January 26, 2015

Saint Vincent Take Two

As the police officer walked away from me I said, "I'll see you later, Monsieur le Gendarme." 

He gave a hearty laugh and I told him not to worry, I had taken the train to the 71st Saint Vincent Tournante festival. This year's version of the celebration of the patron saint of winemakers was held in Vougeout and Gilly-les-Citeaux, the former known for, well, one of the most famous wines in Burgundy, and the latter for being next to the former. 

We had been to the 70th version of the event last year in Saint Aubin and 365 days in Burgundy had taught us an important lesson: LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME WHEN YOU GO TO A WINE FESTIVAL. We hired a babysitter, put on eight layers of clothing, drove to Beaune, ditched the car, and got on the 11:33 train to Vougeout. As the mass of humanity boarded, one girl already in the train said, "What's going on? I take this train every Saturday and I've never seen so many people." Burgundy wine festivals will do that.

Upon arriving, we purchased our pack de dégustation, which included a commemorative glass and its carrier, a map, and seven tickets for different tastings. Our first stop was for a grand cru red, made exclusively from Pinot noir grapes. The local winemakers had pooled their supply for this unique event, creating an assemblage of different grand cru wines that would only be available for this weekend. On Monday, it would be impossible to find this particular wine ever again. The man pouring it gestured to the falling snow and said, "Try to warm it up with your hands."

The weather had made this the opposite of the ideal tasting conditions. Instead of a controlled environment, the wind was bitingly brisk, and all the wines were served al fresco, far from their optimal temperatures. The air was crowded with odors competing for the wine's aromas: roasting hams, cigarette smoke, melted cheese, French fries, and more than enough BO to go around. We cupped our glasses in our hands, trying to warm it, but the effort was wasted. It was like defrosting a snowy windshield with your breath. And yet, that first wine...well it was magic.

It had a light ruby color, clear and inviting. It smelled like summer fruit and, once we let it cross our lips, it was an avalanche of cherries, berries, and deliciousness. My wife turned to me and said, "I'm glad we started with the grand cru." As the wine rolled around my mouth, I nodded in agreement.

Soon, after tasting another red, we were facing a bunch of hams on a spit, once again demonstrating that, in France, where there is wine, there is food. We warmed our hands in front of the fire, eyed the long line for a plate of freshly sliced pork, and contented ourselves with a tartiflette instead. This dish from the Alps features potatoes, Reblochon cheese, onions, and lardons, the little bacon bits that would make a warbler warble.

Our next pour was an Aligoté, the white wine from the region that marries so famously with crème de cassis to make a kir. It was bracing, minerally, and acidic, and more than once I hoped to spot an oysterman to shuck me a few while I drank the 4cl pour.

We meandered from Vouegeot to Gilly, encountering a group of young people belting out a throaty version of la Marseillaise. The villages were decked out to please the more than 40,000 visitors. More than 100,000 paper flowers were everywhere: on bridges, walls, chainlink fences, automobiles, and next to Port-a-Potties. The people of these tiny villages (Vouegeot has 200 residents) take the honor very seriously, a teams of volunteers meet and work for a full year in preparation for the single weekend.

Getting back into the reds, we quaffed a Coteaux Bourguignon that was memorable only for the discussion I had in line while we waited for our pour. A man next to me claimed with certainty that it was made from Gamay grapes. "We'll ask the women serving it, but they won't know," he said. I was fairly certain it was Pinot, but I have learned to defer to the Invincible Wisdom of the French. He inquired of the woman pouring, who quickly asked the men behind her what it was she was pouring. (Quick wink and smile from my interlocutor.) The mustachioed man opening bottles in the back gruffly responded, "C'est du Pinot noir." My new friend looked at me and said, "N'importe quoi. They have no idea." Once again, France proved true to herself: One of them was clearly wrong, but neither would be admitting defeat anytime soon. 

Everyone was now in need of some additional entertainment. On cue, a marching band appeared, momentarily tricking me into thinking I was at a college football game. They were costumed, playing international and French hits, and coaxing everyone to join them in a dancing train in front of the Chateau de Gilly. I overheard the trumpeter say, "I never drink when I am playing." To my astonishment, I believed him.

In a swift rebuttal of youthful exuberance, History and Tradition soon appeared, asserting their dominance in French culture. Men dressed in red coats, black hats, and white gloves began to play into their horns. I wondered if perhaps I should be tracking some foxes on the cobblestone streets of old Burgundy. 

As the music went west, we continued east, where a stunning 2011 Bourgogne Rouge awaited. It pleased the palate with lots of fruit and nice balance, and penetrated the cold. We live in a world where Pinot noir is king, but there are a lot of mediocre wines in Burgundy. This wasn't one of them. 

Our next stop was a Burgundy white, made with 100% Chardonnay. While I waited, the man pouring complimented a girl in a monk's habit on her outfit, to which she responded, "Oh, you like it? How about you show me how much you like it?" and thrust her glass forward for an additional pour. 

Our journey almost complete, we sipped the white and were surprised to find it pleasant and crisp on this freezing day. Our last sip accompanied a crèpe with salted caramel butter, a little salty-sweet treat to guide us home.

It was impossible not to notice that everywhere we looked, there were French people, most of them local. After a year here, I know the accent (they rrrrrrrroll theirrrrr rrrrrrrrrrs) and this event had that small-town feel, even though there were tens of thousands of people in the streets.

I glanced at the time, and we agreed we should go to the train station, via, of course, our last red wine, a little fruity bomb that guided us towards a group of several hundred people penned inside fences waiting for the train. I leaned on my experience of crowd navigation gleaned from dozens of big music concerts (pick a flank, never the middle; when a seam opens in front of you, take it; never let anyone pass you; respectfully push past the old and the infirm [sorry to the man with a cane!]; pretend that you have friends in front of you as an excuse to move up in the line) until we were in a position that I thought guaranteed us a spot on the train. A woman nearby said, "Last year, les gendarmes were testing everyone with a breath test at the exit of the parking lot. We passed without problem...c'est logique. With only 4cl per pour, and seven pours over several hours, that's less than two and a half glasses of wine." The group around her commented that the organizers made the pours that size to prevent drunk driving.

There were some hairy moments of squeezing and squashing before we ended up in the train. Those in the train cars couldn't help but point and laugh at the poor souls who hadn't made it aboard as we pulled out.

Back in Beaune, we shuffled to the car and gunned it towards home. As we rolled into Bligny sur Ouche, a small town ten minutes from home, a cavalcade of gendarmes was in the street. They aggressively pointed at me and forced me to pull into the municipal parking lot. I rolled down my window, and a female officer said, "We are doing an alcohol checkpoint. You are going to blow into this tube for three or four seconds, and then we will tell you the results." This was not a moment for negotiation.

Whoooosssh went my breath. I had to wonder if, despite the potatoes, lardons, multiple miles of walking, and six hours since my first sip of wine, my French experience was coming to an unfortunate end. 

The light on her device was green, a little beep sounded, and, in a moment that lasted too long for my taste, she looked at her screen.

She said, "C'est tout bon. Have a good evening."

I was officially sober. My man Vinnie was on my side, and life was good.

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