The truth about Valpolicella (and other busted myths)

Above: During my graduate years, I spent many hours at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice working on my dissertation on Petrarch and Bembo and early transcriptions of Petrarch’s Italian poems. It’s also where I made an important breakthrough in my inquiry into the origins of Vinsanto and Vin Santo.

A mention of the blog in today’s Boston Globe by wine writer Ellen Bhang prompted more than a few readers to ask me where to find my post on the origins of the toponym (place name) Valpolicella. It follows this note.

Originally posted in 2008, it’s just one of the many myth-busting posts I’ve done over the years. Others include:

it’s unlikely that Sangiovese means sangue di Giove or blood of Jove [Zeus];
it’s impossible that the enonym Aglianico comes from ellenico or Hellenic;
it’s improbable that puttanesca refers to prostitutes or their putative love of the recipe (this is one of the most popular).

Over the years, one of the greatest rewards in blogging has come in the form a platform where I can publish my — often arcane — research.

One of the posts of which I am most proud is the one devoted to my research on the history of Vin Santo, which originated in the Veneto and not in Tuscany, as many erroneously believe.

It was part of my investigation of the origins of Vinsanto from Santorini, Greece, and how the two wines are related.

It means so much to me that people find my work useful. And I’d like to believe that my oenophilology helps to give wine lovers a greater and richer understanding of the wines they taste. For me, wine and its history are epistemologic tools that give us unique insight into Italian historiography and western civilization.

So please help spread the logos!

My post on the true meaning the toponym Valpolicella follows… Thanks for reading and sharing.


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.

5 thoughts on “The truth about Valpolicella (and other busted myths)

  1. Pingback: Extraordinary dinner @CaracolHou (best restaurant in Houston?) TY @SeanForLBW | Barone Pizzini – Pievalta

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