“On May 5 this year, one of my lifelong dreams bore fruit when the Chevaliers du Tastevin, a vinaceous fraternity that pledges allegiance to Burgundy wines and the enjoyment of same, inducted me as a member,” writes Julian Cullinan.
Started in 1934, though elite wine societies have been around since the 12th century, the order holds a number of Chapitres ‒ large banquets where the brotherhood can invite guests to join their annual bacchanalia, celebrating both seasons and saints.
“With only 12 000 members world-wide ‒ selected on merit, talent, lively conversation and dedication to the vine ‒ I could barely breathe with excitement during the intense build-up to the exclusive banquet where I would be invited to join this society of vintage distinction.
“Crested envelopes with the franked confrérie crest from Beaune, Côte D’Or brought news of my induction and seating plans on elegant textured paper. A separate card printed with images of the dress code made it clear that ‘black tie and long evening dresses (were) obligatory’.
“The deep guttural moan of French horns ‒ blown by huntsmen in jackets, jodhpurs and black boots ‒ heralded our arrival to the impressive 12 century Château du Clos de Vougeot in the Cote d’Or region, where the famous Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru is still made from the surrounding 50 hectares of vineyards planted by Cistercian monks.
“Inside, an Impressionist Utrillo painting hung on a large stone, just one of many awe-inspiring works of art, tapestries, and sculptures. Low-heeled shoes are preferable in these cobbled courtyards and I joined the other guests in all their finery, sporting the golden and scarlet ribbons that identify members, their silver tasting cups – tastevin – glinting in the light.”
The colours represent Burgundy’s red and white wines, hues accentuated in candle-lit cellars by the tastevin, a shallow saucer-shaped receptacle pressed with iconic designs.
“We sip locally-made Cremant de Bourgogne and introduce ourselves. Voluble greetings and eager discussions on food and wine are heard before we approach the original centuries-old wooden wine press for the prestigious gathering.
“French horn players and court jesters dressed in red, green and yellow serenade the guests with stirring traditional music as the Grand Conseil of chevaliers in gold-trimmed red academic gowns and flat caps ‒ fashioned after the attire of 16th-century theologians with the tastevin as their symbol ‒ perform the Gallic ceremonies. As the chevaliers introduce me and the Juliet Cullinan Standard Bank Wine Festival in French, I take a second to savour the delicious moment of being the first South African woman to be publicly honoured in this way.
“Mystical words were spoken in homage to Noah, Bacchus and other vintage saints, and finally, the coveted silver tastevin, dangling from a crimson and gold ribbon, was bestowed upon me.
“I was knighted with an 84-year-old petrified grapevine root from Burgundy, kissed on both cheeks and invited to sign my name into a large register with a red and gold feathered pen.”
The first Chapter of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin was on November 16 1934. For five years during WW2, the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin fell silent resurfacing only after the Liberation and buying the Cistercian site Château du Clos du Vougeot with its views over the vineyards as their flagship.
The epitome of French appreciation for gastronomy, each chapter pledges “to hold in high regard and promote Burgundian produce, particularly her great wines … and to encourage people from all over the world to visit Burgundy”. Each themed chapter is unique with a commemorative painting printed onto the front of the menu.
“A procession of waitrons bearing traditional fare on silver platters serve the six-course, silver-service dinner to 500 guests. Dishes and wines are amusingly described as we all sing, laugh and revel in the array of gourmet dishes and wines interspersed with toasts, and more wine, amid trumpeting and French horns. The traditional songs sung by Les Cadets de Bourgogne, Burgundy folk singers in traditional dress featuring beards, flat black caps and operatic voices might have been the same men who sang in those early days.”
The Confrérie believe wine ‒ “a gift from Heaven and the fruit of man’s work” ‒ expresses the beautiful, great and true. The words of the Universal language of Brotherhood sing to the joy of living with a sense of balance and good measure. To raise one’s glass, indeed. In the words of Saint Bernard: “He is not good who strives not to be better.”
“Such is the ethos of the Tastevin” with its motto “Jamais en vain, tour jours en vin” (Never in vain, always in wine).