About This Festival
Although its origins are religious in nature, stretching back to the 17th century, the National Grape Harvest Festival (Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia) officially started in 1936 when engineer Frank Romero Day, the then Minister of Industry and Public Works in Mendoza, signed a decree that the grape harvest would become a social event as part of the national agenda. Nowadays, it’s Argentina’s biggest wine party, bringing together everyone from the field workers to the wine vineyard owners and the rest of the wine-loving world. Well, 40 percent of the rest of the world actually comes; the rest are domestic visitors. The Mendoza province in the Cuyo region of Argentina is responsible for 70 percent of the country’s wine production, most notably for its Malbec, along with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay varietals. Grapes are so stained in the culture that Mendoza is part of the worldwide network of nine Great Capitals of Wine.
Days and Days of Wine
Recently, the government of Argentina has extended the event to ten days, but the main attractions begin on the first Friday evening in March with the Queens White Way (Vía Blanca de las Reinas) parade of the 18 queens from the provincial departments. The women wear costumes and ride in elaborately decorated carriages, complete with music and lights, celebrating the winemaking traditions and culture of their departments, complete. The queen hopefuls ride with the outgoing queen she’s replacing. People line the streets for a glimpse of these beauties—and the chance to catch a cluster of grapes, fruits that the women often toss into the crowd. If you’re lucky, you may even receive an entire bottle of wine.
Then, on Saturday morning, everyone gathers for another parade, the Queens Carousel (Carrusel Vendimial), which again features queens on their chariots, this time followed by men wearing gaucho-styled outfits riding on horses. Traditional band and dancers representing different provinces of Argentina and Latin American countries typically follow the women. You can also expect parading musicians and street actors to take part in the festivities. The event often attracts upwards of 200,000 onlookers. Running for Harvest Queen is serious business—the women have their own fans and groupies, and their pictures are often found throughout their respective regions, promoting their candidacy for queen. The Carousel is a morning-to-afternoon affair, sometimes lasting five or six hours.
After the morning’s parade, people typically rest up in preparation for the evening’s events. It wouldn’t be a festival in Argentina without song and dance. The Central Act (Acto Central), the grand finale, is typically a large-scale, Vegas-styled ticketed theatrical production held at the Fray Romero Day amphitheater. This dazzling spectacle features more than a thousand costumed performers dancing to live music and typically draws a crowd of 70,000 people. In true Argentinian style, it’s elaborate, energetic, and uplifting. Finally, the anticipated moment arrives, and the queen of the harvest is crowned with a tiara comprised of grape leaves and vines—naturally. The evening ends in an explosion of fireworks. If you can’t score tickets to the show, the whole thing is displayed on a big screen in downtown Mendoza’s Plaza Italia, and on national television. More traditionally, thousands of people often head to nearby mountains to watch the fireworks.
Where’s the Wine?
It’s everywhere. If you don’t score a bottle from a queen, there are public tastings during the events and up and down the streets. Many restaurants offer special wine pairing menus and promotional prices. (It’s also the only time that McDonald’s in Argentina will serve wine.) On the Tuesday before the festival begins, head about a half hour south to Maipú for Vendimia en Arena Maipú, a three-day event with wine and food pairings, featuring the top chefs and wineries in Mendoza, along with live music and art.
Come Early, Stay Late
The festival itself runs throughout the country as all 18 departments in the Mendoza province hold their own grape harvest festivities comprised of folk shows, Creole crafts and traditional foods. They typically take place on select dates and locations in December, January and February leading up to the Central Act in early March. For example, on the last Sunday before the festival, the Blessings of the Fruits take place, which includes giving thanks to the gods for the fruit harvest. Its origins recall a biblical tradition of expressions of gratitude toward God for the harvest and an invocation of the Carrodilla Virgin by the Archbishop of Mendoza, the patron saint of the vineyards, blessing the fruit before it is turned into wine.
A few days later, on Wednesday, there’s a Vintage Festival at the airport (there’s actually a Malbec vineyard nearby), complete with performances from Mendoza’s Philharmonic Orchestra and a collection of the Malbec grapes by the governor, the National Harvest Queen and other celebrated personnel. And after the last fireworks display on Saturday, three more nights of partying take place with rock and pop shows—each of them capped off with fireworks. One other thing. If you are in Mendoza for any length of time, you may also encounter unofficial, offshoot celebrations, each with their own particular flavor, such as the Gay National Harvest Queen, the Crush of Grapes Night, the Electro-Dance Harvest Night, among others.