San Martino Day

Ask any home wine maker or professional vintner about the significance of November 11th and you will likely get the response that this is the Feast Day of San Martino, patron saint of wine and wine making, the day when traditionally the first sips of ‘vino novello’ can be tasted. Ironically he is also the patron saint of alcoholics!

It is said that at San Martino “ogni mosto e’ vino” (every juice becomes wine), therefore it is time to pour a glass from the vats in which the juices have been fermenting for approximately two months and get a taste of the fruity, juicy immature wine. This taste treat is an indication of the quality, and characteristics of the year’s vintage and a preview of what’s to come when the wine ages and fully matures. It is also the perfect excuse to throw an autumn party where the new wine can be enjoyed with bruschetta doused with newly pressed olive oil and fire-roasted chestnuts among other traditional delights.

Sagras dedicated to chestnuts and new wines are celebrated throughout Italy and in particular in Venice, where the festa of San Martino is hugely celebrated. Children and adults alike will dress like the saint in crowns and red capes. The children will clang pots and pans to make noise while travelling throughout the city asking for money and candy and reciting a rhyme about their revered patron:

The legend of San Martino

The legend of St. Martin says that he was one of the Church’s first non-martyred saints to be beatified. Born in a Roman province in modern-day Hungary, his father was an army officer in the Imperial guard. St Martin himself was pressed into service and was attached to a ceremonial cavalry unit assigned to guard the Emperor. According to lore, St. Martin was riding through the gates of the city of Amiens, on a frigid evening in November, when he came upon a poor, freezing beggar. In a generous and humble gesture, St. Martin cut his military cloak in half and shared it with the man for warmth. That same night, Jesus appeared to St. Martin in a dream wearing the half-cloak and thanking him for his compassionate gesture. The legend further tells us that at the moment that the saint shared his cloak the sun came out which is why for a short period in early November we have what is called Estate di San Martino (summer of San Martino) when the weather is unseasonably warm.
Thereafter, San Martino gave up his commission as an officer to become a monk and live a humble life of service to God. Despite this he is also the patron saint of soldiers.
Why is he the patron saint of Vinters and alcoholics? It is said that when the Emperor offered St Martin the wine cup before himself, he handed it instead to a poor priest standing with him, thus showing that he counted the humble servants of God before the greatest rulers. Secondly November 11th or Martinmas was originally the feast of Bacchus among the Romans and when the Christian Church subsumed this into the feast of Saint Martin, the countrymen working in the vineyards continued to celebrate the day and came to look on Saint Martin as their Patron and drunkards were advised to invoke him to save them from their sin.

Current times

To celebrate this Saint’s day the ‘Strada di Vino’ organisation here in Umbria has created a second ‘Cantina Aperta’ day so that patrons can visit their favourite vineyards and taste the new wine. In this region Madrevita at Vaiano, Il Castello at Montegiove and several vineyards at Torgiano, Perugia and nearby Montefalco are opening their doors, so raise a glass (but not too many!) to San Martino (and to me if you like because it is also my birthday!)
Jan Julian
(Jan Julian & Adje Middelbeek run 1 day wine tours across the ‘confine’ between Umbria & Toscana).