Sun, 13 Mar 2005
From:

Wine festivals give a glimpse of nature

Guy Woodward, Deutsche Presse Agentur/London

Great wine should speak of the region from which it hails. Hence classic white burgundy retains that lean, minerally feel of its terroir, while Australian shiraz is as bold, fleshy and muscular as its native red soil - and its grape pickers.

Moreover, a wine is often a microcosm of its national character. Think Gallic charm versus Aussie brawn. That is also the case at wine festivals around the world, which give would-be connoisseurs a glimpse of the region's nature, both human and viticultural, as well as the stuff in the glass. Canadians offer up their humble ice wine in sub-zero temperatures on pretty, snow-lined streets. Californians lavish guests with huge, overpriced, surgically-enhanced chardonnays in spectacular surroundings. And the Spanish give thanks to the patron saint of the vine before dousing each other in rioja and quaffing it with freshly sourced bull's meat.

While not all of the following would merit a dedicated trip by even the most avid of oenophiles, they are worth taking in if you're planning a drive along the wine routes.

1. France

It's a sign of the times that France has fallen behind other countries when it comes to celebrating its oenological heritage. Most French events are restrained affairs, somewhat typical of their tendency to uphold wine as a cultural emblem rather than a conduit to merriment. Bordeaux's bi-annual Fete le Vin partly bucks the trend, though the procession of wine-growers' associations and the barrel- rolling races are hardly riotous affairs. More convivial are the giant banquet, Bacchus parade and nightly live music in Bordeaux's Place des Quinconces, lined with stalls of local producers, who open up their doors to visitors all week.

- First week of July, 2006, free, bordeaux-fete-le-vin.com, bordeaux-tourisme.com.

2. Italy

The Palio of Piedmont is a fearsome horse race dating back to 1275 featuring rival riders from the neighboring towns of Asti and Alba. For the previous two weeks, producers from the two towns compete with their rich, dense barberas at the Douja d'Or (Jug of Gold) festival, where visitors sample the latest vintage amid medieval music and pageantry. The event no longer attracts the region's highest quality tenutase found at the more understated Vinum tasting in Alba in April. But what it lacks in quality it makes up for in spectacle, with the Palio itself preceded by a procession of 1,200 gymnasts, jugglers, horsemen and flag-bearers, all in medieval regalia.

- Sept. 18, free, Italian Tourist Board (enit.it), comune.asti.it/manifestazioni/palio/welcome. shtml.

- Vinum 2005, April 23-25, May 1, gowinet.it/vinum2005.

3. Spain

Rioja - land of steep hills, rolling plains and golden stone villages. And wine battles. Every June in Haro, locals congregate at the Bilibio Ridge to pay homage to San Juan, San Pedro and the Virgin of Valvanera before doing battle with red wine, distributed free of charge by the city council, on their way along the 15 km route back into the town. You won't be spared as a spectator, so you may as well join in.

The Logrono harvest festival is a similarly high-spirited affair, though this time with bulls running riot through the town, plus grape treading, dancing, float parades and plenty of local food and wine.

- June 29 and Sept. 21. Free. Details from Wines from Spain (larioja.org/turismo).

4. Germany

Most German festivals involve huge processions of themed floats dispensing wine some way removed from the dreaded liebfraumilch. At their head are the prospective Wine Queens, daughters of local producers who are judged on wine knowledge and "presentational ability", before one is chosen to act as an ambassador for the region the following year. "It's not a beauty pageant, but they all seem to be quite attractive," says a spokesperson.

Neustadt, in Pfalz, hosts an enormous event along these lines, and offers visitors a greater variety of wines than the often- pilloried sweeties of the north. But if you're an aficionado of the wine world's darling grape variety - riesling - the Mosel Weinfest might be more your thing. It's a similar format, with the streets lined with producers' stalls, live music and the added bonus of fireworks in front of the castle on the last night.

- German grape harvest festival, Neustadt, Pfalz, Sept. 30- Oct. 10, free, 0049 6321 926855, neustadt.pfalz.com.

- Mittelmosel Weinfest, Bernkastel-Kues, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Sept. 1-5, free, 0049 6531 4023, bernkastel.de.

- germanwineinfo.co.uk, howtogermany.com.

5. Australia

There's more to Australian wine than Jacob's Creek these days, with Aussie winemakers keen to trumpet the regional nuances that make up the country's diverse wines. Melbourne, that culinary and cultural melting pot, is the perfect base, and its two-week-long food and wine festival features an array of events. Some of the events are strictly hardcore (neither the tasting masterclasses nor the tutored food and wine matching dinner are occasions on which to work the room) but the weekend open-air tasting along the Southgate Promenade blends a more relaxing mix of mini tutorials and on-the-spot tastings.

- March 11-23, A$25-185, A$295 for the four seminars, melbournefoodandwine.com.au.

6. New Zealand

Martinborough, on the southern tip of North Island, is one of the few "old world" wine villages in the southern hemisphere and home to much- lauded pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Its population swells tenfold in November, when visitors glide, and later stagger, between neighboring vineyards, high on a diet of rare older vintages matched with food devised by chefs from Wellington's finest eateries.

With top line wineries such as Craggy Range and Ata Rangi en route, this is a high-class affair, though the selection of local bands is a bit hit and miss. Don't worry if you're a little unsteady on your feet by the time of the 12th winery - shuttle buses are on hand for the incapacitated.

- Nov. 20, NZ$50, 0064 4473 4838, toastmartinborough.co.nz.

7. Canada

It has to hit -8uC just for them to start picking the grapes to make ice wine in Niagara, so you can understand the post- harvest mood of celebration. And if standing around in such temperatures admiring ice sculptures and working your way through gallons of unctuous, cloying nectar isn't your idea of wintry charm, how about the Simply Sinful chocolate and ice wine tasting evening, or the food and wine matching dinner, overlooking Niagara Falls?

Visitors are encouraged to buy a "passport" for the week, and tour the various participating wineries, which lay on dedicated tastings. No matter that most of the wineries offer such hospitality all year round, it's the taking part that counts. Just make sure to pack your thermals - or head for summer's grape and wine festival instead.

- Jan. 13-22 2006. Events range from free admission to C$175, 001 905 688 0212, niagarawinefestival.com.

8. California

If you hold romantic notions of winemaking as an artisan craft practiced by simple farmers, the Napa Valley may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you like your wines big and your tannins bigger, then you'll have hit the jackpot. Vineyards are status symbols here, fashion accessories to be worn proudly. And no one does it with more bling than Napa's neighbor, the Sonoma Wine and Food Festival, in the height of summer.

Nearly all the events here are al fresco, ranging from tutored tastings of the various appellations to barrel auctions of unreleased wines, both of which offer the chance to taste some of the more rarefied of the state's cult wines. Held at various wineries, the program leads up to an open-air concert by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, complete with fireworks finale. Brash, flash and expensive, but five-star entertainment, and a hands-on insight into the glorious vanity of California's wine scene.

- July 14-16. Events $80-$160. 001 707 586 3795, sonomawine.com.





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