Europe's Vineyards are Calling
The serene valleys and rolling hills of Europe's varied wine regions make for a magical getaway any time of year, but especially come alive during the autumn harvest season. There are many precious gifts from the seasonal harvest – imagine perfectly plump olives being plucked from verdant boughs come November in Andalusia, or the fragrant lemon gathered from sun-drenched branches during three separate harvests in Sicily, or the beautiful ruby-red pomegranate beloved by ancient civilizations that ripens from August into the darker days of winter. Of all the rich crops throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the grape is undoubtedly one of the most special regional products as it is intimately tied to the soul of the land and its people. By savoring the varied wines made from these lovingly-cultivated vines, and pairing them with regional gastronomic delicacies, you can really see the heart of each region and how each place has its own unique characteristics when you look deeper – both the wine as well as the community.
Whether you are a seasoned wine connoisseur, a budding amateur, or are only interested in the overall cultural experience and stunning scenery these destinations provide, a little insight into Mediterranean Europe's cherished wine regions will enhance your next overseas adventure. We find the locals in these towns eager to share and display their deep-rooted cultural traditions tied to wine and cuisine, especially during the autumn period when there are typically less travelers and people are going about their daily routines and savoring weekend festivals. The following is an introduction to some of the main wine-producing areas of the Mediterranean, along with some timely festivals you may enjoy if you go this autumn.
A country full of treasures yet still overshadowed by its lofty Mediterranean neighbors, Portugal has much to reveal during an autumn season dedicated to culture as well as the vine. Portuguese cuisine is dominated by seafood, especially dishes featuring cod, and they have a history of winemaking that goes back to a time before the Romans arrived. You have surely heard of Port wine that comes from the Douro Valley region, and Madeira coming from its namesake island, but there are also the prolific wine regions of Vinho Verde and Alentejo.
In the north, the Douro Valley displays the incredible beauty of a hilly countryside that changes color with the seasons. Traversed by the Douro River, the landscape of vineyards, olive and almond orchards turns bronze and amber during the autumn harvest season. Visitors will find many vineyards open to the public for wine tastings and the seasonal squashing of the harvested grapes. After sampling the table wines and famous port wines produced here, you can travel up to the mouth of the river to discover the historic city of Porto, a vibrant town of art, culture, and charming scenery. Across the river is Vila Nova de Gaia, where there are many traditional port lodges that age the celebrated wines.
In the Alentejo region, covering about a third of Portugal, you will find some of Portugal’s most prestigious wines. A short drive from the famous Algarve region, the beaches of the Alentejo are less renowned but simply stunning. The entire landscape is less crowded and more expansive here, with rustic scenery and charming towns such as Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage city. In this historic town you can also find the Alentejo Wine Route center. Not far away is Borba, which holds the Festival of Vine and Wine in November, including a schedule of musical performances.
Another region producing a very different variety of wine is Vinho Verde in the northwest. The wines produced here are famous for being crisp and refreshing, pairing well with the bountiful seafood at hand. North of Porto, if you visit this region you should discover Braga, a historic and elegant university town with the oldest cathedral in the country.
Every wine-producing region in Spain celebrates the harvest with a Fiesta de la Vendimia, usually occurring in September. One of the most well-known of these festivals is the week-long event held near the end of September in La Rioja, a region especially famous for its Tempranillo grapes. During the lively festivities, you will find parades, concerts and street entertainers, sports games, fireworks, and of course, lots of food and wine.
This September in Rioja you can also find the second annual La Cata del Barrio del la Estación, a wine tasting event held inside the 19th century buildings around the Haro Railway Station in the town
Halfway between Barcelona and Tarragona you will find the Penedès region, home to sparkling Cava wine, as well as a proud tradition of winemakers who love sharing their vineyards and their vintage with guests. From September to November you will find harvest festivals in this region. You can participate in traditional grape stomping, grape harvesting, wine tasting, wine and food pairing, and socializing with the local Catalonian people. In the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, just fifty minutes outside of Barcelona, cava is king. In addition to a large number of local wineries, you can also find modernist architecture in the houses and cellars of the town. In October, there is a celebration called “Cavatast” that brings together the region’s best wines and gastronomy.
Italy’s central region of Tuscany (Toscana), characterized by rolling patchwork hills of bountiful vineyards, is certainly known worldwide as an area of culture, but especially for wine. Home to labels such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, it is safe to say that the people here love their food and wine. In September, there is much celebrating in the Chianti countryside about an hour outside of Florence. There are at least four wine fairs dedicated to the local vintage. The first one is very popular, taking place in the main square of Greve in Chianti. The following week you can find a more intimate event called “Vino al Vino” in the town of Panzano in Chianti, as well as a “Festa dell’Uva” both in Borgo di Vagliagli and Impruneta.
Are you interested in even more joyous gatherings celebrating the glorious autumn in Tuscany? A unique and very authentic fair is held in the town of Radicondoli in late October or early November. The chestnut is the king of autumn, and this festival featuring roasted chestnuts and wine brings together the locals in a fun and folksy event where you can get a taste of real Tuscan life and cuisine. Also in a village called Vivo d’Orcia, there is special porcini mushroom and chestnut festival, where the highlight is a competition among teams of townspeople involving sawing logs and cooking polenta. Not to be outdone, San Miniato puts on the White Truffle Fair in the last weekends of November, where you can buy this expensive delicacy or some of its culinary derivatives such as cheese, olive oil, and wines. Or how about a squid festival to end the season in November on Capraia island in Livorno?
