A year in Southern Italian wine and the unknown etymology of Puglia

Above: The Salento peninsula is “big sky” country. I was thrilled to visit for the first time in February of this year. And I’m looking forward to going back in June. You don’t need to be a great photographer to capture beauty there. You just point and shoot.

My relation to Southern Italian wine stretches back to the late 1990s when I began working as a magazine editor in New York and you could often find me at the bar at the Enoteca I Trulli in Manhattan, chatting with Italian wine industry veteran and my good friend Charles Scicolone (who then ran one of the most popular wine programs in the U.S., with a focus on Southern Italy). I was thirty years old then and Charles became one of my Italian wine mentors.

This year, as it turns out, is my year in Southern Italian wine: I’ve authored an exclusively Southern Italian wine list for my friends at Sotto in Los Angeles, next month I’ll be leading seminars on Southern Italian wine at the Atlanta Food and Wine festival, and in June, I’m heading back to Apulia where I’ll be a member of the jury for the Radici Wines festival.

Above: I found this Renaissance-era map of Apulia on a somewhat scary but interesting website devoted to the Knights Templar.

Here on the blog, By the Tun asked me the other day about the origins of the toponym Apulia or Appulia, the name that the Romans used for this region (and the name that gives us the modern-day Puglia).

Many online sources report the erroneous and folkloric etymology a pluvia, which ostensibly means without or lacking rain. There are so many reasons why this etymon is improbable. I won’t bore you with the fine linguistic print but the thesis quickly falls apart when you note that a in this instance is used in a Greek context (a privative prefix, meaning without, as in apathy, without feeling) while pluvia (rain) is Latin. The other reason is that Apulia doesn’t lack rain. In fact, it is the unique combination of plentiful sunlight and precipitation that makes the Apulian peninsula ideal for farming (a fact not lost on the ancients, btw).

Others would have that Apulia and the ancient apuli (the ethnonym used for the region’s inhabitants) comes from ancient king Epulon (Aepulon or Apulo in Italian), an Illyrian ruler of Histria. But this etymology, as most serious scholars note, is equally unlikely.

According to my trusty UTET Dictionary of Toponymy, the name comes from the Greek Iapudes or Iapigi, a toponym or ethnonym that denoted a place or people on the other side of the Adriatic. The ethnonym Apuli appears before the toponym Apulia in ancient Latin and it’s likely that the name comes from pre-Roman settlers of the region.

The meaning of Iapudes is unknown… another beautiful mystery of this mysteriously beautiful place…

Thanks for reading and buon weekend!