By Frank Cipparone
Ever wonder how grapes got their names? When you consider the diversity of Italy’s native varieties it can be confusing at times, but always interesting. Regional dialects must be taken into account, so too the many synonyms attached to some grapes. There are, however, patterns that emerge as you wind through the vineyards.
Some names evolved from the fact that farmers were paid by weight for the grapes they delivered. Carica l’Asino, Susumaniello, and Carricante make refence to “loading up the donkey,” or “filling the cart.” Local nicknames like Sciacciadebiti or Pagadebit are about erasing or paying off debt, as is Empibotte — “fill the barrels.”
Grapes are also recognized for coming from highly productive vines, thus very profitable. Bonamico is a “good friend,” and Nero Buono is the “good black grape.” Fruttana, a synonym for Fontana, means “plenty fruity.” The dialect term for Montu, mont’u or “plenty of grapes,” needs no explanation.
Naming a grape for its appearance is a widespread practice. Coda explains the shape of clusters of Coda di Volpe (foxtail), Coda di Pecora (sheep’s tail) and Coda di Cavallo (horsetail). Scarsafoglia and Foja Tonda describe a short or round leaf. Lanzera (lance) is Romagnola for its spear-shaped berries. Calabria’s Gaglioppo comes from the Greek for “beautiful foot” because the clusters are plump and colorful. Piedirosso of Lacrima Christi fame has red stalks that resemble the color of a pigeon’s claws. Ruggine has a ruggino (rusty) brownish skin.
A reminder of the peasant origins of winemaking is evident in the colorful descriptions of Cacamosca, “fly feces,” due to the spots on its skin; Caprettone, “goat’s beard;” and Baratuciat, Piemontese for the oval “cat’s testicles” shape of its berries.
There are grapes that are associated with people. San Lunardo honors the priest Don Lunardo who promoted its planting on Ischia. Centesimino, “small cent” was the nickname of winemaker Pietro Pienoni, who was apparently a tightwad. And Longanesi took its name from Antonio Longanesi, the man who rescued it from extinction.
Recognizing a grape’s specific qualities is common. Asprinio, from aspro, is tart and highly acidic. Lumassina must give farmers in Liguria fits since it ripens at a lumasse (snail) pace. The “tongue biting” acidity of Tazzalenghe gets your attention. Dolcetto’s juice may make it “the little sweet one,” but the wine made from it is not. Negroamaro is sometimes truly “dark and bitter.” Vespolino’s nectar attracts waspish vespi. In the Valtellina, Nebbiolo is Chiavennasca, “suitable for winemaking.”
There are grapes related to a place or the way in which they are cultivated. Casavecchia literally cites an ancient Roman house near which it grows. Pecorino calls to mind shepherds who would eat the grape while tending their flocks in Abruzzo. Forastera comes from forastierre, an outsider whose late arrival to Ischia made it a foreigner. Primitivo, one of Puglia’s well-known reds, is not primitive, but the primo or first grape ready for harvest. Both Falanghina and Cjanone are clues to how vines were trained centuries ago. The first comes from the Latin “falangae” or phalanx, since the rows of poles that held it up resembled ranks of Roman legionnaires; the latter, canes or sticks used for support, from the Friulan cjana. And poor Ortrugo, originally Atruga, the altra (other) less important grape.
Finally, a pair that defy any category. In Trentino, Lagarino has German origins, but is quaintly known as Sghittarella, supposedly because it acts as a laxative! Why Rollo is called Bruciapagliaio, “burn the straw” is anyone’s guess. In Italy, it’s always “paese qui vai, usanza que trovi.”