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Burgundy celebrates winemakers’ patron saint at the festival of St. Vincent-Tournante

Each year, Burgundy villages take turns to host a festival honouring the patron saint of wine. Raymond Blake heads to Chassagne-Montrachet

It is 6.30am on a cold January morning. Several hundred vignerons and wine lovers are gathered in a warehouse on the edge of Chassagne-Montrachet. Its interior is covered with black plastic sheeting that forms a makeshift ceiling, and inverted Christmas trees adorned with paper flowers hang from the roof trusses. Folk arrive from all corners of Burgundy, spilling indoors in a foggy haze of breath.

It is time for breakfast. Ham baguettes are dished out rapidly, while dextrous fingers set to with the corkscrews. In a situation like this, when everybody needs a fortifying glass in short time, magnums make sense. Outside, the sky, an impenetrable pitch just 30 minutes ago, has lightened to indigo.

We are here to parade through the vineyards as part of the annual St-Vincent Tournante, and it is time for the off. A line of braziers marks out the beginning of the route, lending a medieval feel to proceedings but adding little by way of heat. Patches of ice here and there catch the unwary as they take their places in the procession.
Each group represents a wine village and carries an effigy of St-Vincent, patron saint of winemakers. These range in size and style from simple, almost monastic, wooden carvings to opulent, canopied splendours that would not look out of place in the Vatican. Dozens of banners are held aloft, proudly proclaiming the bearers’ identity within Burgundy: Vosne-Romanée, Chenôve, Mâcon, Puligny-Montrachet, Bouzeron…

There is much milling about but eventually a brass band strikes up, initiating a gentle shuffle that becomes a steady
walk under a brightening sun, winding through vineyards and around the town before eventually coming to a halt outside L’Eglise St-Marc. Entry is ’dignitary only’ – not even the saint’s effigies make it inside – instead they form a silent cohort in front of the church that soon has the photographers snapping.

Humble beginnings

In its present form, the St-Vincent Tournante dates from 1938, four years after the founding of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a wine brotherhood whose members are known the world over for their scarlet and gold robes and their love of all things Burgundian.

The 1930s were not happy times for the French wine industry and the Confrérie sought to raise the image and profile of Burgundy, mainly by means of elaborate and bibulous dinners, long on ceremony and even longer on spontaneous outbursts of song. In the early years one such dinner was held annually on 22 January, feast day of St-Vincent.

Vincent of Saragossa was an early Christian martyr in Spain and there are numerous theories about his selection as the winemakers’ patron. Most prosaic is that the first three letters of his name spell vin. More poetically, the tale is told that his donkey once nibbled at some vines when the saint had stopped to talk to some vineyard workers. Those vines then produced an impressive crop, the art of pruning was discovered, and it was all thanks to St-Vincent.
Such was the success of the annual dinner, with traditional roast pig always on the menu, that it was decided to expand it into a full-blown celebration of the saint’s feast day, complete with formal procession, a mass in the village church and lots of well-provisioned conviviality.

The first tournante was held in Chambolle-Musigny, followed by Vosne-Romanée in 1939. War then intervened and in 1940 the celebrations reverted back to the traditional dinner and no more. The immediate post-war celebrations were similarly modest, with the tournante proper only being revived in 1947 in Gevrey-Chambertin.

Since then it has grown and developed: a mere six village associations took part in the procession in 1938; by 1965 this had increased to 53 and the figure now stands at about 80. But success brought its own problems and the point was reached, about 10 years ago, when the organisation began to buckle under the strain.

Some 100,000 people were attending every year, many of them drawn by the attraction of limitless free drink rather than a love of Burgundy’s finer nuances. For small wine villages the logistics of hosting such crowds was overwhelming and much of the charm of the event was lost in the resulting scrum.

High spirits

The crisis was averted by the simple expedient of stemming the torrent of free wine. The chevaliers did not go all joyless and puritan, however. Instead, a system was introduced where a set fee bought attendees a tasting glass and six coupons that could be redeemed for a generous tasting measure at various points around the host village. But the Confrérie is still acutely aware of the need to run the event in a well-ordered manner: ‘We remain vigilant,’ says a spokesman. ‘The festival will never attain the gargantuan proportions of the early 2000s. St-Vincent will go on being celebrated in an appropriately convivial manner, but with the respect due to Burgundy and its wine growers. We will see to that.’

And they have. High spirits abounded in Chassagne this year but there was no sign of any loutishness – indeed rigid solemnity was observed by the crowd gathered at the war memorial at 10.45am on Saturday 30 January to commemorate the dead of the two World Wars.

Then it was time to party and sample the five white wines made especially for the event by a quintet of local vignerons: Thomas Morey, Vincent Morey, Thibaud Morey, Philippe Duvernay and Bruno Colin. Each used juice contributed by all of Chassagne’s growers after the 2008 harvest; 50% new oak was used and 10,000 bottles were produced, labelled simply ‘Chassagne-Montrachet’. By Sunday evening, after the attentions of 40,000 visitors, there was little, if any, wine remaining.

Equally impressive were the 25,000 paper flowers beautifully crafted by the townsfolk over the previous year. About 70 people met every Thursday evening in the town hall to produce them and the results of their labours had the effect of turning a grey winter vista into brilliantly coloured springtime. At every turn a bed of ‘daffodils’ or ‘roses’ greeted the visitor and only close inspection revealed that they weren’t genuine.

Feeding the masses

Alas paper flowers do not sustain hungry visitors keen to keep the cold at bay, but with 17 food outlets scattered across the village there was plenty to go around: snails at one stand, oysters at another, gougères just down the street.

Most popular were the œufs en meurette, a gorgeous concoction of poached eggs in a rich, red wine sauce fortified with bacon, mushrooms and onion. ‘Chaud! Chaud! Chaud!’ cried the waiter as he slipped through the heaving crowd with another load of plates, the lucky recipients beaming while the remainder looked on enviously. About 2,000 eggs were used on the Saturday alone and no matter how fast the customers were served, the queue persisted until well into the afternoon.

Late the next day the weary waiters could be forgiven for standing around listlessly and, as the brilliant but only feebly warm sun began to set, the cold crept into the bones and the crowds, save for a few knots of hardy revellers, began to drift away. Meanwhile, just a few miles up the N74 north of Beaune, preparations had already begun for the 2011 tournante, to be held in Corgoloin.

Written by Raymond Blake

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