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.

Donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi (observations on the Brunello debate part II)

Above: “harvesters” in a photo taken in Langa, date unknown, but I am guessing sometime between the two world wars (images courtesy Fontanafredda).

There’s a saying in Italian, donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Literally translated, it means women and oxen from your own village or [choose] women and oxen from your hometown.

Paesi tuoi is also the title of Cesare Pavese’s dark novel set against the rural backdrop of Langa (Piedmont)* in the years that preceded the second world war. The story centers around Berto and Talino, who travel to Talino’s village (paese in Italian) after they are released from prison. Berto falls in love with Talino’s sister Gisella. In a fit of jealous rage, Talino kills Gisella with a pitchfork. Her tragic death is a metaphor for the changing face of rural Italy during the country’s industrialization under fascism. Berto is a factory worker from a big city and his presence in the country seems to unleash an otherwise contained and tolerated depravity. He is repulsed by the atrocity he witnesses and flees. Pavese’s unforgiving realism is one of the greatest examples of 20th-century Italian (and European) narrative.

Renowned Italian enologist Ezio Rivella was born in Asti (in Langa) in 1933 and was 8 years old when Pavese’s novel was published in 1941 (it was translated as The Harvesters in 1961).

As Rivella and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano sparred during the Brunello debate on Friday, October 6, Rivella repeatedly interrupted his interlocutor, admonishing him: “I knew your grandfather very well, Cappellano. And the wines he made were very different from the wines you make today.” Cappellano is one of Italy’s greatest defenders of traditionalist winemaking and is one of the founders of the Vini Veri or Real Wines movement. (Teobaldo doesn’t have a website, but Dressner did this solid profile in English.)

No one would deny that the traditions of winemaking in Italy have changed dramatically since the second world war and radically since the 1970s. Rivella pointed out that in Teobaldo’s grandfather’s day, Nebbiolo was regularly placed in the solaio or loft to “cook” the wine and accelerate its aging — a practice unimaginable today for those who produce fine wine.

“What is tradition and where does it begin?” asked moderator Dino Cutolo, a professor of agricultural anthropology, citing The Invention of Tradition by EJ Hobsbawm and TO Ranger (1983). In farming communities, tradition is shaped by necessity not by cultural self-awareness, Cutolo noted.

Countering Rivella’s claim that commerce should trump tradition in Brunello, Cappellano pointed out that the DOC system was put into place to protect not the winemakers but rather “the territory.” The spirit of the legislation was that of ensuring that artisanal winemakers would not be swept away by the Goliaths like Rivella’s Banfi. And he argued that “provincialism” in winemaking — viewed as a positive element, in opposition to globalization — is the very element that sets Italian wines apart from those produced elsewhere. “We shouldn’t make wines that everyone likes,” said Cappellano, “we need to make wines enjoyed by those who know the wines.”

As I watched the debate that Friday, I thought of how my friend Alice Feiring dealt with the concept of “tradition” in her excellent book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. “When I explored this New World wine vs. Old World another theme kept on coming up,” she writes, “and that was the confusion surrounding the word tradition. There were so many meanings. Who knew? Some … were able to use it as a weapon, as a synonym for poorly made wine, for wine that turned into vinegar. Now, what did traditional wine making mean to me? I wasn’t sure. I needed to find a new way to identify wines I liked. Perhaps I was using the word traditional when I meant ‘authentic.'”

We can debate the nature of tradition and authenticity until we’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain: the authenticity of place will disappear if Brunello appellation regulations are changed to allow for the blending of international grape varieties. The laws were created not to help Goliaths make money, but rather to ensure that the Davids would continue to express the authenticity of place.

Paesi tuoi… in the triangle of [mimetic] desire, industrial Banfi was the Berto, the “other” who upset the balance of rural life in Montalcino. In doing so, introduced the capitalist notion of progress (read greed) that has sullied the landscape of the once pristine Orcia River Valley where Brunello di Montalcino is made.

In other news…

Tracie B. told me not to bother watching the 60 Minutes advertorial devoted to the Antinori family last night. But I did enjoy Strappo’s post-game wrap-up. What happened to CBS hard-hitting journalism? Edward Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.

* Sometimes referred to has “the Langhe” or “the Langhe Hills,” Langa is home to Barolo and Barbaresco and is one of Italy’s greatest enogastronmic destinations.