Sunday, July 29, 2018

5 of the Most Important Patron Saints of Italian Wine You’ve Never Heard About

In Italy, where the seat of the Catholic Church sits in Rome, many souls have drifted away from the sacred to the secular. But there is a cultural attachment to a spirit of place that has been cultivated in the Italian soil for over two millennia. Christianity developed in Italy aspiring towards ascetic and self-sacrificing virtues. When stirred into the pot with an ages-long foment from the cults of the Greeks and the Romans for wine and all things pleasurable, the inevitable consanguinity between the gods and the saints created a genesis of devotion that has been somewhat hidden from the public at large. But over those two thousand plus years, there are saints in Italy that wine lovers and winemakers depend on to get through every harvest and bottling. Here are five of the most important patron saints of Italian wine you’ve never heard about, from recently discovered ancient writings, by a botanist researcher, in the Jesuit Vatican archives in Rome.


St. Pancras Mercuria – Little is known about this saint. We have been told St. Pancras was a man, but even that we are not completely sure of, as women in those days often concealed their gender for fear of maltreatment. What we do know about St. Pancras is that this saint is likely the archetype embodying that of the Creator. This, in saintly parlance, was the one who magically discovered fermentation and while it was unknown at the time, St. Pancras soon got his (or her) hands around it and rode the fermenting clusters into a euphoria filled autumn. Fortunately, St. Pancras was imbued with good luck. The first wines that came out from the age when St. Pancras roamed Italy, are legendary. Linius Hippolomaeus once wrote about St. Pancras Mercuria’s “magical and innate ability to make wine from the sparsest of grapes, with the minimum of effort, transforming what would have been food for the pigs into a nectar for the gods.” Unfortunately, St. Pancras was also imbued with bad luck and was martyred in 99 AD. Beheaded. And where the blood spilled high in the hills above ancient Rome, there is a little-known vineyard that still produces grapes and wine from these vines. It is one of the rarest of wines and known only to a few Romans. Until now.

St. Lignaeus Tabulata - St. Lignaeus grew up in the Casentinesi forests in Emilia Romagna, son of a lumberman. His parents had 12 children, and so Lignaeus spent his childhood wandering the forests, doing what children do. Somewhere along the way, he developed an affection for wood. But not just any common wood. There was a special kind of oak tree that grew large and tall, and solitary, among the beech trees. He would climb these trees and spend days in their branches. At one point when Lignaeus hadn’t come home in days, his parents feared they had lost their child to a pack of wild animals who roamed the forest for prey, and they spent two days looking for him. They cried out, “Lignaeus, come home, please.” But he was so far up in the tree he didn’t hear.

When he became of age to become an apprentice, he worked with his father, gathering wood. But Lignaeus wanted more. He would find special panels of wood from the oak trees that he had gotten to know so well and form a circle with them and bind them up with ropes and means to create an enclosure. Monks who wandered the forest for wild herbs for their concoctions, stumbled across one of these coops and found the family who lived in that part of the forest. They asked Lignaeus to help them make several of these casks inside their abbey, so they could hold larger amounts of their herbs with their potions. Lignaeus eventually joined the monastic order and took the surname name Tabulata and lived to be 88. In times before Lignaeus, there had been no such kind of way to enclose larger amounts of liquid commodities, in order to preserve and cultivate these ancient liquids. Later these were adapted to the winemaking process as well. St. Lignaeus Tabulata came to be known in ancient times, as the father of the medieval cask.

St. Carmén Biturica – lived and worked around Volterra and was rumored to be Dante’s inspiration for the character Antaeus in the Divine Comedy. Carmén liked to mix things up and he was a trader, often away on trips to Gaul and Brittanicus. When he came back, he would work in his room until late into the night, with knife and candlelight, performing operations on plants and animals. It is written in the ancient writing that Carmén might have been the person who developed today’s modern Chianina cow. But his real talent was with plants. From his travels, he found any number of wild vines and sought to plunge deeper into ampelography. He also was a tinkerer of sorts and liked to combine things. What we now come to think of as indigenous grapes, once weren’t. In fact, of the 500+ indigenous grape varieties recognized by the modern authority on the subject, Dr. Ian D’Agata, roughly 25% of those can have their inception traced back to Carmén Biturica.

