How Saint Valentine (Sort of) Saved French Wine

A man getting wine a a festival
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Many people associate wine with romance. But the residents of Roquemaure, a small town just north of Avignon in France, link Rhône wine and a kissing free-for-all with a devastating blight and a pilgrimage to a saint.

La Festo de Poutoun, or the “Feast of Kisses,” is less than 35 years old. The festival’s inspiration, however, goes back to 1866, when phylloxera decimated French vineyards. As a consequence, Roquemaure’s shipping trade dried up, once among the busiest ports on the Rhône river.

Panic spread faster than the pest. With nothing left to try, Maximilien Pichaud, who owned Château de Clary in Roquemaure, traveled to Rome to bring back relics of any patron saint that could provide protection and health.

Legends start to spin from here. In more romantic stories, Pichaud set out to bring Saint Valentine’s relics back to Roquemaure by February 14.

In reality, Pichaud didn’t set out for any specific saint’s relics. He returned on October 25, 1868, not on Valentine’s Day.

After Pichaud’s return, the blight continued for several more years. But one thing is for certain: When St. Valentine’s relics arrived, the panic stopped, and there was dancing and wild rejoicing in the streets.

Modern-day La Festo de Poutoun

After he viewed St. Valentine’s relics in 1988 at the town’s collegiate church, a local priest, René Durieu, was inspired to restart the processional. This would become the town’s defining event.

The multi-day festival, held on the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day, has had many forms. It’s known as the “Festival of Kissing,” “Feast of Lovers” and, the more inclusive “Festival of Kissing, Friendship and Lovers.”

The festival’s earliest version was a kissing bacchanalia where faux nuns and monks ran about drinking wine and sharing smooches. Opportunities for a friendly kiss remain, but La Festo de Poutoun has expanded its purpose.

During the festival, Roquemaure converts its streets and shops back to the 19th century. The pharmacy reverts to apothecary vials, and more than 600 costumed participants partake in old-timey activities like hanging laundry in the streets from the public washhouse. The ring of blacksmiths’ hammers can also be heard before sunrise.

And later, festivalgoers can hear bagpipes and barrel organs that pump out dancing music.

Naturally, the festival includes wine. Coopers make barrels with the historic Côtes du Rhône (CDR) stamp. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre dominate the local scene.

Vintners from the local Lirac, Laudun and Chusclan appellations come to share their wisdom and harvest. If the timing for pruning is right, winemakers join the town’s parade with bundles of vines.

By whatever name and in whatever form, the festival celebrates both the wine industry and town’s survival, then and now. While festivities are on hold in the era of social distancing, festival organizers declare, the love story between Roquemaure and St. Valentine, with vineyards at its heart, is as strong as ever.

Published on February 8, 2021
Topics: Drinks History