A Family Vendimia

Don Harris | November 2015

One of the best times to visit Spain is in the autumn. The tour buses are long gone, Spaniards are back at work and there is a certain air of expectancy – especially in the countryside. For this is the time of the harvest, when the fruit of a summer of labor is gathered and celebrated. Of course we have our own harvest festival on Thanksgiving Day in the United States, with its turkey and pumpkins and apple pie. But for the Spanish farmer or vintner it is not just a day, it is a whole season.

Spain is the world’s largest producer of wine – ahead of even France and Italy. So a great deal of attention is focused on gathering the grapes from the vines and beginning the process of making wine. Much of the wine is produced by large wineries, but there are also thousands of families across Spain that make wine in their neighborhood or homes each fall. It is a family event with a lot of excitement. This season and celebration of wine is called the Vendimia.

During my travels I have met many fascinating people. I last introduced you to Jorge Lancho, a young man who became a friend of our family. We met him while we were learning about the Ibérico pigs living on the dehesa in Western Spain. In that case we grew in knowledge of the jamón business. He and his father produce some of the finest Ibérico ham in Spain in their small family curing house, and they shared with us their expertise and friendship. 

Another young man who has become a good friend is an extremely interesting young man from Galicia, the Celtic region just north of Portugal. 

Pablo turns out to be a very bright and inquisitive person of many talents: a web-designing, motorcycle-touring, photography-loving martial arts master and a student of current events – but most of all he loves to combine photography with his love for his native Galicia.

When Pablo and I first made contact I was on the quest for the perfect bread, which allegedly is baked in the tiny town of Cea. As luck would have it, Pablo’s grandmother lived very close to this hamlet and Pablo, along with his girlfriend Marina, volunteered to guide us there the next time we came to Galicia. My wife Ruth and I took him up on his offer and we had the most fascinating time, which I wrote up in a previous essay - you can find it here.

Since then Pablo and I have been in weekly contact and he has sent along a remarkable collection of photos taken near his hometown in coastal Galicia, as well as his motorcycle trips with Marina.

Just a few weeks ago he set the most fascinating photo essay on his involvement with the Vendimia – grape harvest. I share it with you because this is the real down-to-earth description, not something you would find in National Geographic or on Wikipedia:

Pablo writes:

“I know you are a lover of Spanish traditions, and as you already know, there is another “hidden" Spain, which is far away from the topics that are widely known. I mean, for example northern Spain, which is more intimate with a colder climate, and without flamenco, bullfights, and other festive events of southern Spain. That is because the history of northern Spain is closely aligned with a strong Roman tradition, which became mixed with Celtic roots instead of the Arab ones that are predominant in Andalucía, for example.

Well. As you know, Galicia is a land of wines. It is a place for the famous big vineyards of Albariño, Ribeiro, and the famous wines associated especially with Galicia. It goes without saying that wine making is ingrained as a family matter. A lot of families from rural - and not so rural - areas, and independently of their main activity, have set aside part of their own terrain to be dedicated to vines, and the making of homemade wine. This usually becomes a big family event. 

And even bigger! Because traditionally, often the neighbors helped one another with their grape wine harvests in the same way that is done with the corn and wheat harvest. In particular the annual "matanza" (the pig slaughter) might involve the whole village.

Well, a few days ago we were in Rosana's family house, helping with their grape harvest. I remembered that when I was a kid I did so at my grandparents’ house in Ourense. A funny time for a kid, working "hard" with adults, a lot of grapes eaten, usually stomach aches the day after, no worries about the totally dirty clothes, caused by stepping on the grapes in the "lagar" with your cousins. 

Note: I don't know if you know what is a "lagar" is in Galicia. Not sure about the translation, maybe "winery"? It is an enclosed space, like a little pool where you drop the grapes to smash them by traditionally stepping in. This makes the juice to go out to begin fermentation process. 

When I was kid, in my house there was a lagar, about 2.5m x 1.5m (and all the kids were waiting to be let in). It was the most fun in houses where the production area was very confined, or no space at all so that a press was used.”

Through our friendship Pablo has opened my eyes to yet another tradition of Spain, the kind of ritual that honors the bonds of family and community. I hope that you have a warm and nourishing time with your loved ones over Thanksgiving – both in the bountiful meal and in the strengthened relationships with family and friends.