A Toast to The New Year: Cool Wine (and non-Wine) Traditions From Around the World

Rather than serve up the standard fare and bullet point sparkling wine types for New Year’s, today we’re going to check out some New Year’s traditions around the world. We’re going to focus on customs from several well-known winemaking countries, some wine-related and some not. Perhaps you’ll pick up a few New Year’s celebration ideas about how to drink like they do in one of your favorite wine-making countries to usher in the New Year!

A Toast to The New Year: Cool Wine (and non Wine) Traditions From Around the World

Travel Belles wish you a “Bonne Annee”

Whether you’re visiting these countries for the New Year, planning a trip for next year, or just thinking about new ways to pay homage to your favorite places, here are some great wine countries with some interesting and funny traditions and what they sip on for the big night!

Spanish New Year’s Traditions

More than a few years ago my fabulous sister and I found ourselves in Madrid for New Year’s Eve. The weather was cold and rainy and, after a whirlwind tour through Toledo, Granada, Sevilla, and Málaga, we were travel-worn but fully aware that we had to buck up and make the most of this night in a city that LOVES to party.

My sister had lived in Madrid in college and she was familiar with the unique traditions of la Nochevieja (old night), as it’s sometimes called, so we didn’t miss a beat in our preparations. After a lovely day strolling around town, we got our supplies for the evening. Our shopping list: underwear, grapes, and wine.

Red underwear and eating 12 grapes for New Years

That’s right. In Spain, and in most Latin American countries, as well as in Mexico, people wear red underwear to bring good luck in the new year, eat 12 grapesone with each toll of the bell at midnight (you better chew fast), and then toast with the stuff those grapes make – some sort of wine, preferably sparkling.

Clearly, you have to be an expert or a person with a huge mouth to shove in 12 grapes in 12 seconds. Being neither, although we succeeded in sporting the red underwear, my sister and I failed miserably but laughed hysterically while attempting to participate in the grape tradition. And happily (like the good Schneiders we are) we did far better with the third tradition: washing the grapes down with a dose of Cava, Spanish sparkling wine.

Until recently I had forgotten all about the underwear and grapes (although I plan to get my undies and grapes teed up this year now that I’ve remembered), but I’ve never forgotten the Cava. It’s a sparkling staple for me and I would highly recommend it if you’re a fan of the bubbles. Cava is widely available, almost universally of great quality, and best of all, it’s inexpensive (as little as $10 a bottle). The wine is made just like Champagne but from Spanish grapes and it’s terrific if you’re on a budget. This is certainly a tradition worth checking out.

Italian New Year’s Traditions

I lived in Italy in college, but didn’t have the good fortune to be there for New Year’s Eve. The traditions for il Capodanno (translation: the head of the new year) are slightly different from those in Spain. Although the red underwear seems to be a ubiquitous Mediterranean staple, Italians keep to their preferred activity on this holiday — dining with family and close friends, rather than tearing it up at a club.

The cool thing about this meal is it’s all about symbolism. It involves lots of pork, which is thought to bring riches, and lentils, which are used because they are the shape of coins, hence another money attractor. In some parts of Italy, folks take one spoonful of lentil/pork stew at midnight for each toll of the bell, similar to the Spanish grape theme.

Although not related to wine, I do have to tell you that in southern Italy, people apparently still follow the old tradition of chucking stuff they no longer want out the window and onto the street to make room for the new in the coming year. Everything from spoons to sofas can go, so it’s not a great idea to be hanging around outside of windows in, say, Naples at midnight on il Capodanno!

But I digress. Although Chianti and Barbera are great matches for the pork and lentils, for celebration Italians drink their country’s sparklers. After their dinner food and wine, Italians drink Prosecco from the northeastern provinces of Veneto and Fruili Venezia Giulia, or, for something a little nicer, Franciacorta from Lombardy near Milan. Prosecco is festive, widely available, fruity, and fun…and not so expensive. Franciacorta is made in the same way as Champagne but it’s a little harder to find. Franciacorta is an outstanding and slightly cheaper alternative to Champagne. If none of those suite you, you can go completely off the reservation, you can go for Brachetto d’Acqui, a sweetish, rosé sparkling wine that’s great for dessert.

Chilean New Year’s Traditions

The best one for all of us Travel Belles? Apparently taking a piece of luggage on a walk around the block at midnight will mean lots of travel in the Año Nuevo!  

If you like both the Spanish and Italian traditions, head to Chile – they celebrate with dishes that have both grapes and lentils. They also have some other fun traditions, such as wrapping sprigs of wheat in ribbon and handing them out to loved ones to bring abundance in the New Year. Or putting high value bills in their shoes, to multiply in the New Year. The best one for all of us Travel Belles? Apparently taking a piece of luggage on a walk around the block at midnight will mean lots of travel in the Año Nuevo!

Although Chile is best known for its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and the lesser-known and interesting red, Carménere, Chileans drink bubbly on New Year’s like all the other European-influenced nations. And they’ve got some native stuff too. You should be able to find Chilean bubbly, made mostly of Chardonnay. They don’t just chug it like folks in other parts of the world – here they drop a gold ring into their bubbles for a prosperous New Year, so drinking slowly is a must!

And of course a discussion of New Year’s traditions around the world, especially one involving wine, wouldn’t be complete without a little something from France…

French New Years Traditions

Funny enough, although in many places (especially the US), New Year’s is synonymous with partying and chugging French Champagne, France itself has very quiet ways of ringing in the New Year. The feast of St. Sylvester happens to fall on New Year’s Eve and on this night family dinners with Champagne and foie gras are served around the country. Guzzling the good stuff isn’t the French way.

The thing is, good Champagne is the stuff of lasting memories. If you spring for it, drink it first, before you get to pounding the hard stuff later on.

In my opinion, not all bubbles are created equal. Champagne is distinctive – it’s more acidic than other sparklers, with smaller and longer lasting bubbles and it usually has a perfect balance of citrus, mineral, and yeasty, bready flavors that doesn’t exist anywhere but in wine from the Champagne region. The cooler growing conditions and the laser focus on sparkling wine in Champagne mean that wine from here is something unique and special, and generally worth every penny. You won’t find much for less than $40, and you can easily spend $300 for a bottle.

The thing is, good Champagne is the stuff of lasting memories. If you spring for it, drink it first, before you get to pounding the hard stuff later on. No point in having something so delicious and not having your wits about you to appreciate it! A $160 bottle of something like Dom Ruinart Blanc needs to be savored.

So although you can get great bubbles from Australia and the United States (Carneros, Mendocino, and Sonoma are great areas), and other parts of France (it’s called Cremant and it’s made just like Champagne but for a fraction of the price), Champagne is the king of the sparkling and is unmatched.

Regardless of your budget, your taste or what traditions you follow, be safe, drink well, and enjoy the people around you (even if that means your furry friends and a good TV movie!).

As for me, I’ll be lugging a suitcase around my block at midnight, while shoving some grapes in my mouth while wearing my red underwear. You?

* Postcard image used with permission.

A Toast to The New Year: Cool Wine (and non Wine) Traditions From Around the World

Elizabeth Schneider

A Toast to The New Year: Cool Wine (and non Wine) Traditions From Around the World

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A Toast to The New Year: Cool Wine (and non Wine) Traditions From Around the World

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