His most important accomplishment? Arguably the grape (or grapes) that helped to establish the wine growing region in Gaul, where Biturica was rumored to have had a secret family with many children who possessed a mane of red – prized by nearby Teutonic marauders for their unusual appearance and known as “Rotes schild.”

St. Agata Dominicus – not your usual St. Agatha. She wasn’t a martyr. She wasn’t a nun. She was in fact a married woman (twice) who had a child that can be traced to pivotal moments forward in wine history that were critical to the development of the modern-day wine industry. And she never made wine, in fact rarely drank it. She was an incubator of sorts, but also one of the early influencers. She ran a little inn outside the Porta Romana in what was (and still is) called Viterbo. It was a way-station for pilgrims, traders and couriers. And she and her family cooked meals and a place to sleep for the humans (and animals) for the night. She was known to be a great cook, and vinegrowers would try to sell their wine to her. But she was indifferent to wine. She had a son, Devonus, who had a talent for wine and she would have him go out to the farms and find the right wine for the right price (eventually Devonus would move to Brittanicus and set up a string of inns from London to Cornwall).

St. Agata got her surname from an incident that happened when a servant of a high ranking political authority was traveling to Rome on a pilgrimage and requested she reserve the inn all for the politician. Ancient writings report she told the servant that she was closed on Sunday “in observance of the Lord’s day.” The servant replied to her, “Today you will serve a Lord who is in front of you, not some invisible God. Go prepare some wine!” Whereupon she asked her son to find the three worst casks of wine and blend and transfer them into moldy wineskins made from old goats. The rEst! is history.

St. Agata Dominicus is the patron saint of wine merchants and her son, St. Devonus Totum Cibum, went on to establish not just his inns, but also a school of service to the inn trade, which eventually became today’s modern Court of Master Sommeliers.

St. Dom Euganeius Serprinus -We all know about Dom Pérignon and Dom Thierry Ruinart, who were the forebearers for today’s modern Champagne. But there was a third monk, of Italian origin, where ancient writings attest to his influence on these two brothers, and might even have been responsible, not only for Champagne, but for today’s modern Italian sparking wine industry. He was Dom Euganeius Serprinus. Before he was a monk he was married to Katherine of Koel, in a marriage that lasted but a few years before she left him and went to the New World in search of a passage to the Northwest. With Papal dispensation he was privileged to join a religious order by virtue of having had his marriage dissolved by distance (this later became known as Koel’s Law). And he plunged headfirst, according to the ancient texts found in Rome, into “winemaking and with capturing the tiniest bubbles in the grape and transforming them into the most ethereal of wines.”

Dom Euganeius worked for years in Germany and France, before heading back to his native region near Verona. It was there that he isolated grapes destined for sparkling wine. And while Dom Pérignon and Dom Thierry Ruinart were given fame and acknowledgment for discovering and making sparkling wine that became known as Champagne and which influence sparkling wine makers the world over, Dom Euganeius Serprinus was a sullen and moody person who distilled “all the known happiness of the world” into his work in Italy to refine the method of making naturally sparkling wine and making it so that it would be available to all people, not just kings and princes. He was a man of the people, and tinged with the loss of his Katherine to the New World, he wanted to make sure “all souls would be able to experience the ecstasy of happiness found in a goblet of wine.” Today his dream has been realized in the enormous popularity of his wine, known in his time as Vino Pucinum, and today as Prosecco.


There you have it – who knew? Now you know. Blessed be their hearts. Can I get an Amen?






written and photographed (in Italy) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

2 comments:

Marco Colfondo said...

I'll give you 5 amens.

Paul Wagner said...

Wonderful stuff, Al. Really fun. You should do more of this!

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