Above: 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.
Above: Google’s “terrain” map shows the “wrinkles” of Valpolicella.
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.