ach year toward the middle of November Italy’s weather begins changing. Summer can linger, as it did this year, as if unwilling to let go. It can outstay the changing of clocks and play havoc with Italian fashion sense, which calls for wearing a fall dress shirt, wool slacks, an overcoat and scarf regardless of temperature. Since I don’t have the fashion bug, I tend to stay in my summer duds until the weather really changes. For me, that usually coincides with the feast day of St. Martin, November 11.
“L’estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pochino,” the saying goes (“St. Martin’s summer lasts three days, and maybe a few more.”)
Among the Catholic Church’s rare non-martyred saints, San Martino is the patron saint of soldiers and winemakers, which accounts for my affinity. It is at this traditional outdoor sagra, or feast day, taking advantage of autumn’s last warm days, that Italian vintners open their wine casks, to sample the first few sips of the year’s vintage.
It also coincides with the time I begin noticing Rome’s caldarrostaio, or chestnut vendors. They also use the San Martino tip-off to begin plying their toasty ovals. Their destinations include obvious holiday shopping haunts (Piazza Navona) and, more surprisingly, some far less touristy locations, including in front of the expansive Policlinico hospital or the gate leading to Parco Savello, also known as il Giardino degli Aranci, high atop the Aventine Hill.
Coal-roasted, fragrant, piping hot, caldarroste are scooped into overflowing paper cones. They’re the perfect Roman hands-on treat, great when you happened to have a bottle of Vino Novello you can empty clandestinely into small plastic cups. The secluded Giardino degli Aranci is my spot when I want to escape the frantic city center. I sit on the terrace and enjoy the view overlooking St Peter’s Basilica on the other side of the Tiber.
Since it’s young and fruity, light in body, and low in alcohol, Vino Novello is often compared to France’s Beaujolais Nouveau. But they’re different. Beaujolais is produced from a single grape variety, Gamay, while Italy’s Novellos can be made from a multitude of grape varieties.
Another disparity is the fermentation process. Novellos are fermented using whole grapes (instead of crushing the fruit before brewing). The method used is called carbonic maceration and contributes to the bubble gum sweet cherry flavor that is a signature feature of the wine. It’s brought on by allowing the grapes to begin fermentation directly inside the individual grape berry.
The benefits of the process, which depending on the winemaker can last anywhere from five to 20 days is that only a tiny percentage of sugar is converted into alcohol. The grapes get an added spritz of flavor. Finally, the grape bunches are pressed, allowing low-tannin juices to ferment.
This lack of tannins means that Novellos and other early-maturing red wines have a short shelf life. While you don’t need to drink them immediately, most people will consume their stock before spring.
Most Italian wine aficionados are split on how seriously to take Novellos. I’m with the half that drinks the wine for its unassuming simplicity and light taste. Others buy the bottles as part of a seasonal rite, usually pawning them off on unsuspecting relatives along with leftover boxes of Christmas panettone.
If you’re a Novello fan, pack a picnic lunch, don your winter coat and head for your favorite scenic overlook. Then serve yourself a glass while humming an old tune by Mel Tormé.
- 2009 Mezzacorona Novio Vino Novello Inky dark and deliciously plumy and smooth textured, this Trentino wine is made from Teroldego and Lagrein, two indigenous grapes from northern Italy.
- 2009 Bardolino DOC Novello A lightly frizzante (sparkling) blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, this wine has distinct cherry blossom notes and is quite lean on the palate. It’s medium-bodied, has a nice acidic spine and is very quaffable, especially when chilled.
- 2009 Lizzano Red Novello D.O.C. Purple red Negroamaro and Sangiovese goodness, rustic in character and perfect for snacking with chestnuts, combining perfume with an earthy bitterness. The bouquet is dominated by a sharp black current aroma.