November 11 is a great time to be on holiday in Abruzzo, as it’s when Italy officially uncorks its ‘Vino Novello’ (‘New Wine’ – think Beaujolais but Italian style) on the ‘Festa di St. Martino’ (St Martin – ex Roman Solider turned Monk) who began the tradition of the Martinmas Advent (sometimes known as Middlemas or Martinmesse). For those not in the know, this is the winter Lent, 40 days of fasting that led up to Christmas in the Middle Ages; obviously, you would need a feast and some good wine before embarking on such a wintery detox!
It was absorbed from ancient cultures across Europe who celebrated the winter solstice at the end of their fast. In the 6th century Church Councils began extended this thru to Epiphany, a total of 56 days in fall, with fasting every day apart from Saturdays and Sundays, now we think of this Advent and trimmed down to 4 weeks.
This had been the traditional time that the farmers feasted, and celebrated downtime for winter, the last day that was stipulated in their contractual working year as subsistence farmers who gave half to their landlord. There was the belief when winters were freezing cold and full of snow that anything sowed afterwards would never survive! Those who had horned animals sold them at fairs traditionally on this day for slaughter and of course, celebrated the sales afterwards.
The Catholic Church soon cottoned onto this celebration when ‘tribute’ could be plenty and created the story and feast day of San Martino. He represented abundance so it is fitting the villagers would pay tribute to this Saint to see them through the winter and wish them good fortune for their newly sown crops. Local names for this day include Capetiempe”, which means “new beginning” (tiempe means time, cape is for capo, head, starting) which is why fires would be lit to traditionally to protect you from the darkness of the coming months as well as purge the past.
San Martino Events in Abruzzo
Most of the larger rural farming villages and towns will get together and host events that celebrate San Martino on the 11th November, with a simple Vino Novello and roast chestnut festa.
The Glories in Scanno are the most famous bonfires that are held on eve of San Martino, the 10th of November. The lighting of its 3 towering bonfires starts at 6.30 pm. San Martino is also the protector of betrayed husbands as well as winemakers, a very masculine day! In San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore there is the processione dei cornuti, where the men of the village create a carnival procession through the town ringing cowbells and carrying cow and goat horns that are carried as relics and a polite phallic symbol whilst singing the ‘Congrega’. Groups of children follow with jack-o-lanterns begging for sweets and money.
This is the period when you can revel in the rich colour of the Abruzzo countryside. It whizzes you back to your childhood with sherbet pastels liberally sprinkling its sleepy and slightly frost-bitten vines and rewards you by drinking its brightly coloured tannin-free, light (11% alcohol), fruity wines that shout cherries, blackberries, raspberries & figgy peaches – all the fruits of Abruzzo.
How is Vino Novello Made?
Vino Novello’ is made by a process called maceration – this is where whole grapes are placed generally in steel tanks with carbon dioxide for anything between 5-20 days. At this point, the natural yeast in the skins of the grapes moves into the pulp looking for water & oxygen which is what causes fermentation, whereupon the grapes are crushed, fermented again & bottled in the normal manner after a few more days.
It really is up to the individual winemaker (most of the homemade wine is made in this manner) … for that very reason don’t expect any woody notes in this type of wine. These wines have an incredibly short store life, lasting through to no longer than Easter (if local popularity allows even that longevity). By giving the big restaurants a miss and visiting the local events you’ll increase the likelihood of being able to experience some of them.