October is one of the most celebrated months of the year throughout Europe. Aside from national and religious holidays, there are more festive tributes to the harvest season than to any other annual happening. The cause for expressing thanks once a year for a harvest that would sustain life through winter has long since been forgotten. But vestiges of it remain in celebrations so old that even historians fail to agree on exactly when and where they started. Most notable today are the October festivals for beer and for wine.
By far, the biggest beer blast is the Oktoberfest, a two-week plus festival held in Munich from late September through the first weekend in October. It has grown to be one of the most-famed events in Germany and to be the world’s largest festival, drawing more than five million people each year. Many other beer festivals are held each year in Germany, but none match Munich’s Oktoberfest for size and attendance.
In comparison with the beer festivals, the celebrations of wine harvests are more subdued. But they make up for what they lack in glitter and draw by venerability and number. The oldest known wine festivals were the ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysus, the god of the wine harvest. Nobody knows how many wine festivals are held each year, but all wine-growing countries hold them, ranging in size from small local gatherings to modest regional events, in the tradition of harvest festivals.
Though Italy now is the world’s leading wine-producing country in tons of wine produced per year (yes, the statistics are compiled by weight, not volume), second-place France retains a viable claim to being the country most associated with wine. The reasons are entwined in history, as reflected in an etymological stroll through the vocabulary of the wine harvest. The word for the season of harvest, “autumn,” comes from the Latin autumnus via the French automne. The word for the location and year of production of a wine, “vintage,” comes from the French vendange, the word for “grape harvest.”
The French affection for the vendange is long standing. After the Revolution that started on July 14, 1789, and swept away the monarchy, the new republican government sought many reforms, including a new calendar. The first month of it started on the autumn equinox and was named Vendémiaire after the vendange. Clearly, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the grape harvest was the right time to start a new year. Some of the republican reforms, such as the system of weights and measures that became the metric system, were lastingly successful. Others, including the republican calendar, were not; it was used for just 12 years, from 1793 to 1805.
There now are many vendanges in France, each of distinctive character, in part reflecting the variations of terroir (soil character) much discussed by wine experts. But, as readers of this magazine know, geography and topography shape the character of terrain. Geography enters because the most-southerly vineyards in France are five degrees of latitude farther north than their most-northerly equivalents in the USA. That difference is partly offset by an advantage of European topography for vineyards. Most mountain chains in North America run north-south. Between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole, there are few significant terrain barriers, a feature that contributes to the ferocious weather that astonished the early settlers. But in Europe, most mountain chains run east-west, blocking awful weather and providing many southern slopes for cultivating grapes in mountainous regions.
In turn, vineyards on slopes have preserved traditions. In them, grapes are still hand picked, as they have been for centuries. The mechanical harvesters now so efficient in flatland vineyards cannot cope with slopes laboriously terraced through the centuries. Yet there are concessions to modernity, insofar as trucks have replaced donkeys for transporting picked grapes to a winery or to a communal cooperative cave (wine cellar).
Yet the gist of harvesting lingers in some languages. The word “harvest,” from the Old English “hærfest,” was, until the 16th century, the name of the season now known as “autumn.” That denotation disappeared in English, and “harvest” now is an event that takes place in autumn. But it remained in the words for autumn in other languages, as Herbst in German and höst in the Scandinavian languages.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. He takes his vacations in France. By education, Brady is a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.