A Celebration Of Burgundy, Served Chilled
Sunday, December 23, 2007
The countess was late to arise Saturday morning. Which posed a problem. It was breakfast hour -- 8 a.m. -- and there was no one to make coffee or serve croissants at the countess's B&B in the heart of Burgundy wine country. And breakfast was essential. It was January, it was freezing, and we had a long day of wine drinking ahead of us.
At 8:15, Countess Michel de Loisy -- impeccably groomed with swept-back silver hair, gray woolens and pearls -- arrived in the dining room and, in British-accented English, apologized for her tardiness. She had warned us that at her advanced age, she had "holes in my memory."
In Burgundy in general and at the countess's Domaine de Loisy in particular, it is hard to feel rushed about much. We sat at the grand wood table, surrounded by family heirlooms and busts and portraits of noble relatives. Coffee started brewing, and croissants and bread were passed around with the countess's homemade jams. Things were rolling.
Three friends and I had gathered for the 2007 edition of Burgundy's annual end-of-January celebration of the patron saint of wine: the Saint-Vincent Tournante, a festival that changes venue and style every year to highlight a different Burgundy wine appellation. The 2007 event was in Nuits-Saint-Georges, a predominantly red-wine-growing village of about 5,700 located 13 miles northeast of Burgundy's wine capital, Beaune.
The Saint-Vincent festival is one of the most accessible and affordable gatherings in a region that produces some of the world's most coveted wines. The allure of Burgundy -- after the gorgeous, picturesque countryside of tiny villages and small walled estates -- is the chance to sample an Old World wine order not quite in sync with the 21st century.
The next edition of the festival is scheduled for Jan. 26-27 in the much smaller Saint-Romain, a tiny (about 200 inhabitants), ancient, white- and red-wine-producing burg in the forested hills about eight miles southwest of Beaune.
For the 2007 celebration, my fellow wine musketeers included Ken, an engineer and fellow American living in France, and John and Jennifer, a couple of reconstructed Southerners who live in New York.
As this was a sainted celebration, it was normal that it begin in the early morning with solemnity and ceremony (and end with the last revelers stumbling home to bed the next morning). We didn't want to be late for the start.
After a quick breakfast, we hurried out into the damp, bone-chilling air to the opposite edge of town and the war memorial where thousands were gathering. A group of government and military dignitaries in ties and uniforms assembled in front of the memorial. So did dozens of members of the Confr¿rie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, Burgundy's fraternal order of wine ambassadors, wearing their trademark red robes with gold sashes and squared-off caps.
With pomp and precision, the order's grand master laid a wreath at the base of the memorial in remembrance of the generations of winemakers who had come before, particularly those who had fought and died for France.
A light snow began to fall. As the wreath-laying ceremony ended, we were absorbed by a sprawling, colorful procession that would wind its way through the streets of the town for the next hour. One marching band of at least 30 pieces struck up a fanfare; down the street was another. Richly colored velvet banners on long wood poles announced Burgundian towns with long, hyphenated names: Pernand-Vergelesses, Flagey-Ech¿zeaux, Sampigny-les-Maranges.
Pairs of men in heavy winter flannels and weathered coats paraded effigies of Saint Vincent on shoulder-borne wood litters. There were about 70 statues in all, carved in wood or cast in plaster and depicting a range of Vincents, from a stout, bearded, tough guy to an ethereal, angelic wisp. In most of those representations, Vincent held a bunch of wooden grapes, painted gold or left in natural wood tones. In some, he wore around his neck a silver tastevin, a shallow Burgundian wine-tasting cup.