Fall is grape harvesting time in many European countries famous for their exquisite wines — whether white, red, or rosé. For centuries, an event like this has been celebrated with festivals, where the judges are often as colorful as the outfits of the harvesters. Wine queens are crowned and the good nectar of previous vintages flows freely.
Each country we tell you about has its special rituals and traditions, and the regions the festivals are held in are spectacular destinations beyond wine harvest times. We take you to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Germany to enjoy fine wines and the culinary delicacies that go with them, traditional music and dance, and general merry-making that transcends language. Bacchus, aka Dionysus, the god of wine is waiting for you. All festivals are easy to reach and two days at each would be good to plan for, as the festivals last several days and there may be special events you might want to see. They all take place in September.
1. Heritage Night, St. Emilion, France
The medieval village of St. Emilion is located in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region in southwest France. The closest city to get to the World Heritage site and legendary center of winemaking is Bordeaux. The Romans started to plant vineyards and make wine, but the success of the wines of St. Emilion, mostly merlot and Cabernet Franc, is credited to monks. Emilion was a monk who came to the region in the 8th century and started to carve out a huge monolith that stands in the center of the village. The result was a network of underground caves, catacombs, passageways, and wine cellars, ending in the construction of the church that now stands on top of the monolith, appropriately known as the Monolithic Church. His successors excelled in winemaking and so does the rest of the population.
The caves, church, and medieval streets of St. Emilion brought about its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Come September and wine harvesting time, a unique festival takes place, known as Heritage Night. Members of the winemaking guild, called Jurade, dressed in red robes with white capes, parade around the village, then climb the tower of the church and proclaim the date when the harvest is to start. The eye-catching spectacle is followed by fireworks after everybody has wined and dined in one of the many excellent restaurants. Lamb, beef, and seafood are the main staples of this area of France.
2. Douro Film Harvest, Portugal
The Douro Valley is located in the north of Portugal along the river of the same name, which flows from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean and empties in the sea at the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Portugal’s best wines have been grown in vineyards along the shores of the river for centuries. The grapes are turned into port wine, matured in oak barrels, and often fortified with spirits such as brandy to improve the flavor and make the wine last. Traditionally, wine and people were transported along the river in wooden cargo boats called rabelos.
Come harvest time in September, a very unique festival also rolls around, combining cinema, gastronomy, and grape harvest in several days of events spread out over various locations. It’s the Douro Film Harvest. Imagine a feast of free-flowing port wine, food presentations and samplings, and film competitions in several categories with celebrities such as director Oliver Stone who will attend this year’s festival. The festivities culminate in a sumptuous dinner and presentation of awards for the winning movies. Be prepared for 2 or 3 days of nonstop entertainment.
3. Fiestas De San Mateo, La Rioja, Spain
La Rioja, the smallest of Spain’s autonomous provinces, is located in the north of the country. It’s famous as one of the most important producers of wine, grown in rolling vineyards, some in the valley along the river Ebro. Medieval villages and the backdrop of the Cantabrian Mountains make up the landscape of this pretty, wine-loving part of Spain. The capital is Logroño, which is also the center of the 900-year-old harvest festival, called Feria de San Mateo. It lasts a week and starts on September 21, St. Matthew’s Day, hence the name. Spaniards love a good festival and the entire population enthusiastically takes part. The tradition of wine treading is alive and well in La Rioja and you can watch the harvesters jumping into big barrels full of grapes and stomping them with their bare feet to squeeze out the juice. This and much more takes place in Espolon, Logroño’s main square. The week is filled with processions, fireworks, and wine tastings as well as samplings of La Rioja’s culinary specialties like slow-cooked chicken in white wine sauce or roasted partridge.
Logroño has only a domestic airport, the nearest international airport is in Bilbao at a distance of 100 miles.
4. Marathon Du Medoc, France
Imagine a 3-day grape harvest festival that consists of hundreds of marathon runners disguised as grapes and wine leaves and any other kind of fancy dress. As you might guess, the marathon isn’t very competitive. It’s about having fun, watching the runners if you are not inclined to participate yourself, and sampling the best wines and food of the Bordeaux region at some of the most beautiful châteaux that open up their cellars and tasting rooms for the occasion. One of them is Phelan Segur. Next year the marathon starts on September 10 if you can’t make it this year.
There are several pit stops along the route of the marathon with stalls offering wine and food, and the village of Paulliac is known for extending the dining, drinking, and dancing well into the small hours. The festival is rounded up by fireworks.
The nearest international airport is in Bordeaux.
5. Grape Festival, Impruneta, Italy
Not only is Tuscany known for its exquisite (and expensive) white truffles, but also for excellent wines. On the last Sunday in September, the small village of Impruneta turns into the venue for a colorful and vibrant grape festival. Impruneta is located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone, a stretch of vineyards and wineries between Florence and Siena. Wine has been made here since Etruscan times, some 3,000 years ago.
This festival, which dates back to 1926, lasts only 1 day, but what a day it is! The highlight is a parade of floats loaded with huge wicker baskets filled with grapes made by four different Impruneta districts. The parade kicks off around 3:30 p.m. but you are well-advised to arrive early to get a good viewing point. The streets are narrow, and literally thousands of locals and visitors rush to tiny Impruneta to watch the spectacle. The parade is followed by plenty of wine sampling, dancing, and general merrymaking.
6. Jerez Harvest Festival, Jerez De La Frontera, Spain
It’s not only the north of Spain that knows how to celebrate a great harvest festival, it’s a great September event in the south, too. Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia is known in the world for the production of its fine sherry. The grape it’s made from is palomino but it’s the treatment and maturing process in oak barrels by producers like Osborne, Tio Pepe, or Sandeman that make all the difference. The wineries are called bodegas in Spanish and you can go on a sherry tasting tour at them any time of the year. The sherry is known as fino or manzanilla.
On the first Saturday in September each year, the Wine Harvest Festival of Jerez de la Frontera kicks off with a 3-week-long party of flamenco, parades, exhibitions, concerts, tapas, and of course, sherry tastings galore. On the first day, the beautiful Queen of Sherry and her handmaidens ride in a richly decorated wagon through town, ending in Plaza del Arenal where she tosses the first bunch of grapes into the press, signaling the beginning of the harvest month. Kids run alongside the wagon catching sweets that are also tossed into the crowd.
After that, it’s party time, literally day and night with more parades, flamenco dancing, and clapping. Andalusia is also famous for thoroughbred horses and you’ll see people moving around on horseback, ladies wearing flowers in their hair, and the traditional flouncy flamenco dresses. A spectacle and show of Andalusia’s culture and tradition are not to be missed, all under the warm sun and blue skies of the south of Spain in the fall. Naturally, all the good sherry needs to be soaked up, and nothing is better than sampling the huge variety of tapas, Spain’s most famous snacks, available everywhere.
7. Boppard Wine Festival, Germany
Boppard is located on the left bank of the Rhine in Rhineland Palatinate and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a center of winemaking including riesling, spatburgunder, and pinot noir, not to forget the famous and rare ice wine, made from grapes that have been left to catch the first frost in the coldest months. Boppard is an idyllic town like many along the Rhine River and the center of activities is the market square. The Fall Wine Festival takes place in the last week of September and the first week of October — and compared to the other festivals — is a rather low-key affair. No parades, processions, or races; just plenty of stalls in the marketplace where you can sample all the great Rhine wines, as well as the cheese and sausage delicacies of the region. Due to COVID, this year’s festival is canceled, but there will be a digital version streamed from the town hall.
If attending a wine festival is on your bucket list, perhaps some wine research is in order: