imposed exclusive use of it and for a fee of course. Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, vines were numerous and extend over the sides of the hills overlooking the towpath along the Seine. In the fourteenth century, the monastery fair founded by Dagobert 1, became a genuine wine fair for the entire region. Vineyards began to seriously decrease in Saint-Ouen in the late eighteenth century with the expansion of castle parks and second residences. The last harvest « drum roll » (signal to start the harvest) in Saint Ouen dated from 1911 and the final harvest in 1915.

In these villages, vines were grown for the needs of the canons and those of the monasteries and abbeys to whom fiefs had been conceded. To sell the fruits of their harvest, winemakers had to wait for the « go ahead » by their cannons. Indeed, before the Revolution, serfs could only sell products from their new harvest after the lords sold theirs. Once done, the latter indicated the date of the "wine drum-roll", the day the winemakers were allowed to start their business. Not only were wine growers required to observe this custom, but they still had to pay a stately duty on barrelled wine plus a right of passage of their wine on  the lords land. After these, « vintage rights », remaining profit was almost zero.

Ecclesiastical, aristocratic and princely viniculture, led to vigilant care, a respected jealously of the quality of the harvested grapes and wines. It was a prosperous vineyard, renowned, that spread around Paris in the late Middle Ages. At that time, it went beyond the scope of Ile de France, extended north encompassing Picardie, and towards Rouen extending downstream from Vernon. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, these last two regions witnessed a sharp fall while the vineyard strictly “French” (Ile de France) had not yet reached its greatest expansion.

A retreat to the south, visible particularly from the modern era (period dating from the late Middles Ages, that is to say the second half of the fifteenth century until the French revolution), materialized in the early twentieth century by the almost general abandon of viniculture in the Paris region.

A specious argument commonly used by critics of Parisian vineyards, consisted in saying that climatic changes could no longer allow  vineyards to prosper in places where before they were abundant in leaves and fruit. Admitting that there was climate change in the Paris region, we are entitled to ask why was it only the region of Ile de France that was was affected and not Champagne, located just a few miles away. In fact, the disappearance of the Parisian vineyard seemed to be primarily for economic reasons because it was unprofitable.

From the vineyard labourer to wine

The countryman who dealt especially in the cultivation of the vine was called a "wine grower" because the term was convenient. However, in the seventeenth century, this term was almost new. Certainly, it had been used since the Middle Ages and Jean Le Bon only used it when regulating wages in 1350 after the Black Death. But current documents such as notarial or land registers made no reference to it until the end of the sixteenth century. In early modern times, the name “vineyard labourer” continued to supplant that of “winemaker or grower”.

In the 642 notarial deeds (collection of deeds) in Argenteuil retained from the years 1496/1500, the term "vineyard laborer" continued to be referred to. A century later, still in Argenteuil, the terme vine labourer was still mostly referred to in the vocabulary of notaries but two names, wine growers and wine makers-laborers, became more frequently used. Half a century later, the word “winemaker” finally took over.

Marc Lachivier, in his book: Wine, vines and winemakers in the Paris region from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, affirms that “in most vinicultural towns, the word winemaker prevailed in the seventeenth century." He also noted that the terms winemaker and labourer took on a social connotation as modern times progressed. The “wine maker” is the one who works the vine but who does not necessarily possess it: he is a skilled worker. On the contrary, the labourer, the simple land labourer that he was (and remains so in many areas south of the Loire) becomes a farmer, owns a hitch and a plough. He is often referred to as “farmer-labourer”.

The wine maker is primarily the vine labourer, that is to say  the one that, in the general sense of the word labour, worked the vine. In all dictionaries from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, labourer retains the meaning of work. Unloading wine barrels on to the Paris quays was called « working the wine » and the sailor, until the sixteenth century, was called a labourer!

With the French Revolution, the term wine maker disappeared almost completely. Administration only recognised the term « cultivators », just like our contemporary administration speaks only of « farmers ». Yet the term wine maker reappeared in the nineteenth century and was maintained in towns where the vine had some importance – at least in the spoken language.

Wine for the average citizen lowers the quality

In the Middle Ages the popular strata did not drink wine. They drank ale or a drink made of water filtered with grape pomace because water was often polluted. However, abbey monks and lords drank it and demanded a high-quality variety of grapes. In the seventeenth century, the quality of wine went down as the old quality plants were substituted by plants giving better percentage to produce a poor quality wine to those produced by the more reputed vines.

