Montepulciano: Italian grape name and appellation pronunciation project


Above: Alfonso’s video camera captured winemaker Stefano Illuminati (of the Dino Illuminati winery, Abruzzo) speaking “Montepulciano” at Vinitaly a few weeks ago.

If Merlot (mehr-LOH) is the easiest European grape name for Anglophone consumers to pronounce (and is consequently America’s favorite variety), then Montepulciano (MOH-te-pool-CHEE’AH-noh) is the most confusing and one of the most challenging.

The last time you were on a date and you wanted to impress your dinner companion, did you impress him/her by ordering the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (VEE-noh NOH-bee-leh dee MOHN-teh-pool-CHEE’AH-noh)? Or perhaps you eloquently illustrated how Montepulciano is at once a place name (the name of a township in Tuscany where Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is produced) and a grape name (the name of a variety grown and vinified primarily in Abruzzo but also elsewhere in Central Italy)?

I know that you didn’t order the Merlot!

Above: Dino Illuminati, Stefano’s father and the winery’s namesake, is one of the wonderful avuncular characters of the Italian wine world — larger than life and always bursting with life and energy. His 1998 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo blew me away when I tasted it a few months ago in Chicago (photo by Alfonso, Verona, April 2011).

The bivalence of the topo- and ampelonym Montepulciano often leads complacent wine directors to include bottlings of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in their “Tuscany” and “Sangiovese” sections. This oversight often tragically eclipses the many wonderful expressions of Montepulciano that come from Abruzzo (anyone who has ever tasted the 1979 Montepulciano by Emidio Pepe knows just how incredible these wines can be!).

Do Bianchi isn’t exactly the blogosphere’s leading resource for dating advice. But, then again, Tracie P probably wouldn’t have given me the time of day if I didn’t know the difference between my Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and my Vino Nobile di Montepulciano!

The Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project got a greatly appreciated shoutout from Eric the Red last week on the Times dining blog. Thanks again, Eric! Remember: friends don’t let friends pronounce Italian grape names and appellations incorrectly! ;-)

Easter greetings from Montalcino and the etymology of Easter

Above: I just couldn’t resist reposting this photo sent from our friends Laura and Marco at Il Palazzone in Montalcino.

In English today, we use the name Easter to denote the springtime Christian holiday and festival, from “Eostre (Northumbrian spelling of Éastre),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), “the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.”

In nearly every other Western language, however, we use a name that corresponds to the name of the Jewish festival of the Passover: “Greek πασχά, Hebrew pésaḥ [pesach], Latin pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Dutch pask,” write the editors of the OED.

Until the late nineteenth century, Anglophones also commonly used the name pasch to denote the Easter feast (as in the expression the paschal lamb): from the “Aramaic pisḥā Passover fesival, Passover sacrifice, Passover meal (emphatic form of pasaḥ [meaning] to pass over; compare Syriac peṣḥā Passover, Easter, Hebrew pesaḥ Passover).”

What does passing over have to do with it all?

“The festival is named after the Lord’s ‘passing over’ the houses of the People of Israel, whose doorposts were marked with the blood of a lamb, while the Egyptians were punished with the death of their firstborn (Exodus 11–12).”

Buona pasqua, happy Easter, kalo pascha (Greek), ya’ll! :-)

Dorona, a lagoonal wine (aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia)

Above: The Bisol family is growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, on the island of Mazzorbo, adjacent to the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon.

When Matteo Bisol passed through Austin the other day (and graciously posed and uttered grape and appellation names for my camera), he brought news of his family’s newest project: Venissa a cloistered vineyard and high-concept restaurant and agriturismo on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian lagoon (above).

For a few years now, the family has been growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, a grape traditionally and historically cultivated in the Venetian lagoon for the production of urban — and in this case, lagoonal — wine (if you’re wondering how to pronounce the ampelonym Garganega, btw, you’ll find the pronunciation here).

Above: I wrote to Matteo’s publicist, who was kind enough to share this photo of Dorona. The ampelonym probably refers to the golden color of the berries.

Being a consummate Venetophile, I am entirely geeked to taste the wine (which will be released for the first time next year) but in the meantime I would like to make a clarification regarding the name of the estate and the project, Venissa.

