Bizarrely, the central event of Mendoza’s annual Grape Harvest Festival, the Vendimia, doesn’t actually have anything to do with wine at all. The grand finale of the two weeks of festivities is an extravaganza of music and dance which culminates with the selection of the “Reina Nacional de la Vendimia” (The National Queen of the Vendimia). The evening finishes with a nice big fireworks display. The victorious queen is given a tiara of vine leaves in a televised coronation which is watched by thousands across the country.
Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy gig, though. In the months before the event each of the 16 regions which make up Mendoza province choose their most beautiful girl to represent the area in the Festival. These area queens face onerous duties like the popular parade the day after the grand finale where they must ride floats and give out samples of their regional produce to the public. Oh, and of course they must smile serenely in spite of the 30 degree heat and punishing sun. How their makeup does not run I have no idea.
The event is much-loved by the public, not least because of the free food and drink on offer. The Tupungato queen gives apples and pears, Lavalle hands out cantaloupe melons, and Godoy Cruz has bottles of red wine. Many locals bring wooden baskets to carry all their booty home! A brimming basket is a welcome sign of a bountiful harvest.
But what about the wine? Well, before we get to it there’s another crazy side to the Vendimia you should hear about. After the main festival wraps up, a rather different kind of beauty pageant gets going.
Mendoza’s Gay Vendimia or “Vendimia for Everyone” features a week of activities followed by an extravagant closing event in which a King and a Queen (in drag, of course) are chosen. It’s a time for people to let their hair down and celebrate the end of the long summer. Visitors gay and straight come from all over to witness the spectacles.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that wine takes a back seat with all the other Vendimia festivities that take place.In fact, like most other harvest celebrations. the Vendimia has deep roots which go back to the prayers of thanks that farmers would offer after gathering in a successful grape crop. Even today, one of the first events of the Vendimia is the blessing of the grapes which occurs on the final Sunday in February. Special attention is given to the Virgin of the Carrodilla who is the patron saint of vineyards; her image is paraded along the streets in a cart with an escort of gauchos on horseback.
Naturally the Vendimia is also the occasion for a healthy dose of wine all round. Those who turn out to watch the processions and folk-dancing displays bring along glasses and bottles to share with their neighbours. The wineries also get involved, with local producers giving away samples of their wares to the public. This is the true spirit of the Mendoza Vendimia – locals and visitors of all ages and backgrounds coming together to celebrate the delicious bounty of the land. Beautiful women, beautiful men, and (most importantly of all) great wine. It’s a party you won’t forget in a hurry.
The Vendimia takes place at the end of February/early March. If you plan to be in Mendoza at this time it’s best to book accommodation well in advance. The same goes for some of the festivities. While many events are free and open to the public, to get into the grand finale which is held in Parque San Martín you’ll need to book beforehand. This big celebration is repeated three times on consecutive nights, though, so don’t worry if you miss out on the main night. The only difference is there’s no crowning of the queen on the other days (you can’t really crown her four times, after all).