In the depths of winter’s chill, the human drive for company, conviviality, and cheer bubbles to the surface in the annual celebration of the Festival of Saint Vincent, patron saint of vignerons (winegrowers and winemakers). Every year on the last weekend in January, when the vines are dormant and people huddle at home to avoid the biting wind, celebrations take place in Bourgogne and Champagne which lure out the local populace, provide off-season tourists with colorful memories, and give everyone an excuse to drink some fine wines.
The Festival of Saint-Vincent Tournante is celebrated in revolving Burgundian villages. This year, I was able to join the celebration in Châtillon-sur-Seine, a medium-sized town in Bourgogne, and in an area which produces yummy sparkling Crémant wines. Starting with a procession of small statues of St. Vincent before the sunrise, the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a brotherhood of vignerons established in 1934 to aid fellow winegrowers in need, led the way in bright red and yellow robes.
This was followed by a long mass in a refrigerated church, leading most of the faithful to attend in ski parkas, gloves, even fur hats! In retrospect, the mass could have lasted only 10 minutes, but my frozen toes had their own sense of time. In truth, it was about an hour, and I distracted myself by taking photos and trying to read the intricately carved stones beneath my numb feet.
After the mass, there followed a short procession of robed Confrérie to a stage surrounded by rich red and yellow banners in a courtyard, where the shivering crowd gathered.
Resting the statue on a pair of body-doubles, long speeches followed, with elaborate inductions into the order, including presentations of coveted silver tastevins awarded to a few select locals, some of whom were old enough to remember the white-haired chieftain when he was still in short pants.
What exactly is Crémant, you ask? Crémant is a sparkling wine, usually made with the same exacting care, manual labor, and traditional methods as champagne, including secondary fermentation in the bottle. However, as these wines are made outside the geographical limits of the Champagne region, the winegrowers avoid the strict rules I alluded to in my last post, including the freedom to use grapes other than those used in champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Here in Bourgogne, you will find Crémants made from Aligoté and Gamay as well as the usual suspects.
Thirsty to try some wines myself, I headed into the winding roads to taste the local bubblies. The whole range of Crémants was available, from off-dry rosés to Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and even vintage wines. Imbibers could purchase a tasting kit, which included a pretty wine flute, a carrying bag (so you could keep your hands in your pockets if you had no gloves, I assume), and 8 muselets, the wire cages used to hold in the corks on bottles of sparkling wine and champagne. Each muselet could be exchanged for a reasonable 2 ounce pour of the Crémant of your choice. This was smart, as in many towns, once you have purchased a proper tasting glass, you can receive tasting pours until you fall down. With just 8 muselet (unless you have a friend willing to share), the amount of alcohol ingested is somewhat limited. Great idea! Of course, for those crafty drinkers, there is always a work-around.
Not many blooming plants to be found in the middle of winter, so the locals made beautiful and creative decorations throughout the town using paper flowers. It seemed that everywhere one looked, someone had added color to this charming village. I especially liked this representation of bubbles in a glass of Crémant!
Each of the 23 local wine villages was represented with tented tables for tasting, and paper flowers were used to spell out their names as well as some reference to their own unique character.
The town of Montliot baked baguettes to spell out their name. I thought the wine-bottle “i” was adorable! Now if they’d been smart, they would have been selling those wine-bottle breads. Heads-up for next year, Montliot!
The commune of Vix is famous for the astonishing 164cm/5’5” tall bronze Greek wine-mixing vessel from about 500 B.C.E. found in 1953. Thus their “floral” arrangement was in the shape of the famous urn. However, one young participant was too busy chasing her friends to be impressed. I visited the museum, a welcome, brief respite from the cold, and indeed this enormous bronze vessel was truly impressive. To read more about this amazing find, click here.
I wandered around the town, and found a wide range of stands offering hot fare to accompany the wines, from crepes to onion soup to other typical Burgundian fare, such as escargots. There was even a large tent set up as a kind of farmer’s market, with bakers, pâtés and charcuterie, and a local artisanal producer of yogurts and fresh cheeses, La Ferme du Mont Lassois. After tasting several of their specialty cheeses, I had to buy a tub of “Le Petit Rouge” made with fresh ricotta-like cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and basil to take home.
As I headed toward the car, I was serenaded by a quartet of local musicians who provided lively tunes in exchange for glasses of wine from the appreciative vignerons. Although some mulled wine would have been popular, given the frigid temperatures, the sparkling Crémant wines warmed my insides enough so I didn’t care.
St. Vincent was chosen as the vignerons’ patron saint because of the tortures he endured during his martyrdom, forming a link with the travails of winegrowers. Hmmm, I wonder if extreme cold was one of his tortures….