The heavy rain that fell in Mallorca, Spain, last weekend could not stop the merriment of the Binissalem populace when the annual Verbena de la Vermada, the Grape Harvest Festival, was about to be celebrated. Binissalem, you should know, is the Mallorcan wine producing capital.
As the name suggests, the village of Binissalem has its origins in the period of the Moorish settlement in the Balearic Isles some 1,000 years ago. And yes, believe it or not, the Arabs were known then for the production of some fine wines. I cannot vouch that they actually drank the stuff because I was not around at the time, but they are reported to have been very knowledgeable in the fermentation of grapes in many ways.
Part of the festivities last weekend was the Battle of the Uvas. 4,000 kg of grapes were supposedly used to fight, battle, attack and compete in the friendly skirmish that got everybody soaked, stained and muddied. The rain helped along in the general saturation.
The following day, it was time for a bit of grape treading.
Grape treading is an ancient method already used by the Romans and the Greeks in their respective ancient empires and has since been practiced by the French, the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spanish, here in Mallorca and elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula. The Book of Hours illustration shown below hails from Paris, France. This exquisitely illustrated work was written and decorated by hand on vellum in Paris in about 1490. Among its brilliantly coloured miniatures is one for September, which shows a person treading grapes.
The human foot is considered to be far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing. Although there are now automated alternatives, grapes for the highest quality wines are still routinely pressed by the foot, which still results in the best juice and colour extraction.
The grape treading competition was introduced into the Binissalem festival nine years ago, and is now one of the most popular events in the Vermada programme. This year, 30 teams took part, 10 of them of children, made up of girls and boys of between 12 and 16, taking part for the first time. The teams consisted of four people, two of whom tread the grapes first, then the other two, grasping each other by the shoulders as they do so. In the children’s category the winning team extracted 8 litres of juice in the five minutes allowed. Their prize was 120 Euros. The winners in the adult category managed to extract 10.5 litres in the time allowed. During the competition 1,280 kg of grapes were trod.
To avoid misunderstandings: in general, wine in Mallorca does not get produced nowadays by treading. It is a tradition that is celebrated at festival times, once a year. There are not enough little feet around in Binissalem to tread all the grapes for all the wine that is produced in Mallorca, every year.
September is the month when the Mallorcan wine is harvested. The grape harvest is traditionally related to the cycles of the moon, hence, the wine festival moves along in the calendar. Another highlight of the Binissalem festivities, apart from the Battle of the Uvas and the grape treading, was an open air dinner where locals as well as visitors sat down at the longest arrangement of dining tables that I have ever seen. Thousands of portions of seafood paella were served, together with the red wine that was trod here last year. There were also other events, such as dance exhibitions and sport contests, as well as a concert held in the parish church, to be followed ultimately by fireworks displays.
Whilst I like the wine festival of Binissalem, my personal tastes in Mallorcan wine go for some other areas of the island, such as the Pla i Levant region.
In case you are interested, my favourite vino tintos of the Mallorcan denomination are wines from Son Sureda Ric, Ànima Negra, Toni Gelabert, Miquel Gelabert, Miquel Oliver, Jaume Mesquida, and Armero i Adrover, probably in this order of descent. Of course that varies to some extent, as not every year can possibly result in exactly the same vintage quality or taste.
There are other grape harvest festivals throughout Spain, at this time of the year. Of course there are other great Spanish wines as well, outside of Mallorca, but that would be too long a story for now. Perhaps in a future blog entry I shall tell you all about wines from the Rioja, the Ribera del Duero and the Toro, my secret favourite. Unless you prefer to follow Robert Parker’s musings.