Orange was the most highly prized wine in the Italian Renaissance. I can prove it.

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Above: last night, Tracie and I treated ourselves to one of our favorite macerated white wines from Friuli, the Vitovska by Skerlj. I’m now more convinced than ever that the most highly prized wines in the Italian Renaissance were “orange” like this one.

It hit me like a brick of bio char: vin greco (Greek wine) in the Renaissance was neither red or white according to a then best-selling author. It was golden brown, like a lion’s mane noted Cesare Crivellati, a medical doctor and wine writer from Viterbo whose Trattato dell’uso et modo di dare il vino nelle malattie acute, contra il costume de nostri tempi (Treatise on the Use and Mode of Treating Acute Illness with Wine, [a Guide] Counter to the Customs of our Time) was published in Rome in the second half of the 1500s.

On white wines that are not quite “white” but definitely not “red” he writes, “si deve intendere di colore fulvo o flavo come è quello della malvasia, del greco, e simili.”

“They should be considered fulvous or flavous in color, as is the case with Malvasia and Greco and similar [wines].”

The descriptor fulvo is from the Latin fulvus (fulvous in English), a term generally translated as “deep yellow, reddish yellow, gold-colored, tawny” (Lewis and Short).

Similarly, flavo from the Latin flavus meaning “golden yellow, reddish yellow, flaxen-colored” (Lewis and Short).

The word fulvus was used in antiquity to denote the color of a lion’s mane, to put it in context.

The discovery was part of my ongoing research on wines in Italian literature from 1300-1600. In and of itself, the quote is highly significant in our contemporary understanding of wine during the late Italian Middle Ages and Renaissance.

But there’s also an extremely important observation to be made here based on my extensive readings of primary texts from that era.

At the time, the term vin greco (Greek wine) referred not to the modern-era grape variety Greco or family of white grapes known as Greco, Grechetto, Grecanico, etc. Instead, it denoted a style of wine that often arrived by ship via Greece but was also produced in significant quantities, particularly in Naples where it was famously grown and vinified on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.

Above: a folio from Itinerarium regionum urbium et oppidum nobiliorum Italiae (Itineraries Through the Noble Regions, Cities, and Towns of Italy), a travel log published by Flemish jurist Franz Schott on the occasion of the 1600 Jubilee declared by Pope Clement VIII.

By 1600, when Franz Schott (1548-1622) published his travel guide to Italy (above), Rome was already an important “wine destination,” as we would call it today. And the number-one wine in Rome, as Schott notes, was vino greco (see the image above):

“The Romans and the entire [Papal] court,” he writes, “indisputably drink the best wines [in Italy]. They are as follows. The best is white in color, Vino Greco from Somma, which is grown in the town of Vesuvius in Campania…”

He calls it white. But as noted in the Crivellati quote above, it was common to call tawny-colored wines “white” at the time. The confusion about tawny wines like Malvasia (a style, not a grape) and Vin greco (again, a style, not a grape) was such that Crivellati felt compelled to address it.

So the fact that Schott calls it albus doesn’t mean it wasn’t fulvus.

A few decades later, Francesco Redi, the Italian scientist and poet, would refer to the “amber” color of wines made in Crete (in Greece) and the Neapolitan coast and islands, not far from Vesuvius.

In his poem “Bacco in Toscana” (“Bacchus in Tuscany”), he refers to the “preziosa… ambra liquida cretense” (“precious amber liquid from Crete”) and in another instance, to the “noble wines” of [the island of] Ischia and the town of Posilippo on the Gulf of Naples.

The last however extremely important piece of evidence that leads me to believe that vin greco was an orange wine comes from the Trattato della coltivazione delle viti (Treatise on the Cultivation of Vines) composed at the end of the 1500s by Giovanvettorio Soderini (see one of my posts on Soderini here). In his work, he describes a practice of vinifying wines on the solids from previously vinified vin greco. This would seem to indicate that vin greco was made by fermenting the must on its skins. As any observer of the contemporary Italian wine scene knows, orange wine gets its amber color through the fermentation of white grapes on their skins.

My research is part of a bigger project slated for academic publication on the literary implications of wine in Boccaccio. As I publish more of my work, it will become clear that vin greco and wine in general play a greater role in the Decameron than previous scholars have imagined.

I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed putting it together! More to come… Thanks for being here.


One thought on “Orange was the most highly prized wine in the Italian Renaissance. I can prove it.

  1. Dear Jeremy, First off, my belated thanks for asking me and Rick to come to your presentation. We both had a terrific time. I had never thought much about the color of white wine and you are absolutely correct that they would have had some color. The Italian reaction to this was the production in the 60s-80s of water white, white wines hat had been stripped of color. Decolorizing carbon does a wonderful job, and also removes flavor. Plus the exaggerated use of stainless gave rise to wines whiout color. They would have been considered oxidized and no one wanted that. They probably were not as exaggerated as “orange” wines are today, but yes, colored. Dorati, ramati and other such colors. It would have been normal. But how often we tend to look at history through modern eyes. Wasn’t it ever that what we see now like what it always was? White wines probably had more flavor in the old days also. There was less technology to remove both color and flavor. Keep your history coming.D I

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