Demons, Nudity, Festivals: The Harvest
It’s fair to say it’s has been an odd summer. Beyond the unexpected joys of a decent English showing at major sporting events or the ongoing turmoil of the political landscape – there has been the weather. Weeks and weeks of glorious rosé-inducing sunshine. Odder still, this has meant almost unprecedented conditions for English wine (with many already predicting a bumper crop) and teams already setting to work picking grapes on the continent. Over the last twelve months too there has been fire across California and Greece, affecting not only the vineyards themselves but the lives and homes of those who tend them.
In the modern vineyard it’s easy to analyse, adapt and still deliver wine – vintage after vintage – whatever the weather. True, quality may vary, but there is very little danger of a complete drought even in marginal climates. The past is a different country however, and there has often been more than just sunshine and showers to contend with. It’s therefore very little surprise that the harvest time of year is synonymous with customs and rituals – some as old as winemaking itself.
It may be surprising to us the lengths the winemakers of the Ancient World went to in order to protect their vines. Different climates dictated differing methods, varietals or practises – just like in the modern vineyard. In the south of France vines were left to branch along the floor, lying like strawberries on the ground. In the rich, slave attended woods of Italy vines clambered up trees – a costly method which mimics the natural instinct of the plant. Elsewhere stone walls would be built around individual vines, stakes placed in the earth for trellising or, even as far north as Norway, the vines would be allowed to grow in vast bushes to maximise light capture.
Where forethought and slave labour failed however, the gods could intercede. Sacrifices, festivals and prayers were commonly devoted to the vineyard and harvest. The festival of Vulcanalia was celebrated throughout Italy to honour Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire. It was hoped he could be kept at bay in the driest months of the year. There were also festivals devoted solely to the protection of the grape harvest – the Vinalia – one in Spring and one in Autumn. In April the Vinalia Urbana focused on offerings to Jupiter, with wine poured into his ceremonial ditch as an offering. Priests and nobles would look on, as last year’s wine soaked back into the soil. Whilst in August the Vinalia Rustica would be celebrated throughout the countryside, with livestock sacrificed to various gods – including Venus.
These ancient rituals were also prevalent in the Medieval world. But it wasn’t just natural disasters unwary winemakers had to guard against in the Middle Ages. Evil stalked the land. Bad weather, blight or disease and even unruly wild animals could all be lain at the door of Satan and his minions. Demons would wander the vines, sowing mischief and destruction, unless precautions were put in place. Vineyards could be blessed, prayed upon – or unruly animals even excommunicated. All, of course, in exchange for material offerings to the church. This also led to the quite frankly hilarious victory of a group of beetles, who bested the church in court – link here.
A poor harvest in Medieval times could mean ruin. On such a marginal existence, winemakers would try anything to keep a healthy crop. For instance, the ‘little ice age’ which began in the 14th Century was enough to cease all grape production in England for nearly 600 years – stopping an industry which had been in existence since the Roman era.
When Gods and men fail, it’s time to go back to nature. Another option is to get your kit off. Modern day Queensland winemaker Mike Hayes says his practise of harvesting in the buff echoes that of a 4,000 year old Georgian ritual, avoiding the chance of cloth contamination in the harvest. The naked harvest was said to take place at full moon, when accordingly the sape has risen in the plant. There’s something deeply pagan about the notion of a grape harvest, the land rewarding those who tend it with happiness. It’s not surprising that it brought out the ritualistic primeval side in our earliest winemakers, as it does to this day through the Biodynamics and Natural wine movements.
With all of the above to content with, it’s no real shock that once the fretting and effort of harvest is over, many have only one thing on their mind – partying. The harvest festival is a common motif in nearly all wine producing regions throughout history. From the wine fight in Haro (think big mountain, white clothing, lots and lots of wine being thrown to the sound of a brass band) to the Medoc marathon (26 miles, 24 wine stops) or the coronation of a wine queen in tiny villages right across the continent. They’re a neat knitting together of folklore and winemaking, a to-the-bone celebration of another summer passed and another vintage created. They can be subversive – even used in Eastern Europe as a cultural protest against Soviet rule – or downright silly; but they’re a connection between the past, the land and the people. And blooming good fun.