Negro Amaro, false friends, and folkloric etymologies

April 22, 2009

Above: Paolo Cantele and I poured wine and spoke at an Italian wine dinner last night at Jimmy’s in Dallas, where Paolo’s wines were featured. I highly recommend Paolo’s wines and Jimmy’s for its Italian wine and Italian food selections.

For the last few days, I’ve been “riding” with Paolo Cantele (center) of the Cantele winery (Apulia) in Austin and Dallas. Every once in a while, the wine trade brings you in contact with folks you genuinely enjoy hanging out with. Beyond his wines (which are fantastic, btw, and very well priced; his family’s Fiano, Rosato, and Salice Salentino are my favorites), we discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dario Fo and Pasolini, and he told me the funniest story about meeting Ninetto Davoli in New York in a food shop last week. (Paolo bears a striking resemblance to actors Gary Oldman and Edoardo Ballerini, the latter, a good friend of mine.)

One of the more interesting conversations that came up, was the origin of the grape name Negro Amaro. If you’ve followed my blog, you most likely have seen one of my posts where I marry my interest in philology with my passion for ampelography — the latter meaning, literally, the writing of grapes. (Check out my posts on Aglianico and Valpolicella, where I conjugate my love for philology and toponymy.)

Many believe that the origin of the grape name Negro Amaro derives from its literal meaning in contemporary Italian, black bitter.

While Calò, Scienza, and Costacurta (Vitigni d’Italia or Grape Varieties of Italy, Calderini, Bologna, 2006) concede that the origin of the name is unknown, they point the dialectal binomial niuru maru “due to the black coloring of the berries and its rich tannins which impart a bitter flavor to the wine or perhaps nero-mavro which could back [the theory that its name derives from] the black character of its skin” (p. 590).

Partisans of the nero-mavro camp believe that the name comes the Latin niger (black) and Greek mavros (black). The idea would be that the grape was named in Latin and Greek because of confluence of Greek and Roman culture in Salento (at the very tip of the heel of the Italian boot, at the top of the Mediterranean basin).

It’s important to note that mavros meant Moor in ancient Greek and that it denoted an inhabitant of North Africa and/or his language. As in other romance languages, moro in Italian ultimately came to denote the color black (probably by the 16th century, when many modern forms of grape names took shape in Italian).

But Paolo introduced a theory that I’d never heard before: that the binomial niger mavros could be due to the fact that Salento was a cross roads between the Byzantine (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latinate-speaking) empires.

The names of many grapes are early forms of wine marketing. For example, Primitivo (which was not cultivated until the modern era in Italy) is so-named because it is early-ripening (primitivus means simply early and was used to denote “first-fruits” in Latin). It’s likely that it was given that name by someone who wanted to encourage its use (i.e., this is a good grape because it ripens early, and hence, you will be able to harvest early avoiding potential bad weather during the later months of fall).

I don’t believe we’ve solved the conundrum of Negro Amaro’s etymon but I do think that its origins could lie in the fact that in antiquity it was cultivated in a place where Greek was the koiné or common language, adopted by all for expediency sake.

I have always thought that black bitter was what we call in linguistics a “false friend,” i.e., a reading based superficially on the immediately apparent meaning of word (for example, magazzino does not mean magazine in Italian in the sense of publication or weekly; it denotes a warehouse or store of military provisions). Why would anyone call a grape bitter? Historically, names were given to grapes for pneumonic or commercial value and not to encourage people not to grow them or consume them. My philological sensibility tells me that black bitter is a folkloric etymology and that the dialectal phrase noted by Calò et alia probably comes from a superficial reading of the grape name.

Either way, I’m happy to have found in Paolo a true friend and interlocutor.

Carissime Paule vale!

A propos good friends, Paolo and I have a good friend in common, Filena Ruppi, who produces a fantastic Aglianico del Vulture together with her husband Donato d’Angelo (for whom the winery is named). I caught up with Filena at Vinitaly, where she posed for my camera with her husband and an image of Mt. Vulture in the backdrop. Their Valle del Noce is one of my favorite expressions of Aglianico.


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