The origins of Zibibbo (closer reading part 2)

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Photos of Pantelleria by Alfonso Cevola.

In response to my post on Sir Robert the other day, both Charles (friend, mentor, venerated palate, and husband to Italian cookery authority Michele Scicolone) and Tracie B (my soon-to-be better and definitely better looking half) asked about the origins of the grape name Zibibbo.

In 1605, Sir Robert writes of white Tuscan grape “Zibibbo,” which is “dried for Lent.” It is highly likely that he is referring to the Tuscan tradition of Vin Santo. One of the unique things about Vin Santo, beyond the winemaker’s intentional oxidation of the wine, is that it often undergoes a second fermentation in the spring when temperatures begin to rise and my hunch is that the reference to Lent has something to do with vinification practices (but that’s another story for another post).

Today, we know Zibibbo as the white Moscato used to make the famed wine of Sicily, Passito di Pantelleria. But in antiquity, the word meant simply “dried grape,” from the Arabic zabib, akin to the Egyptian zibib. As it turns out, it was only recently that the term began to denote specifically the grapes used for the famous wine of Pantelleria. It’s not clear which variety Sir Robert is referring to but he’s clearing referring to a dried grape wine (especially in the light of his reference to Lent).

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When I was a grad student, my dissertation adviser used to call me the segugio, the blood hound or sleuth: this morning I did some snooping around and found and translated the following passage by one of Italy’s greatest philologists, Alberto Varvaro, professor at the University of Naples (o what a joy to be reunited, finally, with my library!). I love what professor Varvaro has to say in his conclusion, i.e., that part of the reason why we’ve come to know Moscato d’Alessandria as Zibibbo is because Palermitan shopkeepers adopted the term as a designation of higher quality in order to charge higher prices.* I also love Varvaro’s Sicilian style and humor in describing this linguistic phenomenon — all the while in a highly erudite and scientific context. Varvaro was born in Palermo in 1934 and is one of Italy’s leading experts in dialectology.

    Everyone knows Zibibbo, the excellent white table grape variety, grown for the most part in Pantelleria (hence the name)… Many are quick to say that this has always been its name and that the connection between the name, meaning, and referent-object has ancient and undisputed origins.** But this is not the case: the Arabic zabib, which with all likelihood gave the name to our grape, was a dried grape and was probably the meaning of the term when it began to be used in Sicily (according to [anthropologist] Alberto Cirese, its meaning remained unchanged in outlying areas and as far away as Central Italy). Even if this were not true, there is no disputing the fact that dictionaries in the 1700s and 1800s unhesitatingly define the term zibbibbu as a red grape and therefore, there is no doubt that the word’s meaning has changed only recently. Lastly, it is worth noting that the grape’s history in Pantelleria is proof of this recent change. Apart from its past history, it is useful to consider the present state of things: as if to play a trick on Linnaeus [the father of modern taxonomy] and surely motivated by profit and self-promotion, most of the shopkeepers in Palermo make a clear-cut distinction between zibbibbu and uva: if you use the word uva [i.e., grape] when you ask for zibibbo, the shopkeepers will correct you, perhaps because they suspect you wish to pay less. Thus, we have a case in which the solidarity of the name, meaning, and referent object has been broken in relation to a change in the referent-object as well as in relation to the linguistic articulation of the meaning.

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If I keep up this scholarly Sicilian sleuthing, ya’ll might have to start calling me Dr. Montalbano!

Thanks for reading…

* In Grape Varieties of Italy, Calò, Scienza, and Costacurta list these synonyms for Zibibbo: Zibibbo Bianco, Moscatellone, Moscato di Pantelleria, Salamonica, Salamanna, Seralamanna, Moscato di Alessandria [Muscat d'Alexandrie, Muscat from Alexandria, a reference to its Egyptian origins], Muscat [in French].

** Referent or referent-object is a term used in linguistics to denote “The entity referred to or signified by a word or expression; a thing or person alluded to” (OED). In this case, Varvaro is using a classic triangular model of linguistics, articulating the word itself (the name or signifier), its meaning (the signified), and the actual object to which it refers.

One Response to The origins of Zibibbo (closer reading part 2)

  1. If I may correct Mr. Varvaro, until 20-30 years ago I doubt anyone in Sicily would have called grape as “uva” unless they were talking with someone speaking in Italian. The Sicilian term is “racina”, ultimately from ancient Greek ῥάξ.

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