Meaningful grapes


Some time ago I started to write a blog post about the strange tendency of white grape varieties to start (like ‘vine’, ‘vino’ and ‘variety’) with the letter v. There are Viognier, Vermentino, Viura, Verdicchio, Vidal, Verdejo, Verdelho and others. That post never saw the light of day, but it came to mind when a friend reminded me that Merlot is named after merle, French for ‘blackbird’. (They like to eat it.) Indeed, in Occitan, the local language of Merlot’s birthplace, the bird is called merlau.

Many other grape varieties have meaningful names. Some are a bit obscure, such as the Catalan name for Tempranillo: Ull de Llebre, rabbit’s eye or hare’s eye. Perhaps it’s the shape of the berries. Many others are quite obvious, such as those involving nero (Latin) or mavro (Greek), both meaning black. There are Nero d’Avola from Sicily, Mavro on Cyprus, Mavrud in Bulgaria and Mavrodafni etc. from Greece.

But there are many more surprising ones.

France first. Colombard (largely used for cognac) is from colombe, dove, referring to the skin colour.

Folle Blanche (cognac, armagnac) is ‘mad white’ because it grows so fast, hence also known as Grand Plant & Enrageat ‘enraged’.

Syrah’s synonym is Sérine (the name of the family it heads), which is from the Latin sera ‘late’ (it’s late ripening) as in buonasera.

Lambrusco = lam brusco where lam is berry (e.g. lampone ‘raspberry’) plus ‘brusque’ so ‘wild grape’. (The minor French grape Fer also means wild, as in ‘feral’.)

There are many lambrusco somethings and one, lambrusco salamino is named after guess what, salami, having cylindrical bunches.

Next, Spain. Monastrell (Mourvèdre in France) is from the Latin monasteriu ‘monastery’. Tempranillo is ‘early ripening’.

Then Italy has many. Dolcetto is ‘little sweet’. Nebbiolo (Barolo) is from nebbia ‘fog’ as the berries grow a thick bloom. Think nebulous.

Pecorino is from pecora ‘sheep’ like the cheese though I’m not sure whether the connection is proximity, the sheep’s favourite snack or otherwise. Primitivo (aka Tribidrag, Zinfandel) is from the Latin primativus, ‘first to ripen’.

Vermentino was originally Fermentino: the young wine is fizzy.

Then there are place names. Lots of wines are named after their origin, such as Chablis, Sancerre and Madeira. But very few actual grapes are; the only well-known certainty is Chardonnay. Prosecco (now unnecessarily renamed Glera to distinguish it from the wine it makes) probably originated there. Trebbiano may be from Trebula (now Treglia), from the Trebbia river, or from any one of the many Italian villages named Trebbo or Trebbio.

Most place names are misleading though. Auxerrois is not from Auxerre in the Yonne, but refers to the old name for Alsace, Auxois. Montepulciano is not from there but, as the label says, it’s Montepulciano d’Abbruzo. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is from there but is largely made from Sangiovese, like Chianti. Shiraz has nothing to do with the Persian city; it’s the Australian name for Syrah.

There’s more. Muscat is not from Oman, rather its aroma is suggestive of that from the caudal gland of the musk deer, as in musk(y). There are many Muscat Somethings, and Muscat of Alexandria is not from there while Muscat of Hamburg is not from there!

But the best names are the stuff of legend and religion, and here the Romans and Italians excel. Sangiovese means ‘Jupiter’s blood’, from sanguis Jovis. Rumour has it that the monks at Monte Giove near Rimini made the name up (based on their location) when a visitor asked the name of their wine. Sagrantino was sacred wine for the sacristy. Vin Santo is the wine of saints. So not only does the church have the best songs, it has the best wine. It only lacked women, and that has now been corrected too.


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