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Harvest Time in Ribera del Duero and Rueda

Harvest Great Memories

Nature keeps wine in balance

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Aggressive but intentional pruning during the fallow winter months results in significantly less fruit on each vine.

Salud!

Harvest Time in Ribera del Duero and Rueda

Article by James Beard Award-winning author Laura Werlin @cheezelady

In Spain, wine is food. It has more vineyard acreage than any place in the world, and it produces 15 percent of the world’s wine. In Ribera del Duero and Rueda in Castilla y León, wine is as much a part of the Spanish table as the food itself, which is why, come September, it is time for celebration. The grapes are ripe, workers deftly pick baskets full of bulging grape clusters, and the steady hum of a winery becomes a roar.

In the heart of Ribera del Duero in Peñafiel, the harvest festivals get underway in September and continue into October. People take to the streets in costume, participate in foot treading (grape crushing), and drink sips of the grape must called mosto. Finished wine is not far from the celebration either. One event called Riberjoven is what we might call food and wine pairing except in this case, young wine from various wineries is used to cook with and to pair with local tapas. Festival goers walk place to place sipping, tasting, and pairing. There’s even a Riberjoven pincho contest, a competition that inspires innovation and creativity in miniature among local establishments and mostly brings about a lot of tasty fun.

Night Harvest Verdejo

With 74 wineries, 20,778 hectares (about 51,000 acres), and 1576 winegrowers (vineyard workers and managers) the Rueda DO is the smaller of the two regions. Verdejo is, of course, the primary grape of the region, and when it comes to harvest, the timing differs each year – usually starting mid- to late August and ending sometime around the second week of September. Most of the harvesting is done at night to retain the grape’s acidity, preserve its aromas, and maintain balance with the alcohol. This is key to Verdejo’s fresh and lively characteristics. So too its ageability. It’s also a proud designation on some bottles – Verdejo Vendimia Nocturna. Translation: night-harvested Verdejo.

Rueda is a region whose wine history goes back to ancient times. While the vines from those times are obviously long gone, about 12 percent of the Verdejo grapes come from vines that are at least 30 years old. About one third of those are low-to-the-ground bush vines – ones that must be hand-harvested because of their twisted and decidedly non-uniform shapes. This must be done in daylight, but quick work by harvesters, who are followed by trucks in the vineyard to transport the just-picked grapes to the winery, ensures the freshness of these grapes as well.

Less is more in Ribera del Duero

In Ribera del Duero, some 300 wineries turn the prized thick-skinned Tempranillo grape into wine. A little over 26,000 hectares (about 65,000 acres) is vineyard land worked by nearly 8,000 winegrowers. While each hectare could produce over 7,000 kilos of grapes, only a little more than half that is ultimately harvested. Aggressive but intentional pruning during the fallow winter months results in significantly less fruit on each vine. While that may seem like financial suicide for vineyard owners and wineries, it is well established that fewer grapes on a vine result in greater concentration of the remaining fruit and in short, better wine.

 Remarkably, nearly 75 percent of Ribera del Duero vines are hand-harvested. The fact that many of the region’s hallmark old vines are bush vines – nearly 50 percent, in fact – is one of the reasons. No machine could extract fruit from these vines. Hand harvesting is also a gentler means of picking fruit. Keeping the grapes free from bruises and other imperfections is key to good wine.

As for the old vines, a little over one-quarter of the vines in Ribera del Duero (28 percent) are considered old vines – over 30 years old – and of these, 96 percent are bush vines. This partly explains why so much of the crop is hand-harvested. It also explains the intensity of the grapes that come from these vines. The older the vines, the less productive they are. In turn, the grapes remaining on the vines are more concentrated.

Harvest season is festival season

Both regions sport festivals celebrating another grape growing year around the sun. At Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Rueda’s Valladolid, the night harvest isn’t just for workers. The winery offers the public the rare opportunity to observe the night harvest first-hand and even pick a few grapes.  Even though Verdejo is mostly harvested by machine, this winery makes an exception for visitors.

In the region’s namesake town of Rueda, the aptly named Harvest Festival is a tradition that has been going on for over 30 years. This festival, which happens the second week in October, features everything from painting and photography contests to guided tastings, Castilian dances, foot treading, and the appointment of an honorary winemaker. But the real draw is the White Wine Fair where the Plaza Mayor in Rueda is lined with wineries offering tastes of their wine. The highlight of the tasting is a group toast at noon, where, in unison, all those in the plaza raise a glass and say ¡Salud!

Unquestionably one of the most novel and perhaps clever activities in any wine region is the Rueda con Rueda Short Film Festival. Budding filmmakers compete for prizes to create a short film based in the Rueda region. While wine isn’t required to be the subject of the film, at least one bottle of Rueda wine must appear in the film. Not coincidentally, there’s a cash prize for a film shot in a winery, but again, that’s not a requirement. The winner in that category brings home €3000. The winner of the entire competition takes home a whopping €5000 and with that a notable entry on their resumé. A cash prize of €2000 is also given to the winning film student. In this way, while Rueda gets to be the star of the show, the people behind the camera also have a chance to share the spotlight. 

Rueda isn’t the only place with a so-called Great Harvest Festival. Aranda del Duero in Ribera del Duero gets in on the act in a big way too. Held in this city’s Plaza Mayor, the three-day Grand Ribera del Duero Harvest Festival begins with a tribute to those who have contributed to Ribera’s heritage. Wineries set up tables around the plaza to offer tastes of red and white wine as well as rosé and clarete. And what’s a celebration without a lively musical performance? The answer in the case of this festival is “incomplete.” The performers are different each year, but fun is always the headliner. In fact, the stage is rarely empty the entire weekend, making this as much a music festival as it is wine. Given that wine and music both bring pleasure, joy, discussion, and fun among many other shared characteristics, “pairing” them at this festival is as natural as the grapes that grow in the nearby vineyards. Circus acts, comedians, and DJs fill out the rest of the weekend’s entertainment, but in the end, it’s all about the area’s prized mainstay: wine.

Reflections

Whether mechanical harvesting at night or hand-harvesting during the day, harvest time in Rueda and Ribera del Duero is one of contradictions – intensity and joy, high stakes and celebration. It is also a time of long hours and long horizons. Winemakers work fast and furiously to process the grapes that are coming into their wineries, but at each step, they make decisions about what those grapes should be. Is the juice in this tank destined for next year’s retail shelves or is it meant for long, slow development in the cellar? Will it spend time on wood or instead stainless or perhaps cement tanks? Or in the case of Verdejo, will it also spend time on the lees. 

A winemaker’s decisions are practically limitless, but for now, it’s about the harvest. No matter what kind of year it’s been, the work that’s gone into it and the thousands of winegrowers who’ve given their all to cultivate the best fruit is what this moment is about. Salud indeed. 

Want to experience these harvest celebrations for yourself? Here are a few links to get you started:

Rueda Festivals

Rueda Grape Harvest Festival
Where: Municipality of Rueda
When:  Second week of October
More info: https://www.provinciadevalladolid.com/en/-/fiesta-de-la-vendimia-de-rueda

Bodegas Ramón Bilbao Night Harvest

When: Time Varies
More info: https://bodegasramonbilbao.com/en-us/visit-us/

Rueda Con Rueda Film Festival
When: Time Varies
More info: https://www.ruedaconrueda.com/


Ribera del Duero Festivals

Peñafiel Grape Harvest Festival
Where: Peñafiel
When: September & October
More info: http://www.penafielturismorural.es/en/eventos

Ribera del Duero Great Harvest Festival
Where: Aranda de Duero
When: September (dates vary)
More info: Click Here

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