Don’t forget the olives! At the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, the olives are becoming ripe for the harvest. For one example, the town of Montemurlo in Prato holds a feast every year in November to celebrate the olive harvest with music, traditional dishes, and organized events to taste fresh extra virgin olive oil.
Vying with Tuscany for the designation of Italy’s top vino region is the northern area of the Piedmont (Piemonte) situated between the Alps and the Apennines. Here resides a diverse variety of grapes that are expertly handled to craft the finest wines, such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto, and Moscato. This beautiful region is central to Torino and Genova, giving you the perfect opportunity to stop over and enjoy the harvest delights of the cities’ nearby hills.
The capital of the Langhe region, and undoubtedly the gastronomic capital of the Piedmont, the picturesque medieval town of Alba is a history and food-lover’s paradise. The Alba Wine Festival is held in the historic center in late September. If you want an authentic autumn experience in the Piedmont, come in October and November for the International White Truffle Fair in Alba. This event includes wine pairings along with special truffle delicacies, medieval re-enactments, street markets, sport events, and a host of wine and gastronomy offerings. You can also spot restaurateurs from all over the world gathering to bid on this rare edible luxury.
If you’re visiting France this autumn, you might want to know where you can go to mix culture and cuisine, wine and entertainment. The word Bordeaux is immediately synonymous for wine, and comes from the name of this region in southwest France, which contains more than 100,000 vineyards! While you can still enjoy the city of Bordeaux and its many wines, some of the wineries in the region are busy with the harvest during the season and do not allow visitors. There is also lovely Saint-Emilion, a popular town among travelers, not only for the wines, but also for the adorable historic village surrounded by a vineyard landscape on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
At the beginning of November, the elegant and gastronomically-popular capital city of Burgundy will host the 86th Dijon International Gastronomy Fair. Savoring this famed foodie scene, you can find professional and amateur chefs alike. And when you have filled your senses and your tummy with specialties from the fair, don’t miss the beautiful history, Medieval and Renaissance architecture of lively Dijon.
In the Burgundy region, famous for prestigious red wines and castles, one of the most important festivals takes place during the third week in November. “Les Trois Glorieuses de Bourgogne” (The Three Glorious Days) starts with a Saturday street fair with local artisans and special tastings, followed by an illustrious wine auction on Sunday in the town of Beaune’s 15th century market hall. The auction itself dates back to 1859, and the proceeds go to local charities such as the Beaune hospital.
Outside of these quaint country scenes, you can of course find many fêtes to liven up the autumn in the grand and sparkling metropolis of Paris. Concerning wine, you may join the “Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre” (Montmartre Grape Harpest Festival) in early October in this colorful artistic neighborhood.
The wine harvest has been celebrated in Greece throughout the centuries, tied to stories of the gods, especially tempestuous Dionysus. September is the month of the vine harvest, and you can feel the general enthusiastic spirit of the harvest season all around, or maybe it’s just that the Greeks always love a joyous atmosphere. Thessaloniki lets loose with the Anhiolos Wine Festival in the first weeks of September. You can also find grape festivals going strong in places like Kos, Corinth, Pidni, and Karpathos. Enjoy the cooler breezes, the local atmosphere and music, as well as the great wine and culinary specialties.
Other crops also take center stage this time of year. At the end of October, you can find a remarkable traditional festival dedicated to the chestnut. Held in the town of Elos in western Crete, there can be no better way to get a true sense of autumn in the Greek islands. Music, dancing, drinking, and eating traditional dishes are all part of the fun. Then come November, it is time for the olive harvest on the island of Crete.
In Santorini, September brings less crowds and the sublime International Music Festival. On this exquisite island with legendary views, you can also find the oldest living vineyards in Europe, along with Assyrtiko white wine and a sweet dessert wine similar to Italian Vinsanto.
Visit the vinogorje (wine hills) of Croatia this autumn and you will witness a genuine portrait of the villages and people living here. In the Central and South Dalmatian region you will find many of the country’s highest quality and most expensive wines. It was here that the popular California zinfandel’s ancestor was discovered, and where you can find related vines growing.
Within Istria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, you will find an interesting history and culture. Comprising Italian, Slovenian, and mostly Croatian lands, there is an evident Italian influence that can be seen in the architecture, heard in the language, and also found in the wine and cuisine.
A special event takes place in the coastal town of Lovran (near Opatija) every October. Ever since 1973, the locals here have put together an annual celebration for the harvest of a unique sweet chestnut species, locally known as “maruni”. The Marunada festival showcases a wide variety of treats made with this special autumnal crop, such as cakes, pancakes, goulash, purees and pies, as well as other regional dishes and beverages and plenty of live entertainment.
In the northwest of Slovenia, over an hour from Ljubljana, you will find the idyllic town of Bohinj and its nearby stunning lake. There is no question that the best weekend of the year in this town is the annual Cheese and Wine Festival followed the next day by the Cow’s Ball. If you love wine and cheese and traditional country celebrations, then you’ll want to be here for the third weekend in September.
Next, head down to coastal Koper for “Sweet Istria”, an international sweets and desserts festival where you can sample beautiful and tasty confections and learn from the artisans. Another sweet celebration occurs in November, when you can find the weekend-long Persimmon Fruit Festival in the nearby fertile Strunjan Valley.
As you can see, the autumn is no time to stay away from the pleasures of Europe and the Mediterranean! Perhaps it is the best time of year to visit, as you can really appreciate how the lives of the locals have been entertwined with the land for centuries of harvests, simultaneously perfecting growing processes and intermingling with other cultures, all the while shaping a gastronomy and a wine culture that speaks to the people who created it and those who continue to carry on the traditions.