The smells of multiple barbecues and fried empanadas and the sound of live music fill the air, glasses are in hand and wine bottles are everywhere. Chile never lets the start of the grape harvest pass by without a party, and the Festival de la Vendimia (wine harvest festival) is the way to experience the best of Chilean culture, one glass at a time.
Photo by Colin Bennett
The word vendimia applies specifically to the harvest of wine grapes, a separate word from cosecha, which refers to table grapes as well as the crop harvest in general. The festival starts in mid-March throughout different towns of Chile’s wine producing central region. But one of the best is in Santa Cruz, held this year from March 14 to 16 in the heart of the Colchagua valley south of Santiago, where vineyards and tourism agencies have spent millions of dollars to show tourists the wine industry and preserve the rural character and history of the community.
Visitors of the festival have a wide variety of wines avalible for degustación (degustation, the tasting of gourmet food or wine). Normally you can buy a wine glass and a number of tickets good for one tasting each, but in some festivals, you can opt for the potentially disastrous alternative of unlimited tastings. (A friendly reminder: make sure to wipe the purple stain from your lips every so often.)
The Colchagua valley is home to some of Chile’s leading vineyards, many of which export heavily abroad. Some wines, such as Casa Lapostolle’s highbrow Clos Apalta cabernet sauvignon, have also won recognition as one of the finest in the world.
Wine started to flow in the valley in the 16th century with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries who accompanied the Spanish Conquistadors. The production of wine for use during mass, which followed Spanish traditions, was centered near the region’s monasteries, according to Ruta de Vino, a trade organization that promotes Chilean wine nationally and abroad.
With the cash generated from mining at the end of the 19th century, the region’s vineyards started using French grape vines to produce finer wines like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenere and malbec. This transition to French vines turned out to be a windfall for the region when it became the only surviving cultivation center after the Phylloxera plague destroyed most of the vines in Europe in the 1800s. Thus today this valley grows some of the oldest vines, especially for carmenere wine.
In total 18 major vineyards are represented by Ruta de Vino, which focuses much of its energy promoting wine tourism in Chile. The selection doesn’t stop at just vineyard tours and wine tasting: Horseback riding, trekking, biking, even hot air balloons and a wine train have been introduced to attract all sorts of travelers and guests to the region. At the festival itself, the prestige and history of the valley’s wine does not translate into high-class snobbery, and the wine is as simple and accessible as the average apple or strawberry.
Visitors at the Santa Cruz celebration ranged from local huasos (Chilean cowboys) with their wide-brimmed hats and boots to Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire business tycoon and a leading presidential candidate for Chile’s 2009 elections. Piñera walked through the crowd shaking hands and commenting on the quality of the wine. Notably, he did not carry a glass and is much shorter in person than on television.
With the larger vineyards absent from the Santa Cruz festival, smaller vineyards stole the show. The change reflected Ruta de Vino’s decision to move the larger vineyards’ stands to San Fernando, a less historic highway town 40 kilometers away, though its headquarters are still in Santa Cruz. No one seemed to know exactly why the switch happened, but some suggested a disagreement between the Santa Cruz mayor and Ruta de Vino.
The music headliners also encouraged the festival’s down-to-earth vibe. Chilean folk legends Inti Illimani closed the festival on Friday, followed on Saturday by widely revered Los Jaivas. Inti Illimani played especially well to a smaller, more intimate crowd. Two members of the band brandished Barack Obama shirts and one of the lead singers from the Circus Soleil’s Alegría act joined a couple sets as a guest.
In between all the revelry there was nothing left to do but eat. Entire lambs were strewn out across large skewers, grilled sausage was in abundance and a stand even handed out water to keep the crowd hydrated. At the end of the night, it was hard to tell if it was the wine that provided the buzz or the jubilant atmosphere of the celebration itself.