Fete de L’Escargot, (Dordogne), Fete de La Moule (Boulogne), Fete de L’Huitre (Arachon) are all annual festivals in France symbolic of their culture and gastronomy involving snails, mussels and oysters respectively. There are many others across the summer months “honouring” French cheese and ….. strangely …… paella in the Languedoc. Then of course there are the quite stupendous wine festivals celebrating centuries of winemaking in regions across the whole country, and I have had a lot of fun visiting such occasions at Ribeauville in the Alsace region, at Bourgueil in the Loire Valley, and at Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhône. Such memories, tasting maybe 70 wines over two days in Ribeauville, sharing a VERY large glass of Cabernet Franc with Bacchus on his chariot paraded around the town of Bourgueil, and a host of memories from several visits to Chateauneuf du Pape for their medieval festival held annually over the first weekend in August.
It was August1987, and we’d driven north for an hour away from our coastal camp site at Grau du Roi on the French Mediterranean in the searing heat to visit the famed wine village of Chateauneuf du Pape for their annual Fete de la Veraison. Our two children were 11 & 9 years old and were looking forward to the day out, because they knew “it wasn’t about the wine” ….. as you will see!
We turned off the A9 autoroute and onto the D17 for a few miles before reaching the outskirts of the village ……. to find the road blocked by large wooden barriers stretched between wooden barrels and manned by ….. armed soldiers! Good grief, what’s going on? One soldier casually walked up to our car and said ….. in a broad Scottish accent “Hello folks, you here for the wine!” No, it wasn’t a pantomime soldier, he was part of the French Foreign Legion who just happened to be manning barriers to keep the whole village pedestrianised for the festival. We were directed to the outskirts of the village to park our car amongst the vines, and it was our first sight of the remarkable terroir here where vines grow amongst large cobble stones known as galets which retain the suns heat keeping the roots cool during the day and warm at night.
We walked a few hundred yards up a narrow road lined with vines and into the village centre where we were transported into a medieval wonderland. Knights on foot and horseback, monks, a pope, archers, jugglers, fire-eaters, musicians …….. initially it felt like everyone was in medieval costume, except us. The kids were naturally very excited by this and ran off to explore while Dr C and I started to explore the lines of street stalls …. cheeses, hams, breads, roasting chickens, pottery, paintings and of course wines, all free to taste. I also noticed however that most people were wandering around with a typical Chateauneuf wine glass in hand FULL of dark red-purple wine ….. what the heck! At this point my daughter ran up to us and said “Dad come quick, there’s wine coming out of the fountain!”. In fact a large barrel was suspended in the branches of a very old tree alongside the fountain in the centre of the village, a pipe led from the tree down to the fountain ending in a tap ….. help yourself! Nowadays they do it differently with large barrels of wine on a wooden cart pulled along by a couple of dray horses.
Across the day (and whole weekend) there were archery contests, jousting, sword fights, falconry, a medieval wedding (for two unlucky tourists), and processions through the village every hour. Wine of course was everywhere, not only on street stalls of winemakers from the surrounding area, but village winemakers had opened their doors in the Main Street for a never ending line of tasting after tasting.
Chateauneuf du Pape is a “heavy” wine with up to 13 red grapes permitted in a blend chosen by the winemaker, but the primary grape in this mix is always the Syrah, which may be better known to most New World wine drinkers as Shiraz. It’s a warming port-like wine, high in alcohol and full of Mediterranean sunshine, a long keeper as it mellows into a liquid bursting with flavour and begging to be paired with roast beef of game such as venison, pheasant or hare and wild boar. And finally, why is this festival called Fete du Veraison?
Well, Veraison is the moment in the vineyards when a red grape begins to ripen from green to red, NOT all in one transformation across the grape surface, but as a SINGLE red spot which slowly begins to spread across the grape from that single spot. So now you know just how crazy the French winemakers are, celebrating for hundreds of years that magical moment in time when the journey from unripe sour grape to a beautiful living liquid begins.
Sadly we have no photos of this visit, pre digital age I’m afraid, so hopefully a few I’ve “borrowed” from the internet will give you a flavour.