On a sunny afternoon this summer, I was walking through a French vineyard, kicking up calcareous soil with my sandals and enjoying a light breeze. I kneeled down to inspect recently planted vine shoots. But I was not in Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Loire Valley. I was in a rural suburb about 30 minutes outside of Paris.
Backtrack three years, when Winerie Parisienne was born. The brainchild of Adrien Pélissié and Julien Bengué, both 31, who were later joined by Julien Brustis, 27, this urban winery purchases grapes from regions across France to make wine under their own label. Today, they do this in a former printing house in Montreuil, on the outskirts of the capital.
They buy from vintners in Bordeaux, Provence, the Rhône ... wherever the grapes are good, which may change from year to year. Their multiregional blends are atypical; on my visit, I tasted a white from Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Vermentino, and a red cuvée made from Grenache, Merlot and Tannat. Though it's not something they hide from their customers, the grapes' origins are not written anywhere on the labels. "We wanted a Parisian identity; we don't want people to look for a typicity," says Pélissié.
This idea of Parisian wine paved the way for Winerie Parisienne's next venture. Once, there were over 100,000 acres of vines in the greater Paris region, but after the phylloxera crisis of the 19th century, that viticulture never came back on a wide scale. The trio saw an opportunity and started looking for land to buy, with the help of a successful crowd-funding campaign.
The search led them to Versailles, the former royal palace. The property used to extend almost 20,000 acres, mostly dedicated to hunting and agriculture to provide for the château and nearby residents (but, for those who remember their French history, mostly for the château).
Versailles has now shrunk to a more modest 2,000 acres; the estate's former land is cultivated with corn and barley. But a 60-acre parcel, with soil deemed too poor to grow these crops, was left unplanted. The three vintners jumped at the opportunity to grow grapes there.
Working with a nursery that sources from the Loire, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Winerie Parisienne planted 7.5 acres of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Pinot Noir. "We want to reinstate the vine," says Brustis, who has worked for domaines in Bordeaux, California and Corsica. The team plans to start experimenting with the grapes in two years, conduct the first real harvest in three years, and bottle the first cuvées in four. For now, the identity of Parisian wine has yet to be defined, but the folks at Winerie Parisienne are vowing to keep an open mind.
In the small town of Davron, where the vineyard is planted, residents have taken notice. As I looked out onto the young vines, two passers-by stopped to inquire about what was planted there. When told, the man's eyes lit up: "Well there you go, we were right!" The couple walks past the plot on their weekly Sunday stroll and had been wondering if this mysterious new plant was a vine. "It's brilliant to do this here, chapeau!"