Venissa is not an ancient name of Venice or the Venetian lagoon, as many complacent readers of press releases have erroneously claimed.

In fact, Venissa is an erudite paronomasia from one of the greatest works of dialectal poetry by one of the greatest poets of our lifetime, Andrea Zanzotto (from Pieve di Soligo, one of my favorite places on earth).

Above: The Veneto poet Andrea Zanzotto. Photo via Engeler.

It’s actually the name of a mythical figure from antiquity, a fictional daughter of the Roman emperor Claudius.

The name appears in Zanotto’s poem in Veneto dialect, “Filò,” composed for Fellini’s 1976 Casanova.

It is the second name in the triad aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia, where Venice (Venezia) is likened to a temptress or evil woman:

    Eyes of a snake, eyes of a queen,
    head of fire that inflames the ice,
    we beg you: burst loose, break free,
    we implore you, everything implores you;
    show yourself above, rise up,
    let’s all pull together, you and us

    ah Venice ah Venissa ah Venùsia

Venùsia is the ancient name of modern-day Venosa, a city supposedly so-called because it was dedicated to Venus by its founder Diomedes.

(Here’s a link to a preview of the excellent translation of Filò, where the lines appear in the Veneto, Italian, and English. And here’s a link to some background on this work and its significance in the canon of dialectal poetry.)

With these lines, the poet partly alludes to Venice’s place in history as Western Civilization’s capital of prostitution.

I could go on and on (aàh Venissa, if only my professional life were devoted to poetry instead of wine!). But I’ll close this post and clarification with a wonderful passage that I found in a nineteenth century dictionary of Veneto dialect, in the entry for the word filò, which denotes an all-night gathering of women who stitch and sew as they gossip.

    Queste le xe cosse da contàr al filò!

    These are things [only suited] to be told at a sewing vigil!

Aglianico: Grape Name Pronunciation Project


Since I launched the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project one month ago today, the most requested ampelonym has been Aglianico.

The grape name poses a challenge for non-Italophones because of the phoneme gli (in Aglianico).

In Italian, the sound that corresponds to gli is what is called a palatal lateral approximant (click the link for the Wiki page) and is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet by the following symbol:


For the video, I have rendered the grape name as follows:


Italian speakers will note that Bruno — the nicest dude, one of my favorite growers of Aglianico, and a native of Campania where Aglianico is used to make some of the region’s and Italy’s most noble wines — pronounces gli with a softer inflection than his counterparts in the North of Italy, where a five- as opposed to seven-vowel system makes the i in gli more closed (more nasal).

Thanks for reading and speaking (and drinking) Italian grapes!

Sicilian Grapes: Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project


Of all the Italian winemakers I know of (personally or virtually), Marilena Barbera is probably the most active on social media. When I asked people to contribute to the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project, she was among the first to submit recordings. Here are her recordings of some Italian grape names. Thanks for reading, listening, and “speaking” Italian grape names! :-)

Scenes from Boondocks Road, life on the bayou

Sometimes on the highway of life, there are certain roads you just have to go down…

Driving back from East Texas yesterday, Tracie P and I decided on a whim to find out what lay at the end of Boondocks Road. Yes, Boondocks Road.

A sign told us about Leon’s Fish Camp. But we knew there had to be more to the story.

What we found was a beautiful bayou and friendly people who waved and smiled at us.

Because of the flooding that hurricane season inevitably brings, the houses are on stilts and many are connected to Boondocks Road by bridges.

The extreme weather of East Texas will most certainly put the fear of G-d in you.

Of course, everywhere you go in Texas, folks are proud of their state.

Until recently, as I discovered this morning on the internets, Boondocks Road was called Jap Road. The road had been named to honor early-twentieth century Japanese settlers who had taught their neighbors how to farm rice on the bayou. Today, rice is the predominant agricultural crop of this area. The locals greatly appreciated and recognized Yoshio Mayumi for what he had done for their community. But he and his family were forced to leave between the two world wars when the U.S. government forbade foreigners from owning land in our country (the 1924 Immigration Act; sound familiar?). Jap was not a racial slur at the time and was a commonly accepted abbreviation for Japanese (the historical entries in the Oxford English Dictionary provide hard evidence of this). In 2004, after more than ten years of lobbying, local activists were successful in their campaign to rename the road. The road’s residents chose Boondocks, after a catfish restaurant that had once operated there. (You can find all of this in the Wiki entry, including references to articles in the Christian Science Monitor and on the CNN website.)

