(Republished with permission from the original article in the Oct./Nov. 2014 issue of The SOMM Journal)
Croatia’s prodigal grape finds its roots. Can it go home again?
By Cliff Rames
Sherlock Holmes, were he an ampelographer, would be pleased. Solved was an age-old mystery that spanned oceans and continents, the New World and the Old. Through hands-on detective work, forensic know-how and cutting edge technology, the missing link in the evolutionary story of a popular and beloved wine grape was uncovered, the mystery of its origins revealed in a word: Tribidrag – the ancient Croatian name for Zinfandel.
“Work hard, play harder” is a favorite slogan of mine. And while winter is not as intensely laborious as harvest time, winegrowers must occasionally brave the harsh winter days and work in the vineyard. Winter is the time for pruning the vines to prepare them for new growth in the spring. Often this means runny noses, frozen hands, and lots of dead vine stalks to haul away to the compost or firewood stacks.
But all is not sober and back-breaking among the vines. Each year on a certain day the time comes to cease work, pause to give thanks, pay homage to the vineyard, and celebrate another successful harvest and the promise of a new growing year. The day is known as the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Celebrated each winter on January 22nd (Roman Catholic Church), St. Vincent’s Day marks the mid-point between the onset of dormancy and bud-break in the vine’s growing cycle.
Born in Spain in the 3rd century and later martyred, St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine-growers and winemakers. The story behind how he became the patron saint of vintners is rooted in legend and has many versions. One prominent explanation focuses on the French pronunciation of the name Vincent, which is “Vin-sang” and translates into “wine blood”. It should be noted that when grapevines are pruned, they often bleed sap – or vine blood – from the cuts.
But my favorite version of the story is the one that stars a hungry donkey.
I love donkeys. They are quirky, stubborn, unpredictable, sassy, lovable creatures. Their often-contradictory nature – stoic yet highly emotional, hard-working yet lazy, loyal yet defying) makes them the butt of many jokes, fodder for comical stories, and sometimes the stuff of folklore and legend (e.g. the famous Donkey of Dingac). In short, they are magnificent creatures.
As the story goes, one day Saint Vincent was wandering the countryside with his donkey when he encountered some workers in a vineyard. While Vincent chatted with the workers, the donkey entertained himself by eating all the young shoots off a nearby grapevine, reducing the limbs to stubs.
Later that year at harvest, the workers noticed that the vine that had been nibbled down by the donkey produced more abundant and healthier fruit than the rest of the vineyard.
And so it was revealed that grapevines – which can grow many meters long if not cut back – should be pruned in winter to ensure that the plant’s energy is directed more towards producing fruit than growing and sustaining shoots. Today pruning is a standard vineyard practice – a meticulous and painstaking task that keeps many skilled vineyard workers busy each winter.
But come St. Vincent’s Day, the clippers and shears are put down, and the celebrations begin!
In Croatia, the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa is celebrated in all wine growing regions and is called “Vincelovo”, “Vincekovo”, or “Vinceška”, depending where you are in the country.
This year public festivals are scheduled to be held at Kutjevo in the Slavonia wine-growing region (“Kutjevačko Vincelovo”); in Zagorje at Bolfan Vinski Vrhwinery (“Vincekovo”); and in the Baranja region at Vinarija Josić (“Vinceška”).
A typical St. Vincent’s celebration in Croatia consists of religious services, a blessing of the vineyards, a lighting of bonfires, live folk music performances and dancing, regional culinary specialties cooked over open fires, and of course plenty of local wine!
So here’s wishing you all a happy Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. And if you are celebrating, don’t forget to raise a glass to Saint Vincent and our old friend, the Donkey!