Bricco, bric: origins of the word and why literature is so important to understanding Italian wine

bricco boschis

Above: A vineyard that produces one of my favorite wines, the Barolo Bricco Boschis by Cavallotto (photo taken in February on our honeymoon). Bricco Boschis means literally the “crag in/of the woods.” Note how the snow has melted at the very top of the crag. As the old (and young) folks in Langa will tell you, the best places to grow Nebbiolo for Barolo and Barbaresco are where the “snow melts first,” an indicator of ideal exposure to sun light.

While I haven’t had much time to work on my Italian Winery Designation Glossary, I did want to post my research on the vineyard designation term bricco and its origins (since so many people have written me asking me about its meaning and usage).

The best translation for the term bricco or bric is crag (“a steep or precipitous rugged rock,” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition), equivalent to the Italian dirupo.

Above: I found this wonderful book at the New York Public Library.

Most etymologic dictionaries point to an unknown origin of the word but, while in NYC, I did find a wonderful (yet forgotten) fascist-era dictionary of Piedmontese dialect that reported the Provençal brich as the etymon.

But my most fascinating discovery was the eureka moment when I found one of the earliest known appearances of the term in print.

According to the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana (the unabridged dictionary of the Italian language), the great 20th-century Piedmontese novelist and poet Cesare Pavese was probably the first to use it in a narrative, his masterwork no less, La luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires), written in 1949 and first published a few months before his suicide in 1950.

Above, from left: Cesare Pavese, Leone Ginzburg, Franco Antonicelli, and Augusto Frassinelli “in the 40s in the Langa hills.” (Source: Panorama.)

Here’s the passage (p. 30):

    fa un sole su questi bricchi, un riverbero di grillaia e di tufi che mi ero dimenticato.

As translated and published by R.W. Flint (a translator I admire greatly) in 2002:

    There’s a sun on these hills, a reflection from the dry soil and volcanic stone, that I’d forgotten.

It’s difficult for me to convey just how pregnant with signficance this line is, especially within the context of Pavese’s masterpiece. (See this synopsis of the novel and translation and profile of Pavese in The New York Review of Books.)

Flint renders an excellent translation of the line, perfectly aligned with the tone of the original and the translation as a whole. I like the way he has delivered grillaia into English: a grillaia is an ironic term that means literally a place where you’ll find only crickets (grilli), in other words, a barren or infertile place.

When the main character of the novel, Anguilla, returns from America after Italy’s Liberation from Fascism (but before the end of the Second World War), he is reminded of the barren nature of these hills — these infertile crags.

Let me offer an alternative, annotated translation:

    A sun beats down on these crags, reflecting off rocks fit only for crickets and the [nutrient-poor] volcanic soil — something I’d forgotten [while I was away in America, an Italian immigrant who fled fascism].

Is it not all the more remarkable that those very crags (bricchi) would ultimately deliver one of the greatest winemaking traditions of post-war Europe — Barolo and Barbaresco?

Post script: When I visited Langa in March 2010 with the Barbera 7, one of the wines that impressed me the most was the Lurëi by Il Falchetto in Santo Stefano Belbo, where Pavese was born in 1908.