The painting is of a type known as a tüchlein, painted in glue-size tempera on a piece of unprimed linen. This was a common technique in Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries but relatively few examples have survived. The painting is executed on a piece of very fine, regularly woven linen with a taffeta weave of a type widely used at this period to which no more than a preliminary coat of animal size was applied, in line with the normal practice for works of this kind, which were generally hung on the wall unframed. The working method is notably simple, comprising no more than one or two layers of paint as glue-size was not suitable for the application of impasto or glazes. In addition, there is very little under-drawing as such works were painted directly, alla prima.
Bruegel depicts the wine festival associated with Saint Martin's Day on 11 November when a goose was eaten and when the winter pig-killing took place. The new wine of the year, known as Saint Martin's wine, was sampled the night before the festival. The fact that the saint's day coincides with the end of the wine harvest in late autumn meant that the two events became associated, with the distribution of the free wine taking place outside city gates. As a result, and despite the presence of Saint Martin, Bruegel's painting is not a religious scene or a devotional work, nor, however, is it a genre composition. The focus of the painting is rather the celebration of the saint’s day as it took place in Flanders and the Germanic world at this period, where it acquired almost the nature of a bacchanal and was a prelude to the winter carnival. As such, it reveals an ironic tension between the charity of Saint Martin – dressed as a 15th-century patrician – and the excesses of the festival that bears his name.
The scene takes place in late autumn with many of the trees bare. Bruegel locates the events taking place outside the city gates, which recall the Porte de Hal in Brussels, and near some rural houses. The centre of the composition is occupied by a huge barrel of wine painted in a shade of red and standing on a wooden platform. Around the barrel the artist has arranged a varied crowd of figures: old and young men, women, some with children, peasants, beggars and thieves, all trying to obtain the largest possible quantity of wine. Those who have been successful and have filled their containers with wine are back on the ground while others are still clinging onto the wooden supports, lying on the barrel or leaning over perilously to catch the wine as it spurts from the barrel in whatever recipients they have to hand, including their hats and shoes. Revealing his remarkable abilities to compose and arrange all these figures (numbering around 100), Bruegel creates the effect of a human mountain urged on by greed: a veritable Tower of Babel made up of drinkers. The artist presents a deliberate contrast between the circle of figures around the barrel and the much more stable, pyramidal form of the group representing the charity of Saint Martin on the right. The composition is completed on the left-hand side by figures that reveal the effects of having drunk the wine: unlike the saint they have not been guided by virtue but have been led astray by the sin of Greed, including the figure about to vomit, the one lying unconscious in his own vomit on the ground, the two men fighting and the woman giving wine to her baby to drink.