Another hour down the highway of life, Tracie P had lox and latkes and I had white fish salad at our favorite Houston deli, Ziggy’s. Cousins Joanne and Marty and Aunt Holly and uncle Terry and cousin Grant joined. The white fish was delicious.

I’m glad they changed the name of Jap Road. But I wish they would have renamed it Mayumi Road, to remember the farm and the people that reshaped the agricultural landscape of East Texas in a more innocent and more earnest time.

But, then again, if it weren’t called Boondocks Road, we probably wouldn’t have felt the irresistible urge to go down it.

BTW, with this post, I’ve added a new category to Do Bianchi: de rebus texanis. Buona domenica ya’ll!

Lady kisser Pelaverga aphrodisiacal wine for an East Texas Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving yesterday in Orange, Texas with Branch and Johnson and now Parzen families. Mrs. B’s roast turkey; smoked turkey; spiral sliced ham with pineapple, brown sugar, and Coke; Uncle Tim’s cornbread dressing; Memaw’s deviled eggs; sweet potato pie, mashed potatoes; eight-layer salad; Tracie P’s shaved Brussels sprouts salad; pecan torte; and lots more. I wanted to share this story about my favorite wine pairing for this year, Pelaverga by Castello di Verduno, and the somewhat saucy story behind the name. For those with PG13+ status, read on…

The year was 2006 and I was working in New York as the media director for a high-profile Italian restaurant group that also happened to be a direct importer of Italian wines. Earlier that year, I had made the annual trek with my colleagues to the Italian wine fairs, where we met and tasted with a young winemaker at the natural wine fair, Vini Veri: Mario Andrion of Castello di Verduno, producer of awesome Barolo and Barbaresco and a then relatively obscure grape called Pelaverga. I’ve always loved Mario’s traditional-style wines (like his excellent Barbaresco) but all of my colleagues and I agreed that his Pelaverga Basadone was one of the most original wines we’d tasted that year: light in body, bright with acidity, and rich with fresh red fruit flavors, complemented by a gentle “white pepper” note. Later that year, a prominent colleague asked me what my Thanksgiving pick was and I whispered, Pelaverga, the perfect wine to go with wide variety of foods we eat for the holiday, from roast turkey to cranberry sauce.

Don’t ask me how but this vital piece of information was somehow whispered into the ear of the then New York Times restaurant editor Frank Bruni (remember him?). The rest is history: when he picked this wine as his top choice for Thanksgiving 2006, it made Mario’s Pelaverga a household word (at least in Manhattan).

And it’s a highly interesting word at that! No one knows the true origin of the grape name but on face value it means branch scraper, from the Italian pelare (to peel) and verga (branch). Most believe the name has to do with vine training techniques that were used to cultivate this rustic grape.

Of course, verga (and those of you who speak Spanish will immediately see the linguistic kinship) can also denote the… ahem… the male sex. Back in Verduno (Piedmont), the locals say this spicy grape has aphrodisiacal properties and that’s why Castello di Verduno calls it Basadone, the baciadonne or lady kisser.

Tracie P and I hope you had a great holiday! Thanks for reading!

The earliest mention of Vin Santo in print? Maffei, Verona, 1732

Above: I’m borrowing images of grapes recently picked and laid out to dry for Vin Santo from my friends at Il Poggione.

For those of you who have been following my research into the origins of the enonyms Vinsanto (Santorini, Greece) and Vin Santo (Italy), I hope that you will find my most recent discoveries as interesting and exciting as I do.

The first comes from Francesco Scipione Maffei’s history of Verona, Verona Illustrata (parte prima) (Verona, Jacopo Vallarsi e Pierantonio Berno, 1732).

N.B.: for brevity’s sake, I’ve refrained from glossing the historical figures mentioned here. Where possible, I’ve included relevant links. On another occasion, I’ll translate more from Maffei’s wonderful book.

