Wine is the heart and soul of the Rioja region. The Designation of Origin Rioja which was granted in 1926, holds the “Highest Quality” certification, the only one in Spain. The vineyards lie on both sides of the Ebro River with their adjacent hills and valleys in the provinces of La Rioja, Álava in the Basque Country and a slice of Navarra. The area under vine is 65,300 hectares (161,290 acres) with 14,800 grape growers and 567 wineries.
Grape growing and wine sales account for a large share of the wealth generated here and it’s no wonder that the Rioja grape and wine businesses are in the news every day.
Like every other agricultural product, grape growing is a labor-intensive business subject to the uncertainty of a very fickle Mother Nature. When people ask us, “What about the crop this year?”, all we can say is “We have to wait until the harvest is over.” Experts’ predictions can change from one day to the next due to a late spring hailstorm or sudden cold weather and heavy rain during the harvest.
It’s no wonder that farmers have their own Patron Saint – Isadore the Laborer.
In our region, September is the time of our harvest festivals. They are so important to us that we celebrate twice – during the weeklong festival in Logroño in honor of St. Matthew and at an itinerant festival in Rioja Alavesa in the Basque Country.
Of course, picking starts earlier than the third week in September and ends later, often at the end of October, but the symbolic culmination of the long, almost always uncertain growing season gives us a good reason to celebrate.
San Mateo Harvest Festival in Logroño
According to the excellent Logroño City Hall website Visita Logroño, The Festivities of San Mateo and the Riojan Harvest originate from the annual markets that were held in the Middle Ages, known as free trade fairs . According to historians, its birth dates back to the privilege that Alfonso VI granted Logroño in 1095 to celebrate a weekly fair.
Of the two large annual markets, the most important took place on Thanksgiving, in September, when the people of La Rioja also thanked the harvests with religious acts. The chosen date was September 21, the feast of San Mateo, patron saint of merchants. These festivals also represent the starting point of the grape harvest.
The playful part of these trade shows grew in importance over time. This is how wine, the fruit par excellence of the Rioja land, was introduced in the medieval markets of the town of Logroño and achieved its deserved prominence until today.
The 65th San Mateo (St. Matthew) Harvest Festival will take place from September 17 through 23. Locals and visitors alike tie a red wine-colored scarf around their necks and take to the streets, from dawn until the wee hours of the morning to celebrate. Between the ‘cohete’ (launch of a rocket from the balcony of the City Hall) at noon on the 17th and the ‘quema de la cuba’ (burning of a small wine barrel by the town’s social clubs at 10pm on the 23rd), the City Hall has organized over 300 activities for all ages to assure that the level of excitement remains high throughout the week.
- Concerts featuring well-known artists in City Hall Square as well as concerts in squares around the city.
- Tastings of regional foods in streets and squares.
- A regional dance festival.
- A ceramics and pottery fair.
- Parades of the ‘Gigantes y Cabezudos’ around the city (these are large processional giants representing famous historical figures from La Rioja).
- A Basque handball (pelota vasca or jai-alai) tournament.
- Street dances.
- Roving bands playing loud wake-up music early in the morning.
- The traditional parade of floats around the streets of the city center on the 22nd at 8:30pm.
- and many other activities.
In addition, the city’s tapas bars and restaurants will be busy!
The role of the city’s peñas or social clubs is crucial to the smooth running of the festival. These clubs with their distinctive scarves and long blouses organize typical regional food tastings in streets and squares and their bands play at all hours of the day and night. They stop in front of bars to play festive songs and have a nightly parade from the bullring to the city center. No festival would be complete without peñas!
While most of the activities are secular, one of the high points of the festival takes place on the 21st, St. Matthew’s Day: The Blessing of the Grapes and the Offering of the first grape juice to the Virgin of Valvanera. Here, a child dressed in a regional costume, from each village in La Rioja with vineyards, empties a small basket of grapes into a large open wooden barrel. The grapes are then trodden by foot and the juice blessed during a Mass celebrated in the Logroño cathedral.
Rioja Alavesa Harvest Festival (September 18)
The 27th Rioja Alavesa Harvest Festival is an interesting one-day event, unique because it takes place each year in a different wine village in Rioja Alavesa. This year in Lanciego/Lantziego, the day will be filled with activities not only featuring wines from each village but also tutored tastings of wines from Lanciego/Lantziego. For visitors, of special interest in addition to wine are traditional Basque activities such as a woodchopping competition, a Basque handball tournament and regional dances.
The festival kicks off with the ‘pregón’ or official proclamation. This year Iker and Eneko Pou, famous Basque mountain climbers will make the opening speech praising the virtues of wines from Rioja Alavesa.
Then the first grapes from the harvest will be pressed followed by a tasting of the juice.
This year for the first time, on September 18 the festivals will take place on the same day. An interesting proposal for visitors from outside our region would be to take time out from the second day of the hectic Logroño festival to visit the smaller but no less exciting Rioja Alavesa festival in Lanciego/Lantziego – two ways to celebrate the harvest in our region.
Tom Perry, Inside Rioja