Bernard Adam wants to know if I’m going to be on Île de Ré on the 27th of this month and I tell him, No, I’m leaving at the end of the week.
Ah, too bad, too bad, he says, pouring me a glass of the local white wine, called Le Royal. He says that on the 27th, the islanders celebrate the Fête des Vendanges which begins with a procession carrying a statue of St. Vincent from the church in Le Bois Plage and ends with lots of eating and drinking of the new wine.
“On this island, we love St. Vincent,” he says. “He saved us.” Bernard explains how, for hundreds of years, they have been making wine on the island. And then the phylloxera came and just about wiped out the vino business.
“So we prayed to St. Vincent, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers, and the phyloxera was gone the next year. Now we thank him with a fête on his feast day.”
I think this is a wonderful story. But it’s also a crock. First of all, the phylloxera did indeed wipe out the vines on Île de Ré as well as most of France between 1860 and 1900, but St. Vincent wasn’t the savior of island wine growers. That would be J.E. Planchon who figured out that if you grafted French vines onto disease-resistant U.S. root stock, you could control the problem. Unfortunately, they didn’t make Professor Planchon a saint (though he did get a statue which stands just outside the Montpellier train station).
But here’s the really interesting thing: There are two (at least) St. Vincents. One was born in Huesca, Sapin in the third century and he is, indeed, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers. However, his feast day is Jan. 22. The more familiar saint is St. Vincent de Paul, who was born in France, died in Paris and whose feast day is, indeed, Sept. 27. Except he has nothing to do with grapes or wine (though he is the patron saint of charitable societies). So somewhere along the line, the wine growers of Île de Ré blended a 3rd century Spanish saint with a 17th century French one and came up with the Fête des Vendanges—sort of a Catholic meritage. Which makes perfect sense when you realize that Le Royal, after all, is a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and colombard. It seems that everything on this islands, including saints, is a blend of things.