Monday, November 16, 2009

Raise a Glass to San Martino

After what seemed like an endless week of dreary grayness and relentless rain, the sun found its way back and the weekend turned into a beautiful display of blue skies and brilliant autumn leaves.  A classic Indian Summer, or as they say in Italy, l'estate di San Martino (Saint Martin's Summer).

What does a return of sunny warmth in late autumn have to do with Saint Martin, you ask?  His feast day is November 11, when it is quite common to see this welcome weather phenomenon take place.  A folk saying goes, "l'estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pochino."  (St. Martin's Summer last three days, maybe more.) 

San Martino was one of the Church's first non-martyred saints to be beatified.  He was born in a Roman province in what is modern-day Hungary, a Roman citizen whose father was an army officer in the Imperial guard.  Martino himself was pressed into service and was attached to a cermonial cavalry unit assigned to guard the Emperor, before giving up his commission as an officer and its certain wealth to become a monk.  He is the patron saint of soldiers and wine makers.

The wine-maker part is why San Martino is so widely revered in Italy.  You see, the feast of San Martino is the traditional day to open the casks of newly-made wine for a first taste of the year's vintage.  The grapes were picked and pressed in August and September so they've been in the vats and undergoing the fermentation process for about two months.  Everyone likes to get some of the fruity, juicy immature wine, just because it's a temporary taste treat. 

My friend Serafino, a sommelier who has worked in the Italian wine industry for more than 50 years, says that the tasting opportunity on San Martino gives them an indication of the quality and characteristics of the year's vintage, a preview of what is to come.  That may be, but it is also a good excuse for an autumnal party.

"A San Martino tutto il mosto e` gia` vino," our landlord Guerino told us as a way of inviting us to his cantina for a festa di San Martino.  By November 11 all the grape must has already become wine, albeit "new wine".  Vino nuovo differs from vino Novello although the lines seem to have blurred in recent years as Novello (or French nouveau) has gained in popularity.  According to Serafino, vino nuovo is just that, new wine that is siphoned directly out of the vat.  Novello, on the other hand, is produced by a method known as carbonic maceration, a process initiated by Louis Pasteur, whereby carbon dioxide is pumped into a tank of grapes to ferment them.  "Vino Novello," he said, "is produced as a novelty.  It is bottled and distributed, and must be drunk young, no later than the end of the year."  It has the same grapey, juice-like flavors but is produced specifically as Novello.  It is a consumer short-run wine. 

Vino nuovo is, instead, just the normal wine that the vintner is creating but it is being "previewed" and consumed while it is "new".  Most of the wine will be left in the vats to age properly, then placed in barrels for wood aging and refining, to be bottled next year (or a few years down the line, depending on the grape varietal and end goal of the vintner).  True vino nuovo is rarely bottled; it is sold sfuso, ("loose") to customers who bring their jugs to the winery for a fill-up.  Serafino splits hairs over this issue, though many people -even in Italy- use the term novello to indicate either type of new (young) wine.

Guerino invited us annually to his San Martino parties where the menu tradizionale was grilled homemade sausages, fire-roasted chestnuts, bruschetta doused in newly-pressed olive oil, and (of course!) his homemade vino nuovo.  This type of festa is common, and all over Italy there are sagras dedicated to chestnuts and new wine.  Some regions hold more formal Cantine Aperte events, where wineries open their doors for full-blown tasting parties, holding the glasses under the spigot and toasting the patron saint of wine makers, San Martino.

Related Posts:

La Sagra e i Soci

The Fruit of Autunno (Or, all about chestnuts)

Fairs and Festas


J.Doe said...

I'd like a nice glass of vino della casa (at restaurants in Italy) whether it's nuovo, novello, or vecchio......the house wines were ALWAYS good and cheap. Here in the US if the wine is cheap it is usually not good.

Evey said...

What a great story, full on info, yeah, Valeria and Bruno!

Laura said...

Ciao Valerie! Great post! I learned so much about this time of year in Italy. Tante grazie!

Valerie said...

J. - I'd like one, too! We had amazingly few "duds" among the house wines we've consumed through the years. They can be quite impressive as well as cheap!

Evey - Ciao bella! Glad you enjoyed it.

Laura - We always say that every day is a learning experience in Italy. So much to take in and discover. Autumn is my favorite time of year.

rob said...

Ciao Valerie, I love Novello, it has the smell of Fall..

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

great post.

I think I need to buy some wine for dinner.

Like you and J. Doe, I have had very good luck with the house wines here.