In discussing the historically significant agricultural products of greater Verona, Maffei devotes ample space to the wines, citing mentions in Cassiodorus and in various Roman decrees. Two wines, he writes, were highly coveted by the Romans: one white and one red. He translates (into Italian) Cassidorus’s description of a vinification process for a wine that resembles today’s Recioto di Soave (no surprise here). But a discrepancy in the nomenclature leads him to make the following observation:

    But perhaps [the wine described below] had another name in antiquity, because Pliny omits it. And it seems that [Roman jurist] Ulpian meant something else when he referred to Acinaticum or Acineum in a law.

    Select grapes are stored until December. They are then gently pressed in the great cold [of winter]. The must is stored for a long while without starting fermentation and before laying a hand on it or drinking it.

    [Ancient documents] show that this wine, although red and not white, was the very same wine that we praise today by calling it Santo [holy].

    It is also produced in greater Brescia, from here to the Chiesi river.

    [translation mine]

I believe that this may be the earliest known reference to “Vin Santo” in print (1732). Whether it is or not, it demonstrates that the citizens of the Venetian Republic produced a wine known popularly as “[Vin] Santo.” The fact that it’s mentioned in 1732 reveals that it was popular long before then.

Above: The grapes are laid out to dry on mats called cannicci in Italian.

The second fascinating discovery comes in the form of La teoria e la pratica della Viticultura e della enologia [Theory and Practice of Viticulture and Enology] by Egidio Pollacci (Milano, Fatelli Dumolard, 1883). I’ll let the text speak for itself:

    Vin-santo. — The grapes used to make this wine vary from place to place because the same grape varieties, when cultivated in different regions, naturally deliver fruit of varying character. As a result, grapes good for Vin-santo in one place are difficult to use in other places. In Tuscany, for example, the grapes best suited for Vin-santo are Tribbiano [sic], Canaiolo bianco, and San Colombano. (1)

    (1) Vin-santo di Caluso, which is famous especially in Piedmont, is prepared using grape varieties known locally as Erbaluce and Bonarda. But in other parts of Piedmont, other grapes are used. …

    [translation mine]

In other texts I’ve uncovered, there is clear evidence that the production of Vin Santo was wildly popular in Tuscany by the end of the 19th century. The fact that Pollacci uses Tuscany as an example is indicative of this phenomenon. But what’s important here is the fact that he describes how different grapes are used in different regions, thus revealing that Vin Santo was popular in other parts of Italy as well. The production of Vin Santo in Piedmont was evidently significant enough in the late 19th century that Pollacci (who was from Pistoia) felt compelled to mention it here.


Above: Specially sized oak casks, called caratelli, are used for the long-term aging of Vin Santo.

I wish I had more time to devote to the many interesting texts I’ve “unearthed” recently and Maffei alone would merit his own monographic blog! Alas, it’s time to pay some bills around here… More later… and THANKS SO MUCH FOR READING!

BREAKTHROUGH in my Vinsanto vs Vin Santo research!

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 Italian poems.

Between the two working legs of my recent trip to Italy, I had just two days free over a weekend, when I could do whatever I wanted to do. What did I do? I went to a library, of course! And not just any library: I spent a truly sinful and decadently fulfilling morning of quiet study in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice (that’s the entrance above), one of my favorite places in the world (where I conducted much of my research for my doctoral thesis back in the day).

In all honesty, I didn’t find what I was looking for that day but I did find a few clues that led me to what I believe is definitive proof that the Greek wine Vinsanto gets its name not from the Vin Santo of Italy but rather from the toponym Santorini, the island where it is made. (Here’s the link to my original post on the origins of the two enonyms.)

Above: My beloved Petrarch (1304-1374, subject of my doctoral thesis) bequeathed his library to the Biblioteca Marciana (named after the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark). A bust of Petrarch surveys the main reading room.

My research that day led me to the discovery of a fascinating 19th-century journal entitled, New Remedies, an illustrated monthly trade journal of Materia Medica, Pharmacy and Therpeutics (New York, William Wood, 1880).

In it (volume 9, page 6), I found the following passage (boldface mine):

    Greek Wines.

