Barbera, the origin of the grape name (a philologist’s perspective)

Above: An early 16th century medical manual lists barberry lozenges as a commonly used cure.

In today’s world of hypercorrective ampelography, it’s hard to believe that people didn’t used to care as much about grape names as we do in the contemporary age.

Writers on agriculture didn’t began to record grape variety names on a wide scale until the latter half of the 19th century. And even those early modern ampelographers couldn’t rival today’s giddy obsessions with the etymologies of grape names.

Contemporary wine writers can’t seem to resist the urge to dip their toes in the etymological waters. And despite their access to Google Books and the growing legions of searchable encyclopedic resources available online, they continue to wax philologic (and errouneous) over the origins of ampelonyms like Sangiovese and Aglianico (even though the former doesn’t mean “the blood of Jove,” nor is the latter a cognate for Hellenic).

But in the case of Barbera, Hermes generously let the experts off the hook: Most concede that the origin of this grape name, which didn’t begin to appear in print until the 18th century, is unknown.

Ian D’Agata sums up the current state of Barbera philology in his landmark work Native Grapes of Italy (which I highly recommend to you).

    The origin of its name is unclear; Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti feels it’s a derivation of barbaro (barbarian) due to its deep red color, while others believe the origin is vinum berberis, an astringent, acidic, and deeply hued medieval drink. Vinum berberis is different from the vitibus berbexinis referred to in a 1249 document located in the archives of Casale Monferrato, which was most likely another variety, Barbesino or Berbesino, better known today as Grignolino.

For the record, vinum berberis was a barberry elixir. And medicinal barberry extract was more commonly applied on a lozenge (a troche, in English, trochiscus in Latin) than in a vinum or wine.

Even when we turn to a more authoritative source, our grand desire to uncover Barbera’s origin story remains unfulfilled.

The Treccani Italian dictionary (a benchmark of the Italian academy) offers two possible etyma.

The first is the Latin grape name albuelis, notably mentioned in Columella and Pliny. It’s a linguistic stretch, however possible (Barbera could be a metathetical reduplicative contamination).

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Barbera d’Asti growers association…

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