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How to Be a Part of Italy's Autumnal Wine Harvest

Not that you need an excuse to visit Italy this fall, but if you are looking for one the annual wine harvest -- when the countryside comes alive with festivals, feasts and celebrations -- is a sensational one.

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Not that you need an excuse to visit Italy -- but if you are looking for one, the annual wine harvest is a sensational one. In fact, the early fall is perhaps the most beautiful season to visit Italy when the countryside comes alive with festivals, feasts and celebrations. Unfortunately, this year's Vendemmia started particularly early -- in fact, it is the earliest harvest in 30 years, brought on by record high temperatures in most wine growing regions over the summer. A shorter and possibly less productive harvest means that if you were planning to travel to Italy specifically for the harvest, you'd best get moving as white wine grapes are already past their prime and red wine varieties, which traditionally get picked in October, will be harvested in mid to late September this year.

Grapes are grown in every region of Italy and have been for millennia. Although Tuscany, and especially Chianti, is probably the best known wine growing region internationally, in fact the Veneto region produces the most wine in Italy, followed closely by Puglia, Sicily and Emilia Romagna. Excellent varieties also originate in Piedmont, Alto Adige and Campagnia. Even if you can't visit individual vineyards or some of the more rural areas of the country, many small towns and villages host grape festivals (Sagra dell'uva or Festa dell'uva) throughout the months of September and October so you can experience the nationwide celebrations and indulge in some of the best wines in the world.

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Vino al Vino Wine Festival is held in Chianti's hill town of Panzano, midway between Florence and Siena, each year on the third weekend in September (15 and 16, 2007) in the main square. Wine from many of the Panzano wineries is available to be sampled, plus there is music, a festive atmosphere and food stands offering local delicacies.

In the stunning region of Piedmont, the city of Asti (famed for its sparkling Asti Spumante, among other white wine varieties) hosts its annual Douja d'Or, or Golden Glass wine festival this year from September 16 to 23, 2007 The main event is held at the 19th-century Palazzo del Collegio, hosting local and national wine producers with wine tastings, lectures, local produce and art exhibitions. Complementary events are held throughout the city including musical concerts and street celebrations.

The Festa dell'uva in Impruneta, Tuscany will be held this year on September 30. It is currently in its 81st year, making it the oldest such festival in the country and features wine-tasting, local produce, music, dancing and a historic procession with floats and locals in medieval and traditional costumes.

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On the shores of stunning Lake Garda, the town of Bardolino is home to the Bardolino Grape Festival from September 27 to October 1, 2007. This region is famous for the production of fine red wine and each year the city hosts this festival which features classical music concerts, fireworks, food stalls and plenty of wine tastings from local vineyards. Bardolino wine is made from a mixture of Corvina grapes (providing body and color), Rondinella (for the grassy flavor), Molinara (for fragrance) and Negrara (softness).

If you are planning to visit Rome and can't spend too much time driving through the Italian countryside, you can still experience one of the best grape harvest festivals a short drive or train ride away. The hill-top castle town of Marino is just forty-minutes from the center of Rome and is one of the towns which make up the Castelli Romani (Frascati is probably the best known), famous for supplying Roman Emperors with their wine needs. On October 7 this year, the Festa dell'uva will take over Marino The city's main fountain and the balconies of local houses are adorned with colorful flowers and lights. The wine literally flows for free here as the town's main fountain is not only is decorated with grapes but it is converted into a makeshift dispenser with wine replacing the water. There is a procession through the streets, people dressed in traditional costumes giving out grapes and wine and a fireworks display later in the evening. Although Frascati is most popular of the Castelli Romani wines, the area also produces several reds including Merlot del Lazio. The Palio dei Rioni, a medieval tournament with jousting knights and competitions is held on the same day.

On October 13 and 14, 2007, the town of Poggibonsi, in the Chianti region of Tuscany hosts a traditional Pigio (www.pigio.net) -- a grape-pressing competition. Ladies hitch up their skirts and men roll up their pants for this fun and rather messy spectacle. The contest, held in the main piazza, is between the seven districts of Poggibonsi and is a step back in time to the traditional methods of wine-making.