    Greece, and particularly the islands of the Archipelago, produce a great variety of excellent wines, which have lately attracted the attention of eminent therapeutists in Europe. The most favored island is Santorino, the ancient Thera or Kalliste, being the most southern island of the group of the Cyclades, and belonging to Greece. A variety of wines are produced there, both red and white. The best red wine is called Santorin (or Santo, Vino di Baccho), representing a dry fine-tasting claret, with an approach to port. Another fine (white) wine is called Vino di Notte (night wine). There are two varieties of this, one named Kalliste, being stronger and richer; the other, called Elia, somewhat weaker, but both possessing a fine bouquet and equal to the best French wines, particularly for table use. The “king” of Greek wines, however, is the Vino santo, likewise produced in Santorino, occurring in two varieties: dark-red and amber colored. This wine is sweet, rich, very dry, and has a strong stimulating aroma.

Note how the author (Xaver Landerer, a professor of botany at Athens) refers to a wine called “Santo” and he refers to the island as “Santorino” (and not Santorini). Note also how he calls the sweet wine “Vino Santo” and not Vinsanto or Vin Santo (where the o of vino has been naturally elided by the inherent system of Italian prosody).

Together with the above document, I found numerous others from the same era that refer to a “Vino Santo” or “Santo” from “Santorino,” the common name for Santorini in the late 19th century.

I also discovered the following information, which I have translated from the Italian, from the “Summary of previously unreported statistics from the Island of Santorino, sent to the Royal Academy of Science of Turin by Count Giuseppe de Cigalla,” published in the Memorie della Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino (proceedings of the Royal Academy of Turin, serie 2, tomo 7, Torino, Stamperia Reale, 1845).

    Vineyards produce the [island’s] principal crops, with more than 50 varieties of known vine types. [68]

    [In 1841 Santorini produced] Vino santo 2,350 barrels, 1,922 hectoliters, value 63,168 Italian lire [68]

    The only product exported from Santorino worth mention is wine. The quanity exported in 73,120 barrels (59,797 hectoliters) was nearly in 1841 but it generally does not exceed on average 45-50,000 barrels per year (from 36 to 40 thousand hectoliters), correspondent to the amount of consumed in Russia. [70]

Evidently, Vinsanto from Santorini was widely popular in Russia, where it was consumed as a tonic (I found other texts that spoke of the wine’s popularity in Russia).

Above: My good friend and college roommate Steve Muench accompanied me that day and took this photo. A good Texan cowboy hat comes in handy in the Venetian rain!

Why do I do this? And why do I travel to Venice from Padua on a rainy Saturday morning only to spend 3 hours inside a library? As my friend Andy P likes to say, I am a self-proclaimed lover of Italian wine and a moonlighting Italian wine historiographer.

Even better news (for Italian wine geeks out there): I have also discovered what may be the earliest document (early 1700s) to make reference to Italian Vin Santo and the process employed to produce it. Ultimately, I believe that Vin Santo has its origins in the Veneto rather than Tuscany and you’ll see why when I post my findings later this week…

If you made this far into the post, thanks for reading! Stay tuned…

The salumi bar phenom: Roscioli, Rome

Dino Paolini, truffle “pusher,” stopped by the famous Forno Roscioli while I was there for a late lunch yesterday in Rome.

Although an ancient Roman instituion, Roscioli is part of a new and growing trend of “salumi bars” in major Italian cities, where a wine bar experience is enhanced by a focus on extreme cheese and charcuterie selections.

The cheese and salumi sampler featured pecorino from Etna infused with saffron and mortadella studded with black truffles. See what I mean by extreme? (More on the Roman love affair with mortadella later today if I have time.)

The prices were extreme, too, and the attitude precious.

I was happy to get to drink at least one locally produced wine on its by-the-glass list (the only one), Cesanese del Piglio by Casale della Ioria, one of my favorite producers. In the hour or so that I was there, I heard retail customers ask for “heavily barriqued Merlot” (a Friulian man), “Ca’ Marcanda” (German tourists), and “Hofstätter” (a Venetian or otherwise Veneta lady, couldn’t quite place the exact cadence).

In other news…

Please indulge me by checking out this photo, of which I am extremely proud, snapped yesterday at the amazing E.U.R. of Rome.

I thoroughly enjoyed my walking tour of the neighborhood (my first time there). James Taylor takes the prize for best pun, Sounds like EUR having a good time…

Thanks for reading, everyone, and for all the great comments… Please stay tuned… The next leg of the trip is going to be a whopper…