There may be many wine cellars in Valpolicella but…

valpolicella map vineyards crus

Above: Google’s “terrain” map shows the “wrinkles” of Valpolicella. The topography of the Valpolicella or “valley of alluvial deposits” is defined by a series of small rivers.

From the Greek topos or place and onoma or name, toponymy is the study of place names.

As is the case with many wine-related place names, the names themselves reflect the vine-growing practices of the place. One of my favorites is the Côte-Rôtie or the roasted slope, so-called because the slopes are “roasted” by the sun and there are countless others.

While many erroneously claim that the toponym Valpolicella comes from a hitherto undocumented Greek term for valley of many cellars, it is widely accepted that the name first appeared in the twelfth century (in a decree by Frederic I of Swabia, aka Barbarossa or Red Beard) and by the sixteenth century was widely found in Latin inscriptions as Vallis pulicellae, literally the valley of sand deposits, from the Latin pulla, a term used in classical Latin to denote to dark soil and then later to denote alluvial deposits.

In fact, Valpolicella is not a valley but rather a series of “wrinkles” defined by the Marano, Negrar, Fumane, and Nòvare torrents (streams).

If you’ve ever traveled through that part of Italy, you’ve seen how the hills roll gently across the landscape. There are other Veronese place names that reflect this tradition, like the towns Pol, Pol di Sopra, and Santa Lucia di Pol where pol denotes the presence of a stream or torrent and the pebbly, sandy deposits it forms.

There are some who point to the lass or pulzella portrayed in the device (emblem) of the town of San Pietro in Cariano as the origin of the name. But this theory seems as unlikely to me as the oft-repeated valley of many cellars (another facile faux ami or false cognate).

Valpolicella’s wines were praised highly by Latin authors, notably Virgil and Cassiodorus. Etruscan and proto-Roman winemakers recognized early on that Valpolicella’s undulating landscape was ideal for growing wine grapes.

As Virgil wrote famously, Bacchus amat colles, Bacchus loves hills.

8 thoughts on “There may be many wine cellars in Valpolicella but…

  1. One more myth debunked?

    First Aglianico and now Valpolicella?

    These are your conclusions regarding Valpolicella, or are based on your research? Just curious as to where you sourced this info….

    Fascinating…

    Alfonso Cevola

  2. Hi Alfonso, thanks. No research on my part, this time. The origin of the word is widely accepted and I based the post on the entry in the Enciclopedia italiana di scienze, lettere ed arti (Roma, Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 2000 [1949]). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get my hands on a copy of Olivieri’s Toponomastica veneta but when I do, I’ll post what I find. In any case, the fact that there are so many towns called “Pol” in Valpolicella would seem to dispel any notion that the pol in Valpolicella is from the Greek poly. It’s true that cella can signify cell in Italian and although it is akin to the word cellar, it is nothing more than a false cognate (and doesn’t denote wine cellar, as I know you know, in Italian). In this case, -cella is a diminutive suffix, as in particella or particle. It’s interesting to note that Valpolicella is not a true valley but rather a series of little valleys or depressions. Thanks for reading!

  3. I’ve read your etymology in other Italian works, Jeremy, and it really seems a lot more convincing than the folk etymology of the many cellars rubbish.

    Grazie for the erudition, amico.

  4. Jeremy:
    This is a really neat entry. When you wrote Valpolicella is not a valley but rather a series of “wrinkles” defined by the Marano, Negrar, Fumane, and Nòvare torrents (streams). If you’ve ever traveled through that part of Italy, you’ve seen how the hills roll gently across the landscape”
    it really brought back to me the few times I’ve seen this countryside.
    The people are as gentle as the landscape, no?
    Cheers…

  5. Dave, some believe that the name Veneto comes from Venus and that in pre-Roman times the Veneti were known as the “beloved” people. I spent many years in the Veneto, studying and working there… I know what you mean when you write that the people can be as “gentle ad the landscape…” Thanks for the comment.

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