Escape the winter and head to South America where the harvest festivals will soon be in full swing. Amanda Barnes picks out the best wine festivals to enjoy in the Southern Cone.
Top five South America harvest festivals
South Americans know how to throw a party, and almost before the first grape has been picked, the harvest is being celebrated with wine festivals across the Southern Cone.
Traditionally the fiesta de vendimia (harvest festival) was a small celebration in the villages to celebrate the end of the harvest and a good vintage – the bigger the crop, the bigger the party. But today’s harvest festivals are far more elaborate with mammoth theatre productions, decadent wine tastings and VIP tickets sold months in advance.
Ica, Peru: Second week of March
Peru is the first wine country of South America and while production is mainly focused on Pisco today, in order to distill Pisco you have to make a lot of wine first.
Although Peru’s harvest celebrations date back to pre-Incan times, the annual wine harvest festival has only been held since 1958 and attracts an influx of revellers who come to greet the new harvest queen and taste fresh cachina (partly-fermented must) before moving onto the stronger aguardientes and mistela (fortified must). Music, grape-stomping and bountiful Peruvian cuisine are all part of this Pisco-fuelled festivity in Peru’s main wine region.
Uruguay, Las Piedras: Mid-March
With the longest Carnival in the world, Uruguayans aren’t shy of celebrating. Most of the wine regions hold a local harvest party and offer special tastings for locals, but the biggest is in Las Piedras in Canelones, the heart of Uruguay’s wine production.
Spread over a week, the festival starts off with a parade on Sunday, followed by a week of wine tasting, food trucks and artisan markets, and finishes with a final concert on Saturday night which gathers a crowd of some 6,000 people. The highlight of the last night is watching the local harvest queens battle it out on the dance floor trying to win over the jury with their traditional dancing skills.
Festa en Bento: 18 January – 18 March
Bento Gonçalvez is the hive of harvest parties throughout the months of February and March as local wineries host special tastings and masterclasses, concerts and shows.
Highlights during the two months of wine festivities include the Festa da Cuccagna (10 February) where revellers are invited to sabre bottles of Brazilian bubbly, crush grapes and feast on typical food from their Italian immigrant heritage; and the Wine Marathon (11 February) where runners are tempted along the route through the vineyards with ‘Vino Stops’ to refresh themselves with water, wine, grapes, food, music and dancing!
Curicó, Chile: 22-25 March
While Chile has 17 regional harvest festivals held throughout the country, Curicó is the biggest. Held over four days, the main square fills with wine tasting stands, food stalls and a central stage where local bands, dance troops and theatre acts perform throughout the afternoons and evenings. The most traditional – if only symbolic – act is the stomping of the grapes in large open barrels, followed by the cueca (Chile’s folkloric dance).
Curicó’s harvest festival is one of the most authentic in Chile and always heaving with locals.
Mendoza, Argentina: 3-5 March
Although the harvest festivals of Salta and Patagonia are relatively small, Mendoza’s harvest festival could well be the biggest in the world. Attracting over 700,000 people a year, the official festivities get started almost two month earlier with the individual town celebrations as they each elect their harvest queen in a frenzy of lipstick and Malbec. Music concerts, massive outdoor wine tastings and pageant shows follow, building up tempo, until the final crescendo of the Vendimia weekend in early March.
The first night is always the biggest. A huge parade works its way through the city centre as each local harvest queen and their entourage of princesses and gauchos throw grapes, bottles of wine and entire melons from their floats towards the steaming crowd below. That night a music, light and dance show dazzles an audience of over 30,000 packed into the amphitheatre and surrounding hillsides, after which the National Harvest Queen is elected. The show repeats the next two nights, but tiaras and tears now move over to the ‘Vendimia para todos’ (Harvest for all) celebration held the following night by the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community which is often the most glamorous Vendimia event of all.