An increase in the Parisian population created a new market and the common people were eager to introduce the use of wine in their daily lives. Unable to have access to fine and noble wines, working people naturally turned towards those produced by varieties such as Gamay or Gouais, with abundant yields and cultivated by Parisian wine makers. This new cultivation was done to the detriment of quality viticulture, more and more abandoned by nobles and bourgeois who, taking advantage of the development of transportation, preferred to procure wine from the more distant vineyards such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. This new form of viticulture, of lesser quality, progressed until the French revolution, and so bagan the ruin of the reputation of the so-called «French» wine. Thus, the extension of the Parisian vineyard and its qualitative fall both came fom the same lower class origin.

From the late seventeenth century, we witnessed the formation of « popular cabaret groups of such importance that henceforth, around Paris, those ecperienced in vine and wine, would have no other task but to work on suppling wine at the customs gate (les barrières) writes Dion Oger in his History of the vine and wine in France. In the eighteenth century,  taverns and wine shops popped up everywhere around Paris. The new « guinguettes » customer called for a new market that  progressed until the French revolution and after, bringing down the reputation of the « French » vineyard. Finally, seen as a complement to often insufficient food and a stimulant for heavy work, wine was declared « an hygienic drink » in the nineteenth century. Wine mixed with water was the daily drink until the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, for children also.

Winegrowers-gardeners, operators and horticulturists

Even though the profession had become well defined and, as we have seen, the winemaker was the one who worked the vine, it was not always sufficiently profitable to sustain a family. So the winegrower had to seek additional resources taking on a second or third job.

In payment records of the kind for lord and king, the most mentioned professions were those of winegrowers-innkeepers and winegrowers-barrels, easy to associate the two. More surprising were those called winegrowers-weavers, winegrowers-tobacconists, winegrowers-saddlers, etc. Almost all craft trades and services can be combined with the term winegrower. In Seine-Saint-Denis, many winegrowers also worked in quarries or as lumberjacks. Much of the population was thus composed of winegrowers-quarry operators or winegrowers-loggers or winegrowers-gardeners like in Noisy-le-Sec. In Montreuil, the winegrowers were also winegrowers-horticulturists. When the winegrower was better-off, but the vine did not provide the bulk of its resources, the winegrower took on the title of winegrower-labourer. This name corresponded to a small farming land with a horse, and thus preserved the pride of savoir-faire and craftsmanship. A relatively well-off farmer, he could not compete with the « farmer-labourer» but had his place in these mixed soils such as those in Seine-Saint-Denis where valleys and vineyards hillsides had covered the plateau. Yet often in  the “Sequano-Dyonisians” villages of Seine Saint Denis, the winegrower was so poor that, to survive, he used the only cow he had to produce cheese that his wife sold in the streets of the capital.

Small owners were lovingly attached to their vines, and were winemakers from father to son. The property, shared equally between all children did not leave the family. It was not uncommon, that the elderly winemaker shared out the land himself by giving each child a few rows of vines. At the legal age for marriage, girls and boys were in possession of some plots of land and it was around these few dozen vines that work was provided and a home set up around it. This tradition led to viniculture in the Paris region an excessive fragmentation giving way to farming land from 1 to 5 hectares, or just over an acre. The average farm in the wine villages of Seine-Saint-Denis was 0.4 hectare, with, obviously, great disparities between East and West.

This led winegrowers, more than other social groups, to lean towards endogamy as they struggled to find their partner(s) within their religious sector or in adjoining parishes. While marriages were always celebrated in the bride’s parish, over 75% of boys and 85% of girls from winegrowing families, married, in the eighteenth century, in the parish where they were born. This suggests that the majority of them settled in the same town. Stability was one of the wine growers concerns as it facilitated the grouping together of plots of land.

Such a propensity to marry both in the village of his/her birth and within his/her economic environment sometimes led to consanguineous marriages. The smaller the parish the higher the risk. The high proportion of consanguineous marriages in small winegrowing villages can be explained by the position of the Church: even if it theoretically forbade consanguinity, the Church accepted it once it could keep it under control. It was never too difficult to obtain an exemption, at most they postponed the wedding ceremony for a few weeks if they did not undertake the formalities early enough.

Possession of a vineyard protected labourers from poverty, vagrancy and begging. In rural life, the vine presented a special case: « a labourer cannot take his vineyard away with him ». The land can be rented, exchanged, sold. It did not stop the farmer or labourer from trying his luck elsewhere. The vine, planted by the father or grandfather had to remain in the family. It was not interchangeable and played a key role in a land tax strategy as a result of the marriage strategy.

Check out the agriculture in Nothern Paris!

Site par ID-Alizés