WHAT’S IN THE ITALIAN WINE NAMES?
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
What's in the names of Italian wines? Everything: 4 thousand years of history, 590 officially registered native wine grapes (autochthonous or indigenous, grown in Italy for millennia, about 30% of the world’s total wine grape varieties), a mind boggling range and number of regional appellations, then traditional (grown in Italy at least for the last 300 years) and international varieties as well, all expressed by 4,300 Italian wine producers through 18,000 labels…
Well, by now you have probably grasped that Italy makes wines beyond the familiar: so if you see a name on the label of an Italian wine bottle chances are that it could be, yeah, many different things but - really - the fun part starts exactly there, when you want to know more about it.
Just think of the many suffixes and altering names - simply implying size for instance - currently used in the names of grapes and wines in Italy: “ino/ina” like in Vermentino and Falanghina (diminutive), “ello/ella” like in Brunello and Nerello (a term of endearment), “etto/etta” like in Dolcetto (another diminutive), “accio/accia” like Vernaccia (a pejorative) and/or the augmentative “one”, like in Amarone.
No matter the linguistic difficulties, Italian grapes can still be grouped in five main different naming categories encompassing the following traits:
1. Sensory attributes: such as color, aroma or flavor. Verdicchio, a white grape of Le Marche region, so named for its green color “verde” in Italian. Other verde (white) grapes are: Verdeca from Puglia and Verduzzo from Friuli. Rondinella from Veneto is instead a dark color grape recalling the swallow, “rondine”, black plumage;
2. Physical attributes: such as the shape of the grape bunch and/or the berries: Pignolo is named after the shape of its grape bunch which is similar to a pine cone, or “pigna” in Italian. Another nice one is Coda di Volpe “tail of the fox” in reference to the variety’s long, pendulous bunches of grapes. Bombino Nero, because the shape of its bunches resemble a cuddling infant, “bambino” in Italian.
3. Viticultural or organoleptic characteristics: Catarratto, a variety from Sicily, takes its name from the Italian “cataratte” meaning water falls which refers to the abundant, high yields this grape is known for. Schiava from Alto Adige, meaning slave because these vines were tied to poles since ancient Roman times. Schioppettino from Friuli, referring to the propension of this wine to referment and crackle, “scoppiettare”, in the bottle. And what about Carica l’Asino “load up the donkey”, a grape from Piedmont which takes its name, guess what, because of its highly productive yields;
4. Perceived origin of the variety: the name Malvasia bestowed on so many Italian grape varieties comes from the Greek city of Monemvasia and since we are in the area another important group of Italian grape varieties all over the Peninsula are called Greco (which means Greek). And among many others the Nero d’Avola, a red grape from the city of Avola, Sicily;
5. Names of people, saints or other religious reference: Everybody know the famous Santa Margherita, the Pinot Grigio from Friuli loved particularly by the Americans. Prie’ is a native grape of Valle d’Aosta (a region bordering France) which takes its names from the French verb “prier” meaning to pray.
Grapes and wine names are important in Italy not only because they are one of the ways they are identified and labeled, but because they represent the identity, the character, the language, the tradition and the culture of the territory where they are grown. Besides, wines may be labelled in Italy in other different number of ways, most frequently one of the following:
a. varietal name (Brunello);
b. name of a specific place (di Montalcino);
c. a proper or fantasy name (Casanova di Neri);
d. a combination of all the above (Brunello di Montalcino Casanova di Neri).
In general, you can find interesting and picturesque wine names in every Italian wine producing region, that is, in all 20 of them, offering endless opportunities for telling stories in front of your favorite bottle of Italian wine. In Sardinia region, you can find the Monica grape, so called because of the “monaci”, monks, who used to grow it. The Primitivo from Puglia refers to the fact that this grape ripens very early. In Le Marche region you can find a wine called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, or “Tear of Morro d’Alba,” a name derived from its berries tear-like shape.
From Lombardy region we have the Uva Rara, or “the rare grape”, named as such due to the fact that the grape bunch is quiet sparse, a red grape used to soften and add aromatics to the same region’s famous Nebbiolo grape which, in turn, takes its name from the intense fog (nebbia) which in Autumn sets into the Langhe region where it is mainly produced. Always in Lombardy there is also a white wine called Cortese, meaning “courteous, or kind” and from Sicily region comes a grape called “Grillo”, meaning cricket and also pip.
The fascination of Italian wine has been eloquently expressed by Luigi Veronelli, an Italian gastronome, wine critic (in times when wine critics didn’t even exist) and above all a free spirit, when he said: “Italian wines are earth’s songs to the sky”... and their names are written on musical scores.