Czechs dispel gloom of pandemic and economic woes with St. Martin’s wine

November 11 is a special day in the Czech calendar – on St. Martin's Day Czechs around the country sample the first young wine from the autumn harvest and sit down to the traditional St Martin’s Day feast of roast goose, dumplings and red and white cabbage. The Czech equivalent of the Beaujolais celebrations is a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages and has become hugely popular in recent years.

Traditionally this celebration of young wine in early November is a welcome opportunity to get together with family and friends over a fabulous meal that is certain to dispel the autumn blues. This year Czechs have more reasons than usual to welcome a bit of good cheer – Covid numbers are once again soaring, inflation is about to hit 6 percent and energy prices are spiraling ahead of the winter season.

But winemakers in Moravia have a bit of good news to share – this year’s St. Martin wines will be well worth tasting. Roman Nimmertondl is a wine connoisseur.

“The wine harvest turned out to be very good this year. Wine growers were worried because August was very rainy and things didn’t look so good. But then we had a long bout of Indian summer which raised the sugar content in the grapes. I would say that wine growers are very pleased with this year’s harvest.”

At this time the market is flooded with a huge variety of St. Martin’s wines –whites, rosés and reds, as winemakers scramble to meet demand.

Photo: Pavel Sedláček,  Czech Radio

St. Martin’s wine is not just any young wine – it must meet strict criteria. It can only be made from certain varieties of grapes, according to a given technology, with no sugar added. Each year the wines are approved by a special committee and are easily recognizable by the logo of Saint Martin on a white horse pictured on the label. The bottles are also required to have special cork stoppers or screw-top closures bearing the trade-mark "Svatomartinské". Roman Nimmertondl says that purists should also respect other conditions.

“In line with tradition, St. Martin’s wine should be uncorked on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour and eleventh minute precisely. Or, at least not before that time. Of course, some wine growers put their young wine on the market sooner. But then it cannot be sold under the St. Martin’s wine label. In such a case they do not have to respect the strict technological requirements in the wine making process and can use other types of grapes as well.”

'Saint Martin' | Photo: Václav Šálek,  ČTK

St Martin's wine is only allowed to age for several weeks, which gives it a light, fresh and slightly acidic taste. People who like sweet wines should steer clear of it. And there is an established codex for the grape varieties that wine makers are allowed to use.

“This codex stipulating what grape varieties can be used has been gradually established since the 1990s. At first it was Mueller Thurgau and Malvasia grapes for white wines, and Blue Portugal and Saint Laurent grapes for red wines. Other varieties were added over the years such as Moravian muscat in 2010 and Zweigeltrebe in 2013. The varieties are sufficient to make white, rosé and red wines and I must say that our winemakers have collected a great many awards abroad for their rosé wines.”

Although many foreigners link the celebration of St. Martin’s wine to France’s Beaujolais Nouveau, the two tradition were formed separately. While the birth of Beaujolais goes back to the 1960s the Czech tradition of St Martin’s wine goes back to the reign of Charles IV who brought the culture of wine growing and wine making to this country from Spain and France. He planted the first vineyards, including one on the southern slopes of Prague Castle.

St. Martin’s Day is observed around the country and many smaller towns and villages organize an annual procession led by St. Martin on a white horse; a patron of beggars, winemakers, geese, and soldiers. People are familiar with the legend about his encounter with a beggar. It was freezing cold and having nothing to give the beggar, he cut his own cloak in half and offered half to the beggar. Later, Jesus Christ came to him in a dream wearing half of his cloak. Legend has it that it was this dream that made Martin decide he would devote the rest of his life to serving God.

St. martin even appears in Czech weather lore – the saying “St. Martin comes on a white horse” refers to the fact that November 11 often brings the first snowflakes.

With or without snow St. Martin’s Day is a celebration of wine and good food. It is a time when goose farmers, wine growers, distributers and restaurant owners are busier than at any other time of year –Christmas included.

Saint Martin’s wine logo of Saint Martin on a white horse pictured on the label | Photo: Tereza Kadrnožková,  Czech Radio

Roman Nimmertondl says that while the Czech Republic is known abroad as a country of beer lovers, the wine tradition has been gaining strength. Wine makers and distributers make the most of this holiday – which he says is documented by record sales.

“In 2005 around 125,000 bottles of St. Martin’s wine were sold in the Czech Republic and ten years later the sales reached two million bottles. We even had a number of wine tasting events where we offered people Beaujolais and our own St. Martin’s wines and they greatly preferred the latter.”

Roman Nimmertondl says that while you may see last year’s St. Martin’s wine on the market – always go for the young wine from this autumn’s harvest to savor the distinctive, fresh aroma of St. Martin’s wine.

“When you open the bottle and pour it you may see light bubbles forming – remnants of CO2 from the fermenting process, but they will disappear almost immediately. I would advise drinking any bottles you buy soon. This wine does not age well. White St. Martin’s wines should be consumed by the end of April at the latest, the reds may last a little longer, but don’t leave them too long.”

So as we Czechs say “Nazdravi” and whether you are celebrating in a Moravian wine cellar, a Czech restaurant or in your own home - enjoy the holiday!