Most festivals happen once every year, and if not on the same date, then sometime close by. But Switzerland’s Fête des Vignerons operates on an entirely different schedule of its own.
On July 18, Switzerland’s largest and oldest winemaking festival will open in Vevey. The UNESCO-listed festival runs for three weeks and features 15 official wine cellars showcasing the region’s best wines, including some made especially for the occasion, as well as a smorgasbord of Helvetic delights. And it’s all set against the dramatic backdrop of Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps. But if you miss the festival when it leaves on August 11, you’ll probably have to wait another 20 years before it comes back around.
The last Fête des Vignerons happened in 1999, and the one before that, in 1977. To say that the festival is a once-in-a-generation event is hardly an understatement.
Perhaps the huge effort put into planning the festival is the reason for its infrequency. While the wines are definitely the star of the show, the Fête des Vignerons has also become synonymous with the ultra-extravagant festivities that accompany it: The opening ceremony takes place in a purpose-built, 20,000-seat arena that overlooks Lake Geneva, where over 10,000 actors, singers and musicians come together to perform an elaborate piece that recreates a year in the life of a vineyard. It is as overwhelming as it is spectacular.
Many colourful performances and shows take place throughout the town during the festival, shows that can stretch through marketplaces and onto the shores of Lac Léman.
Vevey is also known for being the home of Nestle, and that of Charlie Chaplin in the final years of his life.
The first Fête des Vignerons happened in 1797. But civil unrest—followed closely by the Napoleonic Wars—made it impossible to celebrate the festival until almost 22 years later.
Since then, the wine festival has occurred sporadically throughout the centuries. To make things even more confusing for event guides around the world, Vevey’s Brotherhood of Winegrowers are free to choose the exact dates of the festival, making sure that there’s no real way to predict when the next one will be. The only hint that intrepid oenophiles have to go on is that the festival is never held more than five times in a hundred years.
It seems like the Brotherhood’s approach toward festivals is similar to that of wine: that they both improve with age.