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Some other festivals to consider in the next few weeks include:

  • Festa del Lambrusco, Sorbara di Bomporto, Emilia Romagna -- September 15 to 23, 2007
  • Festa del Vino Spoltore, Abruzzo -- September 14 to 16, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, San Giacomo degli Schiavoni, Molise - September 16, 2007
  • Festa del Vino, Spoltore, Abruzzo -- September 14 to 16, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva e del Vino, Capriano del Colle, Lombardy - September 14 to 16, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, Giovo, Alto Adige - September 21 to 23, 2007
  • Sagra dell'uva e del Vino, Vezzano, Liguria- September 23, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, Gussago, Lombardy - September 30, 2007
  • Festa della Vendemmia, Rotondella, Basilicata - September 30, 2007
  • Féta di Résen (Festa dell'Uva), Chambave, Valle d'Aosta - September 27 to 30, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, Capoliveri, Elba Island -- October 5 to 7, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, Sassello, Liguria -- October 14, 2007
  • Il Vicolo del Vino, Termeno, Alto Adige -- October 20, 2007
  • Festa dell'uva, Merano, Alto Adige -- October 21, 2007

Italian Visits (tel. 866/924-8259; www.italianvisits.com/harvest) offers a selection of land only harvest season packages. Their "A stay in Chianti" includes seven-nights at the four-star Villa Casalecchi in the heart of Chianti, a rental car (Alfa Romeo 147) from AutoEurope, a one-day tour of the Chianti wine district, visiting wineries, vineyards, wineries, wine cellars, a walking tour of Castellina in Chianti, a walking tour of Florence and a visit to Florentine "outlet" stores for fashion, footwear and other Tuscan design products. This package is priced at $2999 per couple (airfare not included). Their "A Medici Farmhouse Reborn" package is valid for the weeks starting September 22, September 29 or October 6, 2007. Get five couples together and spend seven-nights staying at Fattoria di Stibbio -- a beautifully restored ancient farm in the heart of the San Gimignano wine district. Included in the $2999 per couple price are two five-seater vans from AutoEurope, two wine tours, cooking lessons, day trips to San Gimignano, San Miniato, Florence, Lucca and Montecatini Terme, a tour of Florence and the Uffizi and Academia galleries and chef-prepared meals at the Fattoria.

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Getting to Italy in early fall is generally less expensive than the peak summer period. Currently discount Italian carrier Eurofly (tel. 800/459-0581; www.euroflyusa.com) has the most affordable non-stop round-trip flights from New York to Bologna priced from $829, $829 to Rome, $879 to Palermo (Sicily) to $979 to Lamezia Terme (Calabria). These prices include all taxes and are for travel from now until October 11, 2007 but travel from October 12 to 31, 2007 and save with round-trip flights to Rome, Bologna, Pescara or Naples priced from $499 or $599 to Palermo and Lamezia. November and early December flights are even cheaper -- starting from $399 and $59 respectively for the above routes.

National carrier Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) can get you to Rome or Milan in September and October, 2007 from New York starting from approximately $850 including all taxes or $945 to Naples. Round-trip non-stop flights on Delta (tel. 800/241-4141; www.delta.com), Continental (tel. 800/231-0856; www.continental.com) or American Airlines (tel. 800/433-7300; www.aa.com) are only slightly more -- ranging from starting prices of approximately $865 to $890 including all taxes.

Car rental is probably the best way to get around but I strongly recommend that you book you car by phone or online before you leave as rental prices in Italy are traditionally much higher. A little tip -- always check with you credit card company to see whether comprehensive insurance is included when you pay using their card -- this will save you from paying often exorbitant insurance fees when you may already be automatically covered.

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1-800 FlyEurope (tel. 800/359-3876; www.1800flyeurope.com) has fly/drive packages to Italy that in many cases cost less than airfare alone. Current fall season specials, valid for travel from now until October 31, 2007 include round-trip airfare, airline fuel surcharges and three-day all-inclusive economy size car rental (with taxes, unlimited mileage, airport surcharge, collision damage waiver and theft insurance).

Sample prices start from:

  • New York to Milan, Venice, Naples or Florence $697
  • Miami to Venice $739
  • Miami to Rome, Naples or Florence $747
  • Boston or Chicago to Milan $777
  • Boston or Chicago to Rome $809
  • Boston or Chicago to Catania $987
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Airline taxes are additional and other departure cities available.

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