Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz, Ecco [HarperCollins], London-New York, 2012) is an oenographic watershed, an unrivaled ampelographic achievement.
And it’s also an expression of the Zeitgeist.
One of the more stunning contributions of Robinson’s new book is the authors’ impressive scholarly approach to the origins of grape names.
We, the oeno-aware, are part of a generation that pays more attention to ampelonyms (grape names) than any that came before us.
Here on my blog, as I have tried to debunk the many erroneous folk etymologies for Italian grape names that appear over and over in wine books, wine journalism, and wine blogging (e.g., Sangiovese and Aglianico, among many others).
Most of these folk etymologies can be attributed to spotty scholarship and the lack of interest in ampelography beyond the world of viticulture.
The bottom line is that until our generation, the wine world — grape growers, winemakers and bottlers, and ampelographers — weren’t particularly interested in the origins of grape names.
But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the why and where of grape names.
As Nietzsche wrote (particularly in The Twilight of the Idols), human nature drives us to attribute meaning to every sign around us (he was a precursor to post-Modernism in this regard). We are compelled to align the signified and the signifier. We need to understand why things have their names. This is one of the reasons that we find so much pleasure in etymology, even when faced with the hard fact that etymology and philology are intrinsically inexact science.
As wine has played an increasingly important role in popular culture, our interest in the origins of grape names has grown accordingly.
I have been particularly impressed with the Wine Grapes entry for “Prosecco” (pp. 853-854).
Here’s an excerpt of what the editors, who do not refrain from editorializing, have to say:
Prosecco, “[t]he dominant, rather neutral grape for Prosecco sparkling wine, probably Istrian,” they write in the entry’s subtitle. “Misleadingly renamed Glera for commercially protective reasons.”
- As part of the promotion of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene to DOCG status and the enlargement of the Prosecco DOC zone in 2009, the Prosecco Consorzio set in motion an official name change so that this principal grape variety is known as Glera, its supposed Friulian synonym, and Prosecco is reserved for the designation of origin, effectively preventing producers from other regions or countries taking advantage of the name Prosecco to designate any old sparkling wine…
This amendment is both confusing and misleading: Glera is a generic name applied to several distinct varieties in the province of Trieste, and recent studies have shown that Glera in fact usually refers to Prosecco Lungo and much less frequently to Prosecco (Tondo) and other local varieties from the Karst region such as Vitovska, or the non-cultivated Aghedone and Mocula.
“The name ‘Glera’ is horrible,” he told me, “But…”